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Split NTSB Blames Flight Crew for Avianca Crash on Long Island

April 30, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Mistakes by the flight crew were the chief reason a Colombian jetliner ran out of fuel and crashed on Long Island last year, killing 73 people, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled Tuesday.

The crew of Avianca Flight 52 failed to impress air traffic controllers that its fuel had run critically low on the evening of Jan. 25, 1990, the board concluded.

The co-pilot had radioed controllers that the plane was running out of fuel and needed ″priority,″ but never used the word ″emergency,″ federal investigators found.

As a result, the Boeing 707 was not immediately cleared for landing at Kennedy International Airport and plowed into a hillside in suburban Cove Neck, N.Y.

After several hours of discussion, the board voted 4-1 to accept its staff’s report on the causes of the crash. However, two board members said they were dissatisfied with some of the report’s conclusions. Christopher A. Hart voted against the section of the report detailing probable cause, saying he would write a dissenting opinion, but voted with the majority on accepting the report as a whole.

Board member James Burnett voted against the full report because he said he felt it did not state strongly enough mistakes made by air traffic controllers.

″I feel that some controllers would have, under these circumstances, made further inquiries″ about fuel, Burnett said after the meeting. ″It was not a requirement, however, and this would have been to expect the controllers to go beyond what they were supposed to do.″

Saul Pertuz, a spokesman for Avianca who attended the meeting, said air traffic control services were sub-par the night of the crash.

″I dissent with the board’s finding,″ he said outside the meeting. ″Avianca was the unlucky flight that did not get the service it should have.″

Flight 52, which originated in Bogota, Colombia, was kept circling 77 minutes in three holding patterns as it flew up the East Coast. The Boeing 707 aborted its first landing attempt and crashed as it turned over Long Island for a second approach to Kennedy Airport.

Air traffic controllers who handled the plane testified at hearings last June that they are not required to give special handling to a plane that does not declare an emergency. But foreign pilots testified that they believed just stating they were running out of fuel would ensure quick handling by controllers.

The board staff’s report pointed to a number of oversights by the Avianca crew, including failure to the airline’s system for seeking advice on traffic flow on the way into a heavily used airport in poor weather.

Also contributing to the accident was the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure adequately to control the flow of air traffic into Kennedy Airport that night, and the lack of standardized, understandable terminology for pilots and controllers to express fuel emergencies, the board found.

Wind shear, fatigue and stress led to the crew’s failing in the first landing attempt, the report also found.

The report made several recommendations, including that the FAA, in cooperation with the International Civil Aviation Organization, develop a glossary of standard terms to covey that an aircraft is carrying minimum fuel, is about to run out.

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