Local Controllers Weren't Told Plane Was Low On Fuel
Jan. 29, 1990
COVE NECK, N.Y. (AP) _ The crew of Avianca Flight 52 told high-altitude air traffic controllers the plane was low on fuel and needed a priority landing before it crashed, but that information wasn't relayed to local controllers, officials said Sunday.
The Boeing 707 crashed on Long Island Thursday night, killing 73 people and injuring 85.
The pilot of the Colombian jetliner told controllers at New York Center, who handle high-altitude traffic, that he was low on fuel 50 minutes before the plane crashed, said Lee Dickinson, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
When the New York Center controllers turned over control of the flight to local controllers handling approaches to John F. Kennedy International Airport, they apparently failed to mention the plane was low on fuel, Dickinson said.
The conversation between the crew and New York Center came after the aircraft had been in a holding pattern for 46 minutes, Dickinson said. At that point, controllers asked the pilot if the Boeing could safely land at Boston's Logan Airport. The pilot said he lacked fuel to get to Logan, said Dickinson.
Shortly afterward, control of the aircraft was transferred to local controllers - Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON - who told investigators Sunday they never knew the plane was low on fuel.
One local controller learned about the fuel shortage, but only after the plane had to abort an attempted landing, he said. After that attempt the pilot twice told the local controllers he was running out of fuel, Dickinson said.
The latest information was discovered after investigators spoke to six local controllers who either handled the aircraft or were keeping track of it, he said.
''For whatever reasons, we don't know, the controllers at TRACON did not know that,'' said Dickinson, referring to the fuel shortage.
He said investigators on Monday will question at least four New York Center controllers to determine if the information was relayed.
Asked if there are rules requiring that fuel shortage information be passed along among controllers, he said, ''There has to be a handoff or an agreement ... one would expect that information going to the center, that that information would be passed on.''
He said the controllers at TRACON and New York Center were speaking to each other by telephone when control was handed off.
Fuel receipts obtained by investigators indicate the aircraft had 81,000 pounds of fuel on board, more than enough for a normal flight from Medellin, Colombia, to New York. The flight originated in Bogota, Colombia, with a stop in Medellin.
The plane was delayed because of weather-related congestion three times en route - for 16 minutes over Norfolk, Va., for 27 minutes between Norfolk and New York, and for 46 minutes about 40 miles south of JFK.
The crash, in an affluent Long Island community, occurred as the plane circled back for a second landing attempt after an initial approach was aborted because it was too steep, the NTSB said.
The pilot told the high-altitude controllers at New York Center he needed a priority landing, Dickinson said. But the word ''emergency'' was never used and for that reason perhaps the severity of the situation wasn't relayed, he said.
Both control centers are on Long Island, as is the airport. TRACON, the local control center, is in Garden City, about 10 miles from Kennedy Airport, and the New York Center is in Ronkonkoma, about 50 miles from the airport.
A source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many pilots are reluctant to declare a fuel emergency because the Federal Aviation Administration strictly monitors those cases.
Should the FAA determine a pilot was unjustified in declaring an emergency, he can lose his pilot's license.
A federal official close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said the information indicates the error appears to lie with New York Center.
Controllers told investigators that the night of the crash was hectic at TRACON, Dickinson said.
''It was a night of intense energy, the weather was bad and there was a shortage of controllers,'' Dickinson said. He couldn't explain why or by how much TRACON was understaffed.
He noted that an American Airlines flight that landed right before Avianca's aborted attempt had just 14 minutes of fuel when it landed.
NTSB investigators Sunday again studied the jet's four engines and fuel pumps.
''What they found was indicative of no fuel in the tanks,'' Dickinson said.
Investigators earlier said the plane may have had up to 10,000 pounds of fuel upon impact, which would have left the Boeing with only several minutes of flying time. However, they said Sunday that figure could be wrong because they were unsure about the integrity of fuel gauges they've examined.
For example, a gauge that keeps track of all fuel on board indicates the plane had between 1,100 pounds to 1,200 pounds of fuel. Two other gauges for individuals fuel tanks, however, show that those tanks each had between 2,300 and 2,400 pounds of fuel, he said.
Mike Benson, a spokesman for NTSB, said those figures have temporarily been discounted until the gauges can be calibrated and tested, probably within the next few days.
Picking through the wreckage Sunday, investigators found four more cockpit fuel gauges, bringing the total to six. There are eight in all, one for each of seven tanks, and another showing the overall amount.
Officials again revised their casualty count, saying there were 85 survivors rather than 86, as previously stated.
More than 20 remained in critical condition, hospitals reported.
At Saint Dominic's church in Oyster Bay, near the crash site, worshippers Sunday morning prayed for the victims and offered solace to rescue workers struggling to cope with what they had witnessed.
Investigators were looking for cockpit logs that may show how much fuel was taken on in Bogota, and again after a stop in Medellin, the center of the cocaine trade. Officials in Bogota were expected to fax other fuel-related documents to the NTSB.
The NTSB is also looking into the effect the aborted approach may have had on the fuel system, Benson said.
An Avianca pilot in Colombia who asked for anonymity told The Associated Press that a steep climb after an aborted landing may force the fuel away from the engines, causing them to stall.
''We're looking at that, but we don't have anything specific on that,'' Benson said Sunday. ''We know that gravity can potentially have an effect on the fuel - that's why there are fuel pumps. But to what degree it has an effect, we need to take a closer look.''
None of the four engines was running when the plane crashed into a hillside, and there was no explosion, both early indications to investigators the plane had run out of fuel.
The NTSB expected to finish up its on-site investigation by Monday or Tuesday, Dicksinson said. The plane would be removed toward the end of the week, he said. The four engines were to be returned to Boeing in the next two days, he said.