Crash 9 November at Akron Kills All Aboard

On the afternoon of 10 November, with low clouds, mists and fog obscuring the ground, the silence was broken by the roar of the jet’s engines. The airplane was way too low for its landing at Akron Fulton International Airport, Ohio, and it slammed into a multi-family home. The force was like an eggshell hitting a brick wall, the shell being the structure of the airplane and the yolk inside comparable to the nine occupants. Shell and yolk were consumed by the fuel-fed fire. No one who resides in the building was there at the time. Damage from the impact and resulting fireball was substantial.

The airplane plowed straight into a building that was fortunately empty; note the overcast sky

The airplane plowed straight into a building that was fortunately empty;
note the overcast sky

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dispatched investigators to the horrific scene the next day. The NTSB will conduct a thorough analysis taking months to complete. But one acronym seems sure to feature prominently in the final report: CFIT. The abbreviation stands for Controlled Flight Into Terrain. If all the landing accidents in the country were laid out on one common display, most would be clustered short of the runway along an extended centerline, with the remainder shown left and right of the centerline, decreasing in frequency farther from the centerline. The display would represent a grim “CFIT cemetery”.

CFIT has been a big killer, and it spurred development in the 1970s of a preventive technology: a cockpit warning of looming terrain ahead. It is known by various monikers, but TAWS is the most common. TAWS compares the airplane’s position in three-dimensional airspace with an onboard digitized map. The system features a “look ahead” function to provide sufficient advanced warning for pilots to gain altitude. Generally, the system will sound an aural alarm in the cockpit: “Terrain. Terrain. Pull Up.” If a moving map display is part of the cockpit instrumentation, TAWS will color-code dangerous terrain ahead in red. Terrain well below the aircraft’s altitude will be shown in green. (See www.skybrary.aero/index.php/Terrain_Avoidance_and_Warning_System_(TAWS))

TAWS has proven to be a real life saver, helping airline pilots avoid skirting too low to terrain, especially on landing. All airliners weighing more than 12,500 pounds and having a passenger capacity of more than nine are required to be outfitted with TAWS. Charter airplanes powered by turbine engines and having 6-9 passenger seats are required to have a simpler TAWS-B system, which has everything but the moving map display. (See TAWS Buyer’s Guide, www.aeapilotsguide.com/pdf/05-06_Archive/TAWSPG05.pdf) As the runway threshold is approached, TAWS essentially snaps off, as landing configuration is attained and encounter with the runway tarmac is planned. In the Akron accident, the airplane was four miles from its destination — so if it was equipped with TAWS, the system should have provided an aural alert to the pilots that the airplane was too close to the ground.

The accident airplane in better days

The accident airplane in better days

The accident airplane was a Hawker 125-700. The airplane features a maximum weight of about 25,000 pounds and can be configured to carry 8-14 passengers. Owned by ExecuFlight of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, this particular aircraft had ten passenger seats. As a Part 135 charter operator, the aircraft was required to be equipped with TAWS.

“We are no less shocked than anybody else,” said ExecuFlight CEO Augusto Lewkowicz. “Planes just generally don’t fall out of the sky.”

He added that both pilots were experienced and had been ExecuFlight employees for about a year.

In skimming the ground before the crash, the airplane struck an electric power pole, causing a temporary blackout in the area.

If the airplane was not downed by a system malfunction, the role of TAWS — and the crew’s reaction to “Pull Up” announcements — will be scrutinized. Were such automated admonishments ignored as the crew attempted to skirt beneath the low hanging clouds and land the airplane?