In January 25, 1990, Avianca Flight 52, a Boeing 707 left Bogota, Colombia for New York. After more than an hour of delay, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed in the town of Cove Neck, Long Island, New York, killing 73 people, including 9 crew members and 65 of the 149 passengers, and injuring the rest. Analysis of this accident would show how human error, faulty systems and bad weather conditions caused this accident.
The flight crew did not officially declare that they were running out of fuel until it was already too late.
The accident could have been avoided if the flight crew has clearly stated that they were really in trouble. Language barrier could have played a part since the crew only asked for “priority” which in Spanish could mean that they were in trouble. The crew should have notified their fuel load to Air Traffic Control when they were put on hold for the first time. This simple information could have made the difference.
ATC could have suggested earlier an alternate airport had they known this information. Instead, the pilots literally went around in circles waiting for further instructions. By the time the flight was cleared for landing, it only had enough fuel for one last approach. When the plane was on its final approach, it encountered wind shear, a change of wind direction over short distances. ATC only informed the flight crew of wind shear at 1500 feet. The crew had to abort their approach because they would fall short of the runway. The flight was doomed after that incident. Even if they were redirected to an alternate airport prior to the approach, they would not have enough fuel to make it to Boston.
The question now is why the flight crew didn’t consult their flight dispatch about possible alternate airports which are not as busy as the John F. Kennedy International. The answer maybe the breaking of the sterile cockpit rule below 10,000 feet. The sterile cockpit rule below 10,000 feet states that pilots should not talk about things that are not necessary during crucial stages of the flight, which is usually below 10,000 feet. The pilots mind may have wandered off due to the long delay the Air Traffic Control has given them.
In a sense, Air Traffic Control failed to prioritize air traffic in JFK international. Though Avianca flight 52 did not declare its fuel load problems earlier, it did say that it wanted priority. In like mentioned earlier, due to language barrier, “priority” may have been already a distress call. Air Traffic Control confirmed this request but what kind of priority is a seventy seven minute delay?
Obviously, the failure of the flight crew and Air Traffic Control to communicate properly resulted to this horrible accident. This accident could have been avoided if the airline had their own operational control dispatch system that could have assisted them when Air Traffic Control has apparently ignored them. A standardized terminology in fuel related problems also contributed to the plane’s crash. If there was only a universal term to describe what the flight was actually experiencing, the language barrier between Air Traffic Control and the pilots would have been irrelevant.
To sum up, the plane crash was a result of contributing factors, communication problems, probable mental lapse of the pilots, lack of proper terminology, and unfavorable winds. This accident proves that constant communication is important in air travel and a high level of concentration is required for the job. Pilots should be trained extensively before giving them their licences, including language training that ensures pilots can converse well in English. In this aspect, a standard language for aeronautical terms should be established. Though the wind shear caused further delay, the plane could have made another attempt if only it had not been idle for more than hour.