Death In The Mountains

As they prepared to land a jet packed with 167 people in Cali, Colombia, on the night of Dec. 20, pilot Nicholas Tafuri and copilot Don Williams seemed distracted. They idly discussed flight attendants' work schedules. They apparently skipped routine safety procedures, even failing to discuss their approach plans. As American Airlines Flight 965 flew down the dark, mountainous corridor within 70 miles of the airport, air-traffic controllers instructed the men to head toward a navigational beacon at Tulua before turning toward Cali. But the pilots misunderstood and kept flying straight. Speaking in clear English, controllers repeated "Report Tulufi" several times. By the time the pilots realied their error, they had passed Tulua, though they didn't know it. When they finally caught on and reprogrammed the automatic pilot, the plane began a steep, left turn, circling back toward the beacon--and toward the mountains. Then they turned sharply right, back toward Cali. Almost immediately, an automated warning voice honked: "Terrain! Pull up!" The pilots gunned the engines but forgot to release the Boeing 757's air brakes. Seven seconds later the plane smashed into a 12,000-foot mountain, killing 163 people. Only four passengers and one dog survived.

It was the deadliest U.S. jetliner crash since terrorists blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Initially, experts thought Colombian controllers speaking broken English caused the accident. But a senior U.S. air-safety official told NEWSWEEK that pilot error -- or errors -- led to the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration is studying American Airlines' prior training to see if the blunders that apparently doomed Flight 965 are isolated or systemic. Meanwhile, American Airlines--which hadn't suffered a fatal crash since 1979 -took the unusual step of acknowledging some guilt. "We are saddened that human error on the part of our people may have contributed to the accident," said C.D. Ew-ell, American's chief pilot. "The accident reminds us that aviation, while not inherently dangerous, is terribly unforgiving of any inattention to detail."

"Inattention to detail" may turn out to be an understatement. Aviation experts say that misunderstandings between ground controllers and air crews are common and correctable. But unless it's recorded on a part of the cockpit-voice tape not examined by air-safety officials, there seems to be little explanation for the pilots' failure to conduct an "approach briefing"-a series of legally mandated procedures in which the crew reviews the plane's speed, landing path and tower communications, as well as plans in the event of an emergency.

Colombia is a dangerous place to ignore safety procedures. In 1992 terrorists blew up Cali's approach radar. Although the Colombians purchased a new $8 million system, it's sitting in the airport's cargo area because officials fear guerrillas will blow it up again. As a result, controllers sometimes lose track of planes -- which happened for three minutes last week to another American Airlines plane en route from Miami to Bogota. Colombian officials insist the missing radar is not designed to guide landings and would not have saved Flight 965. In any event, Tafuri and Williams, experienced pilots with thousands of hours of flight time, had flown to Call before. Only then, they also flew home.

1 63 miles north of Cali, the pilots contract ground control. Instructions are to "report" when they reach the Tulua radio beacon.

2 The pilots radio back that they are heading direct to Cali," taking them off the recommended flight path in the narrow corridor between mountains. "Affirmative," says ground control.

3 Controllers repeat their instructions to "report Tulua." But by this time Flight 965 has already bypassed the town. When pilots finally reprogram the plane's navigational system for Tulua, the plane makes a radical left-hand turn.

4 Realizing they are suddenly heading the wrong way, the pilots turn the plane back toward Cali. An automated warning system tells the pilots: "Terrain. Pull up."

5 The pilots attempt to pull the plane up, but it is too late. The jet crashes, killing all but 4 of the 167 passengers.

Death In The Mountains | News