Avianca Flight 52
|Date||January 25, 1990|
|Site||Cove Neck, New York, United States
|Aircraft type||Boeing 707-321B|
|Registration||HK-2016 (formerly N423PA)|
|Flight origin||El Dorado International Airport|
|Stopover||José María Córdova Int'l Airport|
|Destination||John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport|
Avianca Flight 52 was a regularly scheduled flight from Bogotá to New York via Medellín, Colombia. On Thursday, January 25, 1990, a Boeing 707-321B registered as HK-2016 operating this flight, ran out of fuel on approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport, resulting in the aircraft crashing into the small village of Cove Neck, New York on the north shore of Long Island. Eight of the nine crew members and 65 of the 149 passengers on board were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the crash was caused by the flight crew failing to properly declare a fuel emergency, resulting in air traffic control underestimating the seriousness of the situation.
The flight crew consisted of 51-year-old Captain Laureano Caviedes, 28-year-old First Officer Mauricio Klotz and 44-year-old Flight Engineer Matias Moyano. The captain was highly experienced with a total of 16,787 flight hours. He had been with Avianca for more than 27 years. He had clocked over 1,500 hours of flight time in the Boeing 707. The first officer had 1,837 total flight hours. He had been with Avianca for a little more than 3 years and had logged just 64 hours in the 707. The flight engineer, who had been with Avianca for close to 24 years, had accumulated 10,134 total flying hours, of which more than 3,000 hours were logged in the aircraft type.
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 (26 km) 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 (30 m) from the crash site. 85 people survived the crash with injuries, while 73 passengers and crew died. The aircraft worth about US5 million was destroyed beyond repair. The damage to the house was estimated at US$250,000.
The recovery efforts for Flight 52 proved to be difficult since the aircraft had crashed into the hilly, sparsely populated North Shore, making it difficult for emergency crews to reach. This was compounded by the narrow, winding roads that lead into the hamlet. Rescue squads from all over Long Island responded to the crash. The weather conditions and the darkness of night made the search crews' task even more challenging. The first ambulances to arrive performed triage, selecting the most critically injured passengers for transport to area hospitals. But so many other ambulances had arrived that a traffic jam developed, and some rigs were unable to leave the site immediately. Ambulatory passengers walked to other ambulances and arrived at hospitals sooner than critically injured ones.
Passengers and injuries
The adult passengers on the Medellin-New York segment consisted of 61 males and 61 females. Sixteen children between 3 and 15 years of age, including 8 males and 8 females, flew on this segment.
Of the surviving passengers, 80 suffered serious injuries and 4 sustained minor injuries. Of the passengers indicated by the NTSB map to have been assigned to first class (Rows 4 and 5), one survived. The NTSB stated that as the airline did not assign all of the filled seats and that some passengers relocated to other seats after boarding, the NTSB could not determine the injuries in relation to precise seating arrangements.
Cause and investigation
The NTSB's report on the accident determined the cause as pilot error due to the crew never declaring a fuel emergency to air traffic control as per International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines. A contributing factor was the lack of a standardized terminology for pilots and controllers for minimum and emergency fuel states. The crew asked for a "priority" landing which, because of claimed language differences between English and Spanish, can be interpreted as an emergency to Spanish-speaking pilots but not to English-speaking air traffic controllers. This may have caused some confusion amongst the pilots when ATC confirmed their priority status. The NTSB investigation also found that ATC services were inadequate in several areas although these were not considered causal. The Washington controller failed to inform the flight crew of additional holding and during handover the JFK controller failed to forward the remark by the flight crew regarding their fuel situation to the new controller, he had also failed to transmit the latest wind shear information, which could alert the crew to possible difficulties in landing. Avianca Airlines sued the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the actions of the air traffic controllers, who they felt were negligent in misunderstanding the pilots' reports. The FAA countered, stating that the crew never declared a fuel emergency until the final minutes before the crash and had never reported the amount of fuel they had left when asking for a priority landing, making it impossible for air traffic controllers to give them correct priority status.
Further from the NTSB report: "There was no flight following or interaction with the Avianca Airlines dispatcher for AVA052 following takeoff from Medellin ...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." This accident, along with Hapag-Lloyd Airlines Flight 3378, has been used as an example of why airlines in all countries should always have flight dispatchers proactively following flights, as required in the U.S. by Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 121.
Many passengers were upset when the FAA stated that it had no responsibility in covering the crash.
After some deliberations, a settlement was reached in which the United States paid for around 40% of the settlements with the passengers and their families; the rest was paid by Avianca.
Following Flight 52, air traffic controllers were more conservative in determining if Avianca flights were running low on fuel and required priority landing. On June 22, 1990, a Boeing 727 was immediately cleared to land when the pilot declared a minimum fuel situation. In another instance, on August 4, 1990, controllers declared a fuel emergency for the pilot due to confusion over the remaining fuel. The jet landed with 2 more flying hours to spare. On Feb 3, 2012, a Boeing 747 was cleared to land immediately at London Heathrow Airport after not being able to read the fuel gauges properly. It later emerged that the flight had only taken off 10 minutes earlier and had enough fuel to fly to Singapore. It landed safely.
The story of the disaster was featured on the second season of Canadian National Geographic Channel show Air Emergency. The episode was the fifth of the second season and is entitled "Deadly Delay" or "Missing Over New York" depending on the country in which it is airing. This story was also featured on the MSNBC episode Human Error of their Why Planes Crash series.
In popular culture
- "Aircraft Accident Report AVIANCA, The Airline of Colombia Boeing 707-321 B, HK 2016 - Fuel Exhaustion Cove Neck, New York". National Transportation Safety Board. January 25, 1990. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
- Cushman, John H. Jr. (February 5, 1990). "Avianca Flight 52: The Delays That Ended in Disaster". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-16.
- "Missing over New York." Mayday.
- Langenscheidt's Standard Spanish Dictionary gives 'prioridad' as the straightforward Spanish equivalent of 'priority'. This arguably indicates that, given the similar usage of these words in both English and Spanish, the claim of a resulting misunderstanding would need to rest mainly in supposed procedural, rather than supposed linguistic, differences between air traffic control and the flight crew.
- Weiner, Eric (August 4, 1990). "Fuel Emergency For Avianca Jet Said Premature". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-16.
- Air disaster.com pictures of the crash site
- For Some, No Escape From L.I. Jet Crash
- Cockpit Voice Recorder Transcript