Three people are dead after an Amazon Air cargo flight, operated by Atlas Air, crashed into a bay on Saturday in Texas. On Sunday, after an investigation, Atlas Air confirmed all three people who were on board are dead.
Two bodies have been recovered by the police, the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office said. A search for the third body is underway. One victim has been identified by local media as Capt. Sean Archuleta, a Mesa Airlines pilot who was riding in the jumpseat of the Atlas plane as a commuter.
The cause of the crash remains unknown. The Chambers County Sheriff’s Office, the National Transportation Safety Board’s “go-team,” and the FBI are investigating the crash, the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post. They are looking for the third body, as well as the airplane’s black box, which will provide more information on the cause of the accident.
However, extracting the black box may take time as the plane landed in shallow, muddy waters. As the Houston Chronicle reported, black boxes emit ultrasonic signals, but these signals might not be detectable due to the location the plane landed in.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said it may be required for the investigative team to deploy scuba divers to comb the area where the plane landed or dredge the muddy surrounds.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected,” Bill Flynn, Atlas Air Chief Executive Officer, said in a statement. “This is a sad time for all of us.
“Our team continues to work closely with the NTSB, the FAA and local authorities on the ground in Houston,” Flynn added. “We would like to commend the efforts of all of the first responders. We sincerely appreciate their efforts and support in the investigation.”
Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne described the scene as “total devastation,” he told the Associated Press. Sheets, clothing, and cardboard were found around the crash, Hawthorne told local news affiliate ABC-13. The debris extended for three-quarters of a mile.
“Our union stands together as a family and in support of our members’ families,” Captain Daniel C. Wells, Atlas Air captain and president of the Airline Professionals Association, Teamsters Local 1224, said in a statement. “Our focus is on our friends and colleagues who were on that plane, and we are doing everything we can to support their families.”
‘A very, very rapid descent’
Atlas Air Flight 3591 was flying from Houston to Miami. According to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane lost signal about 30 miles southeast of Houston George Bush International Airport. It fell from 6,525 feet to 3,025 feet in 30 seconds, according to FlightRadar 24. The FAA then issued an alert notice.
There was no distress call.
“I really thought it was thunder,” crash witness Candace Dockens Chavez told local news. “Then my son said ‘I just heard a plane go down.’ I said what do you mean you just saw a plane go down? He’s like ‘Mom, it went straight down. Let’s go to the water and see.'”
“The aircraft was in what I would characterize as a normal descent,” Sumwalt said. “When it got to about 6,300 feet, it then began a very, very rapid descent.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the flight crew, their families and friends along with the entire team at Atlas Air during this terrible tragedy,” Dave Clark, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations at Amazon, said in a statement. “We appreciate the first responders who worked urgently to provide support.”
Atlas Air had a number of operational hiccups in the past year alone
It’s not yet known what the cause of the Feb. 23 crash was. But Atlas Air has had a number of questionable incidents in the past year.
In October, a Boeing 747 cargo plane operated by Polar Air, a subsidiary of Atlas Air, veered off the airway at the Northern Kentucky Airport. It came to stop on the soft ground. No other plane on that day had a similar landing.
An Atlas Air Boeing 767 cargo airline had a hard landing in July at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire airport. Creases around the fuselage and “substantial damage to the aircraft” was found after the flight inspection.
A history of labor issues at Atlas Air
Thirteen pilots from the airlines that Amazon Air contracts with have told Business Insider that their pay and benefits are below industry standards. All but one of the pilots said that means those who work with Amazon Air tend to be less experienced. Most of these pilots have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Captain Robert Kirchner, Atlas pilot and executive council chairman of Teamsters Local 1224, told Business Insider weeks before the crash.
Kirchner and other Atlas Air pilots said the company, which contracts to Amazon, DHL, and other carriers, tends to overwork their pilots.
“They don’t recognize pilot fatigue,” Kirchner previously told Business Insider. “They think it’s people goofing off. We have to constantly show them some of these schedules. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re able to prove to them that this is a fatiguing schedule.”
Amazon did not immediately respond to request for comment. An Atlas Air spokeswoman said the company would provide a comment later in the day.
Amazon Air has quickly launched its logistics network
For decades, Amazon moved its cargo through air cargo services from UPS, USPS, and FedEx.
But in 2015, it became clear that Amazon was taking air cargo in-house. Air Transport Services Group and ABX Air told Motherboard that they were leasing two cargo jets each to Amazon, who was building an airhub at Ohio’s Wilmington Air Park.
Four years later, it’s becoming clear that that air cargo network is crucial for keeping down the company’s ballooning shipping expenses. Year over year, Amazon’s worldwide shipping costs jumped by 23% in Q4 2018 — from $7.4 billion to more than $9 billion.
Now, Amazon has 40 Boeing 767s, with plans for 10 more. Amazon expanded two-day shipping availability to “almost anywhere” in the US with its additional Amazon Air capacity last year. Free one-day shipping is now accessible for the “majority of Prime members in the US.” Three additional Amazon Air gateways are underway in Ohio, Illinois, and Texas.