Hazards Aplenty & Nobody Apparently Voiced Reservations
Instead of a journey to Mexico City lasting an hour or more, Aeromexico Flight 2431 was in the air for less than a minute after rolling down the runway at General Guadalupe Victoria International Airport at Durango. The airplane rotated to climb and then settled hard onto the earth within a half-mile of the tarmac’s end. Fortunately, all 103 people aboard the 31 July flight survived (some with serious injuries).
The pilots will be available for interview by crash investigators. The flight data and cockpit voice recorders were pulled intact from the wreckage. Crash investigators have a fortuitous wealth of information.
The 99 passengers are owed an explanation. Others who fly commercial also merit assurances that the crash will not be repeated again anytime soon.
Bad weather, specifically a gust of wind, is attributed to the crash, but much, much more merits investigation by investigators. This appears to be an accident caused by bad judgment — specifically by the pilots but also by air traffic controllers in the airport tower.
Let’s pose the salient questions in sequence as the airplane left the departure gate and positioned itself for takeoff.
Was the airplane behind schedule? If so, the pilots may have been under subtle pressure by the airline to depart. The culture of Aeromexico merits review. Was the number one goal to meet schedule or to meet safety?
On what basis did the tower controller advise Flight 2431’s pilots they were cleared for takeoff? The tower controllers had access to weather radar. They could see the runway right out the tower’s panoramic windows. If gusty, dangerous winds prevailed, the folks in the tower would have seen them.
Were jetliners landing or taking off immediately preceding Flight 2431? Were these airplanes being noticeably bounced around by wind gusts? Did the pilots of these planes report to the tower that the conditions were dicey, if not dangerous?
In the cockpit of Flight 2431, the crew had access to their weather radar; what was on the scope that led them to believe a safe takeoff could be made? The Reverend Esequiel Sanchez, a window seat passenger, recalled that at the time it was raining so hard all appeared blackness outside his window. The same view would have appeared through the cockpit windscreen. Did either the captain or first officer voice any concerns? The essence of what’s called Crew Resource Management (CRM) is for the pilot monitoring to advise the pilot flying that the situation appears unsafe. The tower may have issued clearance to take off, but the flight crew was staring into wind borne and rain splattered blackness.
The pilots could have waited 10 or 15 minutes for the storm to pass, yet Captain Carlos Meyron released the brakes and shoved the throttles of the Embraer 190 twinjet to takeoff thrust. How long had he and the first officer been awake? This was not their first flight of the day. Had they been awake since dawn and were afflicted with sleep-deprived fatigue by the afternoon? Fatigue clouds judgment and can lead to a fixation on carrying out the flight schedule.
The takeoff roll into the windy darkness — the degree of crosswind is one of the significant as-yet-unknown details here — was described by passengers as incredibly bumpy from the start.
The airplane may have been pushed by the down gust back onto the runway three times before finally getting airborne. One assumes here that the airplane was properly configured for takeoff (e.g., flaps set) and that engines were putting out full power (e.g., more than a reduced-power takeoff).
The jet was climbing into an increasing downpour and was being buffeted by downdrafts. The jet smacked onto the earth within sight of the runway’s end.
It is not clear whether or not the order to evacuate came from the cockpit, but flight attendants barked, “Get out of the airplane!”
Passengers were screaming; the airplane was in flames — probably from fuel spilled by the fractured wing tanks which was ignited by the hot engines.
The airport firefighters, ambulances and whatnot arrived at the scene and evacuated all to hospitals. More than 60 people were released quickly, with only minor cuts and abrasions. It is fortunate that the airplane was unable to climb higher or accelerate to a greater speed, as either could have resulted in a greater impact with the ground, with more serious injuries or deaths.
The crash investigators will have to wrestle with a salient question: Why was takeoff under those conditions even attempted?