Federal investigators said that pilot error likely caused an Atlas Air cargo plane crash that killed three people in Trinity Bay near Houston last year, adding that the First Officer’s “terrible” training should have been a red flag to the airline.

On Feb. 23, 2019, the Atlas Air Boeing 767 cargo plane was approaching Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport from Miami when it crashed in Trinity Bay, killing all three people on board: Captain Ricky Blakely, First Officer Conrad Jules Aska, and passenger Sean Archuleta, a pilot for Mesa Airlines.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that First Officer Aska, a citizen of Antigua, inadvertently activated an autopilot feature and then panicked as he wrongly believed the jet was stalling.

The accident occurred after air traffic controllers directed Mr. Aska, who was piloting the plane at the time, to deviate from the flight path slightly due to weather conditions. The NTSB believes that Mr. Aska tripped the “go around” switch that is used to abort a landing. The switch triggers the airplane to apply thrust, thereby terminating a descent.

According to the NTSB, neither of the plane’s pilots acknowledged that the switch had been activated, but they were unable to determine whether Mr. Aska knew he activated the go-around switch. Instead, Mr. Aska is heard saying “we’re stalling” on the flight recorder as he started fighting the autopilot to regain control.

Investigators said that the plane was not stalling and Mr. Aska’s actions put the aircraft into a nosedive. The Boeing 767 plunged 6,000 feet into the bay at 500 mph, instantly killing all three men.

“As difficult as this is to acknowledge, the first officer’s training record was, bluntly, terrible,” said Bruce Landsberg, vice-chairman of the NTSB, according to the NTSB.

One instructor for Mesa Airlines, for which Mr. Aska worked as a pilot previously, called his training a “train wreck,” according to senior NTSB aviation investigator David Lawrence.

Investigators reviewing Mr. Aska’s experience found that he struggled with making decisions and omitted some of his previous piloting experience when he applied to Atlas, including his failure on certification tests for 767 flights.

“The first officer in this accident deliberately concealed his history of performance deficiencies, which limited Atlas Air’s ability to fully evaluate his aptitude and competency as a pilot,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “Therefore, today we are recommending that the pilot records database include all background information necessary for a complete evaluation of a pilot’s competency and proficiency.”

NTSB investigators still criticized Atlas Air for its lack of scrutiny in reviewing Mr. Aska’s career record. The airline outsourced some of the verification of Mr. Aska’s training and history and continued to allow the pilot to fly despite his weaknesses.

“I’m miffed why this pilot was allowed to continue in the cockpit,” NTSB board member Michael Graham said in a press conference.

Plane crash litigation

Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.

Additional sources:
KHOU Houston
Houston Chronicle

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