Pilots on UPS Flight 1354, an A300 that crashed on approach to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in August, complained of fatigue, according to the cockpit voice recording
released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The two pilots, who were the only people on board, died in the accident.
According to the voice recording, the pilots had been talking about sleep requirements for pilots, in general, and comparing the relative oversight of those who fly passenger planes versus cargo pilots. They also complained about the time of night and a general lack of sleep.
“I was out in that sleep room and when my alarm went off — I mean, I'm thinkin', I'm so tired …,” one of the pilots said on the recording.
In 2011, the Department of Transportation passed new rules
for passenger pilots to make sure they were getting enough rest between shifts; in a controversial move, cargo pilots were exempt from the regulations, but were allowed to opt in if their organization desired, because implementing the changes would cost the cargo industry too much. The rule took effect in December 2013, so in this instance, the UPS pilots would not have been covered under the new rules.
"The rule recognizes the universality of factors that lead to fatigue in most individuals and regulates these factors to ensure that flightcrew members in passenger operations do not accumulate dangerous amounts of fatigue," DOT wrote in the final ruling. "Fatigue threatens aviation safety because it increases the risk of pilot error that could lead to an accident. This risk is heightened in passenger operations because of the additional number of potentially impacted individuals."
In a briefing for media after Thursday’s hearing, Deborah Hersman, chairman of the NTSB, said they were looking to see what exactly happened with the crash, identifying industry issues or trends as they arose. One issue they addressed, she said, is the cargo opt-out or “carve out” in the fatigue ruling, which she said the NTSB has never supported.
“There is no reason to exempt pilots simply because they are carrying pallets rather than passengers,” she said. “A fatigued pilot is a fatigued pilot, and pilots who are flying on the backside of the clock are even more susceptible to being fatigued.”
The UPS flight, which took off from Louisville, crashed before 5 a.m. local time. On the recording, one of the pilots, after complaining about the hour and his general lack of sleep, mentioned, “and we just are goin' to Birmingham. What if I was goin' to Burbank?”
Earlier in the recording, the pilot had addressed the ruling head on, saying, "It should be across the board. To be honest, in my opinion, whether you are flying passengers or cargo or, you know, (a) box of chocolates at night. If you're flying this time of day ... ."
Hersman said the NTSB is looking at all aspects of the crash including the amount of time the pilots had to rest.
“We are looking at the pilots schedules, also their rest, their off-duty time, what they were doing,” she said, but noted that the board has yet to reach any conclusions regarding fatigue as a cause of the accident.
The Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS Pilots, has fought to get cargo pilots included in the regulation. In November, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-CA, introduced the “Safe Skies Act,” which would bring rules regarding rest periods for cargo pilots in line with those for the passenger industry. According to govtrack.us, which tracks bills in Congress, the “Safe Skies Act” has a 6-percent chance of being enacted.