The survivors and relatives of those who died when Avianca Flight 52 ran out of fuel while attempting to land at New York’s JFK airport were incensed when reminded the official inquiry attributed the accident almost entirely to the first officer’s failure to use the term “emergency” in his radio transmissions to air traffic control.
Avianca Flight 52, January 25, 1990
The lights in the passenger cabin of the Colombian Avianca Boeing 707 flickered as the fuel supply to the engines became erratic. With so little fuel left, no measure could save them other than coming down on a runway or flat, open space. However, JFK airport was fifteen miles away, and the hilly ground of the affluent residential district of Cove Neck, on Long Island, lay ahead.
A few seconds later the engines fell silent, leaving only the rustle of the wind against the fuselage, soon to be drowned out by the screams and exclamations of the passengers realizing they might be facing their maker.
How, in what one would imagine to be one of the most sophisticated air traffic control (ATC) zones in the world, could the pilots and passengers of Avianca Flight 52 find themselves in such a predicament? It was due to what, with hindsight, was a whole series of missed opportunities to avoid disaster.
The first of these was not diverting to their alternate, Boston, when, on approaching the New York control zone an hour and a half earlier, controllers informed them their wait in the holding pattern would be at least forty-five minutes. The pilots possibly thought the controller was being careful and that the wait would not be very much longer. In fact, they had to hold for seventy-seven minutes.
Then, as the aircraft was subsequently handed over from one controller to another, the first officer, who was handling radio communications, used phrases such as “We’re running out of fuel.”
He evidently thought this clearly indicated their fuel predicament, but he failed to convey the true situation to the controllers, who had perhaps fifty aircraft in the sky, all in a sense running out of fuel and all wanting priority. If they started to let aircraft that had not declared an emergency jump the queue, a traffic jam would develop over the airport, perhaps compromising the safety of other aircraft also low on fuel.
Another factor explaining the controllers’ apparent lack of probing into Avianca 52’s status was that, with the aircraft being handed over successively from controller to controller, none had the time to build up a detailed picture. Aircraft have to be pigeonholed in the controller’s mind, and this is particularly so at busy times; for them it is either a normal flight or declared emergency.
When after seventy-seven minutes Flight 52 was allowed to exit the holding pattern (after the crew were asked how much longer they could hold), it was passed on to the approach controller, who, unaware of their predicament, greeted them as follows:
Avianca zero five two heavy, New York Approach, good evening. Fly heading zero six zero.
After acknowledging this, the Avianca flight crew, consisting of the captain, first officer, and flight engineer, agreed on the need, when less than a thousand pounds of fuel remains in any tank, to avoid doing anything, such as raise the nose too much or accelerate violently, that might cause it to slosh to one side, leaving the outlet uncovered.
The tower controller, who was about to hand over to a colleague at the end of his shift, simply handed them over to the approach controller.
The captain told the first officer to tell approach they didn’t have fuel, but the first officer, after automatically acknowledging the order to climb and maintain three thousand feet, reverted to saying, “We are running out of fuel, sir.” The controller replied “Okay” and gave them a new heading.
Again, the captain asked the first officer if he had advised ATC they didn’t have fuel. He confirmed that he had, adding optimistically, “And he’s going to get us back.”
The approach controller then gave instructions to two other aircraft. After giving Avianca 52 a new heading, he showed his concern as one can see from the following exchange.
21:26:35 Approach control:
Avianca zero five two heavy, ah, I’m going to bring you fifteen miles northeast and then bring you back onto the approach. Is that fine with you and your fuel?
21:26:43 First officer:
I guess so. Tha [sic] you very much.
The captain asked what the controller said, but before the first officer could tell him, the flight engineer bizarrely said,
“The guy is angry.”
End of extract.
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