Avianca 52 Copilot Failed to Say “Emergency” (New York, 1990)

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:

21:03:11 Approach:
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.

As the controllers brought them in and gave them course changes, the first officer and flight engineer surmised they were being accommodated and that the controllers were aware of their situation. At no point did they tell the approach controller they were low on fuel, no doubt assuming that the previous controller told him. Apart from the controller telling them to make their speed 160 knots if practical, there is nothing of note from the controller before he hands them over to the tower controller, who greets them:

21:15:23 Tower:
Avianca zero five two heavy, Kennedy Tower, runway two two left. You’re number three following seven two seven traffic on a, ah, niner mile final.

The tower, finding the more modern aircraft following behind was in danger of catching up with the old Boeing 707, asked Avianca 52 for their airspeed (140 knots) and asked them to increase it by 10 knots, impatiently telling them “Increase! Increase!”
Avianca 52’s captain, who was flying the aircraft, seemed to be having some difficulty hearing these exchanges and what the first officer and flight engineer were saying.

They proceeded with the standard prelanding checks and the lowering of the landing gear. Duly cleared to land, they asked for a wind check and were told it was 190 degrees at 20 knots. (The wind speed at their location was apparently of the order of 60 knots, with the difference between that and the 20 knots given to them for the airport representing considerable wind shear.)

The tower, still concerned about the separation from the TWA aircraft behind them, asked for their airspeed again, and on being told it was one four five, asked the TWA aircraft behind if they could match it. The TWA pilot said, “Okay, we’ll do our best.”

The Avianca flight was all set for landing but sank a little below the glide slope. The tower, increasingly concerned about the separation, asked the TWA craft to reduce its final airspeed, if feasible. With the TWA crew saying they could not go slower, the tower asked Avianca 52 to increase theirs by ten knots, but finding they were getting too close, ordered the TWA heavy to turn off left and maintain two thousand feet. The tower then informed American Airlines Flight 40 they had become number two in the landing sequence, behind a 707 (Avianca 52).

It was then, with everything seemingly fine for the landing, that Avianca 52 encountered wind shear two and half nautical miles from the runway. The aircraft sank, with the “Whoop! Whoop! Pull up!” from the ground proximity warning system (GPWS) telling the crew they were in danger of hitting the ground. To recover, the captain pushed the throttles forward, thus using up much of the remaining fuel. After sinking to the dangerously low height of two hundred feet two miles from the runway, the aircraft finally pulled out of its descent.

Where is the runway?

The GPWS repeated “Whoop! Whoop! Pull up!” three more times.

The runway! Where is it?

The automatic “Glide slope!” warning sounded twice.

First officer:
I don’t see it! I don’t see it!

The captain ordered the raising of the landing gear as they aborted the landing.

The glide slope warning sounded twice again, presumably because they were by then above it. The first officer then informed the tower they were executing a missed approach. It is very likely that the pilots failed to see the runway in the poor visual conditions due to the nose-up attitude of the aircraft at the critical moment as they recovered from the perilous sink rate brought about by the wind shear.

The tower told them to climb and maintain two thousand feet and subsequently asked them to confirm they were making a left turn, according to the standard missed landing procedure, exactly as the TWA craft had done just before. The captain then specifically told the first officer to tell the controllers it was an emergency. Instead, the first officer simply confirmed to the controller they were executing the left turn as instructed, adding that they were running out of fuel.

First officer to ATC:
That’s right, to one eight zero on the heading—and, ah, we’ll try once again. We’re running out of fuel.

The tower simply said “Okay” and gave the next aircraft, American Airlines Flight 40, clearance to land, adding that a DC-9 had reported wind shear, with a gain and loss of ten knots, from seven hundred feet down to the surface. The Avianca captain once again told his first officer to tell the tower it was an emergency, adding, “Did you tell him?”

First officer replied:
Yes, sir. I already advised him.

This was not strictly true, as the first officer had not used the term “emergency.” In addition, as pointed out by the NTSB investigators, the flight engineer had failed to remind the pilots that to all intents and purposes that would represent their one and only chance to land. This fact should also have been made clear to approach control and the tower lest they order a go around, such as the one they ordered the TWA aircraft to execute for lack of separation.

Also, even without using the term “emergency,” it is difficult to understand why, in the even more desperate situation following the missed approach, the first officer failed to inform the tower they had under ten minutes of fuel left. Some commentators have suggested it was because they were unable to work out a precise figure!

Whether it would have been possible to free up either of JFK’s very long 31L or 31R runways and get the Avianca flight far out enough to line up and come in with sufficient fuel remaining is open to question. Performing flying club antics with an airliner would have been difficult enough even in good visibility.

Thus, not realizing the severity of the situation, 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.”