ATC Recording of Avianca Flight 52 accident

On the evening of January 25, 1990, fog and wind conditions was causing congestion at New York, which meant that Avianca Flight 52 was held by air traffic control in a series of three holding patterns, initially for 19 minutes, then for 29 minutes near Atlantic City and at (39 nautical miles (72 km)) south of the airport for another 29 minutes. In total, the flight is held for 1 hour and 17 minutes. At 8:44 pm, the first officer indicated that they needed “priority”, probably relating to the fact that their plane’s fuel was getting critically low. The first officer told air traffic control, “… we’ll be able to hold about five minutes that’s all we can do?”. The first officer also stated, “(our alternate) was Boston but we can’t do it now we, we, don’t, we run out of fuel now.”.

Once on approach, the critically low fuel meant that the flight only had about 5 minutes of fuel and would need to land urgently. The crew were fatigued because they were flying the aircraft manually due to the autopilot not working. This meant that the flight crew had to intercept the localiser manually and fly the glide slope by hand, which was made more difficult because of wind shear.

The New York approach controller claimed that he failed to hear that Avianca Flight 52 could no longer make its alternate, so was unaware of the critical fuel situation. He cleared the aircraft for a final approach to runway 22L at 9:02 pm. The low fuel necessitates that the crew land the plane on the first attempt. During the final approach phase, it become evident from the cockpit voice recorder transcripts that the Captain was struggling to hear what the first officer and/or the controllers were communicating. Kennedy tower cleared Flight 52 for landing at 9:15 pm. Despite the critically low fuel and the fatigued crew, the approach and landing preparation was routine. At 9:22 pm at an altitude of 500 feet above the ground, the aircraft encountered wind shear. The nose dropped, causing the plane to descend dangerously near to the ground. The aircraft’s ground proximity warning system was triggered, sounding warning alarms. The flight crew desperately tried to visually locate the runway, but were unable to do so because of the weather forcing the Captain to abort the landing. The aircraft came close to crashing just short of the runway. The first officer alerted the controller that they were low on fuel, and in a subsequent transmission stated, “We’re running out of fuel, sir.” The controller then asked the crew to climb, to which the first officer replied, “No, sir, we’re running out of fuel.”

At approximately 9:32 pm, engines number four and three flamed out. This situation was reported to the controller, who cleared the flight for another approach. The flight crew frustratingly tried to locate the runway in an attempt to land. The remaining engines quickly also flamed out, causing the cockpit voice recorder to stop working. The controller lost radio contact with the aircraft at 9:34 pm. The aircraft lost height and crashed into a hillside on the north shore of Long Island, 16 miles from the airport. The cockpit separated from the rest of the fuselage, smashing into a wooden deck of an unoccupied home. The captain, first officer and the second officer all died in the crash.

Because there was no fuel, there was no fire, which may have contributed to saving some lives. The cockpit was found 100 feet from the crash site. 85 people survived the crash with injuries, while 73 passengers and crew died.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash of Avianca flight 052 was due to the failure of the flight crew to adequately manage the airplane’s fuel load, and their failure to communicate an emergency fuel situation to air traffic control before fuel exhaustion occurred. Contributing to the accident was the flight crew’s failure to use an airline operational control dispatch system to assist them during the international flight into a high-density airport in poor weather. Also contributing to the accident was inadequate traffic flow management by the FAA and the lack of standardized understandable terminology for pilots and controllers for minimum and emergency fuel states. The Safety Board also determines that wind-shear, crew fatigue and stress were factors that led to the unsuccessful completion of the first approach and thus contributed to the accident.

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