Amazon Cargo Jet Plunges Into Bay Near Houston; Three Dead

(Bloomberg) -- A widebody cargo plane hauling packages for Amazon abruptly plunged out of the sky and slammed into a bay on Saturday as it was preparing to land in Houston. All three people on board were killed.

The Boeing Co. 767-300, operated by Atlas Air on a flight that had departed from Miami, disappeared from radar and lost radio contact, landing in a bay about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, said Robert Sumwalt, the National Transportation Safety Board chairman who’s leading the investigation.

The jet fell thousands of feet in seconds after what had been a routine descent, according to Sumwalt and the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. Human remains were recovered at the scene, the FBI’s Houston office said in a tweet.

“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.”

Shallow Water

Photographs and video of the scene show aircraft debris -- including one piece with the Amazon logo -- in a marshy bay. Sumwalt said it landed in “very very shallow water, in some cases mud flats.”

Air-traffic controllers and the pilots on Atlas Flight 3591 could be heard discussing how to fly around a line of thunderstorms shortly before the crash, according to a recording of radio calls posted on the website LiveATC.net. There was no indication that the pilots made any distress calls or declared an emergency.

After the plane disappeared, controllers tried to reach the plane and asked other aircraft to look for wreckage.

‘How Do You Hear?’

“Thirty-five ninety-one heavy,” said one controller, using the plane’s call sign, “how do you hear?” There was no reply.

Planes flying over the same route were in the clouds and couldn’t see the ground.

“See if you can make ground contact,” a controller radioed to another flight. “We’re looking for a lost aircraft.”

“No ground contact from here,” a pilot responded.

The pilots were members of Teamsters Local Union 1224, which represents Atlas flight crews. “Our focus is on our friends and colleagues who were on that plane, and we are doing everything we can to support their families,” Captain Daniel C. Wells, president of the union, said in a statement.

Atlas, which was operating the plane for Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Air, confirmed the deaths and said it’s working with authorities to examine what happened.

Sudden Drop

Atlas Air is a subsidiary of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. and specializes in leasing aircraft complete with pilots and maintenance crew to other companies. The holding company also operates Polar Air Cargo, Titan Aviation and Southern Air, according to its website.

The plane’s final seconds were far outside the norm for commercial jets, according to FlightRadar24. After flying level at about 6,000 feet altitude, it began a sudden drop at 12:38 p.m. local time, according to instruments on the plane that were monitored by FlightRadar24.

It went from 5,800 feet to about 1,300 feet in about nine seconds, according to the website. After that, no further position reports were received. In the final seconds, it was plummeting at 30,000 feet per minute, far outside a typical flight envelope.

Black Boxes

One of NTSB’s top priorities will be to recover the plane’s two crash-proof recorders, known as black boxes, Sumwalt said. Investigators are hopeful the recovery will be easier than some underwater crash cases because the water is so shallow, he said.

“There is a massive effort under way, led by multiple jurisdictions, to assist the NTSB in the recovery of those boxes,” he said.

While U.S. passenger airlines are in the safest period in history, cargo carriers using similar aircraft haven’t had as good a record.

There’s been just one fatality on a U.S.-registered passenger airline since Feb. 12, 2009. During the same period, according to NTSB, four cargo jets have crashed, killing 13, not including Saturday’s accident.

Before Saturday the most recent cargo jet crash occurred Aug. 14, 2013, when a United Parcel Service Inc. plane hit a hill as it prepared to land in Birmingham, Alabama. Two pilots died in that incident.

Boeing said in a tweet on Saturday that it would “provide technical assistance to the NTSB as it investigates the accident.”

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