Friday, July 13, 2007

The Plane that Ran Out of Fuel

In November 1990, I heard engines struggling as a plane passed closely overhead on a foggy night in the Tri-State. It sounded as if clanging parts were spinning in the engine housing, and when I ran to see what I could see, I found a plane that was flying directly over and slightly to the left of my apartment, so low that I could see shadows of faces peering out the windows through the lifting fog. Shortly thereafter, all of the lights on the plane went out, and I couldn't get a visual fix on it any longer.

Soon there were TV broadcasts about Avianca flight 52, from Medlin, Columbia, crashing on the North Shore of Long Island. The plane had run out of fuel before it could land at JFK Airport. All four engines of flight 52 had been in fine working order, but they shut down one by one due to a lack of fuel. The clanging I heard represented the sound of an engine struggling to remain working--and then failing.

Earlier in the evening, Flight 52's landing at JFK was delayed due to bad weather and fog, and the one real opportunity the Avianca flight crew had to land was aborted due to the pilot's inability to find an open runway at JFK in the fog.

Now here's the kicker: Despite indications on board that fuel was dangerously low, the Avianca crew failed to notify air traffic controllers of a "fuel emergency." Such a declaration would have enabled the crew to land on a priority basis at one of New York's three metropolitan airports. Instead, the crew only referred to their flight as one in need of a "priority landing." By never using the actual words "fuel emergency" or simply "emergency," air traffic controllers didn't recognize or act on the extreme seriousness of the situation and gave other flights priority to land before flight 52.

As the airplane circled back toward the airport after its failed attempt to land, it passed over New York City itself, the lower Hudson River, northern New Jersey (highly populated Bergen County), and then back over the Hudson. It crossed over the Bronx before it crashed into a wooded hillside on the North Shore of Long Island with its 157 passengers and crew. 84 passengers died; 73 survived. If the plane had crashed in any of the areas over which it flew just before its final descent, hundreds more, perhaps thousands more, would have died that night.

It should have been enough for the pilots to say that they needed to land on a priority basis--whether or not they used the actual word "emergency."

Eighty-four people shouldn't have died due to a communication failure between the crew and air traffic controllers.
Shouldn't the sound of fear in the pilot and copilot's voices have been enough to bring about an order for a priority landing?

There were shadows of faces in those windows when I looked out from my apartment that night due to the clanging of flight 52's engines, faces of many who died minutes later, all because of a big-time communication failure. Makes me so sad every time I think of it.

12 Comments:

Blogger Sans Pantaloons said...

Yes Zed, this was such a tragedy. It saddens me and I'm way over here. That you were close enough to see and hear the plane will indeed wound your soul. [[hugs]]

Hopefully the lesson has been learned and it will never happen again. Hopefully.

Jul 13, 2007, 8:38:00 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

I'm hoping too Sans. It should never have happened.

{{Hugs}} to you as well my friend. I'm having a bummed out day just remembering.

Jul 13, 2007, 9:23:00 PM  
Anonymous jane said...

i was really po'd when this happened. a request for a priority landing means "we're experiencing an EMERGENCY."

i remember that night. the plane flew in my general vicinity as well and my husband and i thought what the hell is that? took only a few minutes to find out via a special report on NBC.

don't be sad. i'm sending you a hug too!

Jul 13, 2007, 10:20:00 PM  
Blogger Teri said...

did I miss this? when did this happen?

God that's frightening, from both sides.

Jul 13, 2007, 11:10:00 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

17 years ago, an Avianca jet crashed on the north shore of L.I. There were reporters and cameras right in the wooded area within minutes and they showed triage units and bodies piled up on the ground in live newscast after live newscast on TV. Pretty disgusting.

I didn't even know Princess Diana died for 36 hours after because I'm not a news-watcher per se, but there was something really wrong here when I saw it, so I turned on the news, and there it was. Awful.

Jul 13, 2007, 11:40:00 PM  
Blogger Teri said...

sorry, sis. forgot about the "November 1990" date up above.

Jul 14, 2007, 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger chelene said...

Terribly sad. And I don't know why I don't remember this story at all, especially since I've lived near JFK since the 80's.

Jul 14, 2007, 3:23:00 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

Chelene, most people don't remember this crash, maybe because it didn't have the same sort of ongoing coverage as crashes involving a great number of U.S. passengers.

The people on board this flight were mostly South Americans, specifically from Colombia. As far as I'm concerned, the lack of intense coverage sort of rattles my cage just a bit more.

Jul 14, 2007, 3:37:00 PM  
Blogger Lynda said...

I think I remember hearing about this. That must be a haunting image to have pop up in your mind.

Jul 14, 2007, 7:32:00 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

Not good at all, Lynda. And you know, I really suppressed it for years until just recently. Now I've been thinking about it for weeks. I really have to let this go.

Jul 14, 2007, 9:25:00 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

That's horrifying Zed and should have been so easily avoided. Wow.

Jul 28, 2007, 4:27:00 PM  
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Dec 18, 2007, 11:59:00 PM  

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