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NTSB: ‘Extreme reaction’ of Atlas Air pilot may have caused fatal 2019 crash

WASHINGTON – The pilot of an Atlas Air plane that crashed into Trinity Bay last year had problems during his training which may have contributed to his “extreme reaction” when a type of automatic control was inadvertently activated before the fatal decent, according to federal investigators.

Capt. Ricky Blakely, First Officer Conrad Aska and Capt. Sean Archuleta, who was riding in the jump seat, were killed in the Feb. 23, 2019, crash near Anahuac.

Federal investigators said Tuesday during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing that Aska appeared to have accidentally flipped the “go-around switch” while traveling through some turbulence during the approach to George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

“He’s guarding the speed brake with his hand, reaching over, and, somehow or another, the turbulence may have jostled him, jostled his wrist so that he activates the go-around switch,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

One of the investigators testified that there was plenty of time to evaluate what was going on with the aircraft after Aska activated go-around mode.

“The reaction to the slightly abnormal situation was the problem,” NTSB investigator Bill English said.

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Investigators also found evidence that Aska had a history of poor reactions to stressful situations in simulators, noting that at two of his previous employers, evaluators reported that Aska would become extremely anxious and push buttons without thinking.

“Here’s two different airlines talking about the same person and they’re using almost exactly the same verbiage,” Sumwalt said.

Investigators also said that it appears several “red flags” were missed by an agent who conducted a screening of Aska for Atlas Air. They also said they believe it was inappropriate for Atlas Air to rely solely on the screening agent to catch those problems.

The plane was carrying cargo for Amazon.

Atlas Air statement

Atlas Air President and CEO John Dietrich issued the following written statement after Tuesday’s hearing:

“The loss of Flight 3591 in February 2019 has had a profound impact on all of us at Atlas Air Worldwide. We remain heartbroken by the accident that claimed the lives of our three friends and colleagues and continue to provide their families with care and support.

“We have been working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to learn what took place and why it happened. The NTSB’s report provides valuable findings that will help our company and the aviation community as a whole as we continue to improve safety across our industry. Of critical importance is the need for an improved federal pilot records database to provide airlines with full visibility of pilot history in the hiring process.

“Since our founding more than 25 years ago, safety has been a core value of our company, and continues to be our top priority. In partnership with our pilots and their union representation, we have built a culture of safety and remain committed to continuously improving our operations. We regularly evaluate our practices and protocols, and since the accident, have made several important enhancements to our own hiring, training, and pilot review procedures.

“We thank the NTSB for its work, and for its conclusions and recommendations.”


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