Amazon Boeing 767 Cargo Plane Was Going Almost 500 MPH in Texas Crash, NTSB Says

Or, in other words, the twin-engine airplane was at full throttle when it plowed into Trinity Bay near Houston.

byWill Sabel Courtney|
Amazon Boeing 767 Cargo Plane Was Going Almost 500 MPH in Texas Crash, NTSB Says

It was a tragic story that somehow managed to largely slip through a gap in the riotous news cycle: On February 23rd, 2019, a Boeing 767 cargo plane operated by a company called Atlas Air that was flying a mission for Amazon into Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport plunged from the sky shortly before landing, killing all three people on board. Now, however, the case of the crashed cargo plane has taken another curious turn: According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Boeing 767 was at full throttle when it plowed into Trinity Bay off the coast of Texas, traveling around 500 miles per hour. 

According to an update into the investigation released by the NTSB on Tuesday, an examination of Atlas Air Flight 3591's flight data found that the flight from Miami to Houston progressed normally for most of the journey, all the way to the point where the flight crew was planning their descent around 12:30pm local time. At 12:34, however, as the plane descended through 13,800 feet, air traffic control advised the pilot and co-pilot of pockets of inclement weather ahead. As the plane passed through 12,000 feet at a ground speed of 290 knots (340 mph), the pilots indicated they preferred the westerly route option ATC had given them around the rain; air traffic control told them they would need to descend quickly to 3,000 feet to do so, and radar data reveals the Boeing turned to a heading of 270º as requested and descended through 8,500 feet. One minute later, the controller told the crew they would be past the bad weather in about 18 miles, and to expect a turn to the north. The crew responded "Sounds good" and "Okay," according to the NTSB, and the plane leveled out at 6,200 feet before rising 100 feet more. 

That, apparently, is when things went haywire. The aircraft began what the NTSB report described as "small vertical accelerations consistent with the airplane entering turbulence," according to the flight data recorders recovered from the accident scene. Seconds later, with the plane holding steading at 230 knots (265 mph), the engines went to full power, and the nose of the plane rose four degrees...then the aircraft pitched nose-down for the next 18 seconds, reaching a maximum pitch of –49º in response to the plane's elevator inputs. (The stall warning never activated, according to the While still traveling due west, the plane blasted towards the ground, eventually reaching a maximum speed of roughly 430 knots (495 mph). The aircraft's nose began to rise during the descent, the black box revealed, with the plane eventually recovering to a  –20º pitch—but it wasn't enough to prevent the Boeing from slamming into the swamp at a speed great enough to widely scatter the debris, burying much of it as deep as three feet in the thick mud. Some pieces of the plane floated as far as 20 miles from the crash site, according to investigators. 

The facts presented by the evidence, veteran pilot and aviation expert Josh Verde told local news outlet Click2Houston, seemed unusual. 

"I can't think of a normal situation at that altitude that a pilot would go to maximum thrust at that altitude," Verde said. "I think these are qualified pilots and, with that in mind, it was confusing to read the engines were increased to maximum thrust and that the aircraft was pitched nose down."

The debris field from Atlas Air Flight 3591., NTSB

Both captain Ricky Blakely and first officer Conrad Jules Aska were certified to fly the 767, according to the NTSB; Blakely had 11,000 hours of flight experience, including 1,250 in the Boeing 767, while Aska had 5,000 hours of flight experience, 520 of which was on the 767. (The third occupant, Captain Sean Archuleta, was also a pilot who happened to be dead-heading on the aircraft, hitching a ride to Houston.) The aircraft itself had more than 91,000 hours of flight time racked up over more than 23,000 flights in the course of its 26-year life, maintenance records revealed, and the NTSB said it had no inoperative items or outstanding airworthiness directives. 

The flight data recorder being recovered., NTSB

The NTSB said the cockpit voice recorder, which contains an audio transcript of the entire crash, has been recovered from the wreckage; the transcript is expected to be released to the public at a later date. A complete accident report is expected to be released next year.