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Spanair Flight 5022 disaster

Spanair Flight 5022

Spanair Flight JK 5022, from Barajas Airport in Madrid to Gran Canaria Airport in Gran Canaria, Spain, crashed just after take off from runway 36L of Barajas Airport at 14:25 CEST (12:25 UTC) on 20 August 2008. The aircraft was a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, registration EC-HFP. It was the first fatal accident for Spanair (part of the SAS Group) in the 20-year history of the company, and the 14th fatal accident and 24th hull loss involving MD-80 series aircraft. It is the world's worst aviation accident in 2008 and Spain's worst in 25 years. 154 people died, six while en route to the hospital, one overnight and one in the hospital three days later.

Crash

The accident occurred at 14:25 local time, seconds after takeoff. The aircraft, christened "Sunbreeze", registration EC-HFP, (manufacturer's serial number 53148, Douglas line number 2142) had been delivered to Korean Air on 18 November 1993 and was acquired by Spanair in July 1999. It was carrying a total of 172 people of which 162 were passengers, four deadheading crew members and six flight crew.

Video taken by the Spanish airport authority AENA shows the engines neither exploded nor caught fire while the Spanair MD-82 was taking off. The aircraft then rolled to the right, was unable to maintain adequate airspeed to prevent altitude loss and crashed in the vicinity of the runway, breaking into at least two parts which were engulfed by the subsequent explosion. Spanair reported that the pilot had previously attempted and aborted a departure due to a sensor reporting excessive temperature in an air intake, and that the temperature sensor was de-activated on the ground (reportedly an established procedure since that sensor is redundant), delaying departure by over an hour. Another takeoff was attempted, during which the fatal accident occurred.

The flight was also a Star Alliance codeshare operated on behalf of Lufthansa as LH 2554. Seven passengers with Lufthansa tickets had reservations. Four of the Lufthansa passengers were from Germany; however, the number of Lufthansa passengers who boarded the flight is yet to be confirmed.

Casualties

Initial reports of casualties were mixed. Sources initially reported as few as 2 to 45 deaths; however, as the incident unfolded, the figure was quickly revised to upwards of 100. The Associated Press reports that a Spanish emergency rescue official claimed as few as 26 passengers survived the crash. The rest died either in the crash or immediately after in the violent fire. By 21 August, reports clarified there were 153 fatalities and only 19 survivors, however a survivor later died in hospital, bringing the total death toll to 154. Earlier reports had counted 26 survivors, but six of them died before arriving at hospital, and another died overnight.

According to government officials, at least 15 of the deceased are not Spanish, including at least five Germans, two French, a Mauritanian, a Turk, a Bulgarian, a Gambian, an Italian, an Indonesian and two Brazilians. Among the survivors there are at least three non-Spanish citizens; a Swede, a Finn and a Bolivian. Also a 30 year old woman with British and Spanish dual citizenship survived with no burns as she was flung from row 6, still attached to her seat, and landed in a nearby stream. She suffered a punctured lung and broken left arm. Because of this ejection, she was spared the horrific burns that the majority of the other passengers suffered.

Ervigio Corral, the head of the emergency services rescue team, said that the crash flung many of the survivors into a creek, lessening the severity of their burns.

Investigation

A preliminary report on the accident (in Spanish) was released by the civil aviation authorities on October 10. Flight data recorders show that the aircraft took off with flaps retracted, and that the alarm for that abnormal takeoff configuration did not sound. The report hints at no possible cause of the accident beyond this, and gives factual elements exonerating the motors, and their reversers, as causal factors. On September 16, a 12-page draft of that report had leaked online.

On September 18, El País made available on its web site a video that investigators have been examining which captured the crash. It was taken by an airport security camera and shows the aircraft gaining very little altitude, then returning to the ground apparently just to the right of the runway and continuing forward for some distance beyond the end of the runway before dropping into the riverbed and catching fire.

Representatives from the US National Transportation Safety Board, aircraft manufacturer Boeing (as successor to McDonnell Douglas, who built the aircraft originally), and engine manufacturer Pratt and Whitney are supporting the investigation.

On 22 August reports emerged that, contrary to some earlier witness accounts, the aircraft did not suffer an engine fire or explosion before crashing. The Spanish airport authority (AENA) produced video for the media that shows there was no fire coming from the engines. Manuel Bautista, Director General of Spain's aviation authority, went as far as to state, "The engine is not the cause of the accident", surmising that a chain of events combining together is more likely than a single cause.

There has been considerable interest in the faulty air temperature probe that initially caused the pilot to turn the plane back for maintenance before its catastrophic takeoff attempt. The mechanic simply deactivated the probe because the aircraft's Minimum Equipment List allowed it to be left inoperative. On 22 August investigators interviewed the mechanic, who defended his action saying it had nothing to do with the crash. Spanair has agreed with the mechanic's view, contending that deactivation of the probe is an accepted procedure. On Sept 1, a report quoting Spanair stated that the problem detected on the first takeoff attempt was overheating caused by a temperature gauge's de-icing system, rather than a dysfunction of the temperature gauge itself; and that since icing was not a risk on that flight, the mechanics de-activated the de-icing system, with captain's approval.

Aviation Week reported the probe was a total air temperature sensor, which is located on the front of the aircraft near the cockpit. The aircraft's computer uses total air temperature to help calculate the ambient air temperature, which in turn is needed to calculate the aircraft's true airspeed. True airspeed is needed for high altitude navigation, but is not so important for maintaining stable flight. Ground Speed is calculated directly from GPS position change (or Inertial navigation position change on earlier models). When TAS (true airspeed) is compared with Groundspeed, the actual wind direction and speed at that altitude can be calculated and presented to the pilots. Indicated airspeed, a measure of the relative wind over the aircraft's surfaces, is a more important measure for ensuring stable, safe flight. The aircraft's stall speed closely relates to indicated airspeed, for example.

On 25 August, reports explained that investigators may be focusing on the possibility that the thrust reverser of the No. 2 (right side) engine activated during the climb, since it was found to be in the deployed position in the wreckage. Indeed one of the photographs released on the day of the accident appears to show a deployed reverser. If the reverser deployed during takeoff, and not as a result of impact, the plane would have yawed suddenly to the right. Nonetheless, since the MD-82 has tail-mounted engines, making them quite close to each other, and close to the plane's longitudinal axis, the activation of a reverser would not have produced uncontrollable yaw, even though the situation would still be a critical one. Thrust reversers are normally employed just after touch down to reduce braking distances. More recent evidence has come to light that the aircraft took to the sky with a known pre-existing problem with one of its thrust reversers, which was the subject of a temporary "work around" to keep the aircraft operational. On September 7, El Mundo reported that the thrust reverser deployment was commanded after the crash, to bring the aircraft to a stop; the left reverser deployed normally, while the right one (with the pre-existing condition) did not. At this point, the reversers therefore do not appear to be the cause of the crash.

On September 3, The Wall Street Journal reported that investigators examining data from the flight data recorder have concluded that the crew did not fully extend the wing flaps prior to take off; that an alarm for that condition failed to sound due to an apparent electrical fault; that the engines did not catch fire or malfunction before impact. Failure to extend flaps and slats has caused an earlier MD-82 crash, Northwest Airlines Flight 255, where the plane similarly failed to gain altitude, as noted early-on by the investigators. In that other accident, the crew was similarly disrupted from routine operation before the fatal takeoff, and the alarm similarly did not sound. In that other accident, examination of the alarm and its circuit breaker did not reveal a fault.

On September 5, El Mundo, citing a source in the investigation team, reported that the cockpit voice recorder shows that the pilot said "Flaps OK, Slats OK" to the copilot. The article confirms that the flaps were not extended; and that alarm for that condition did not sound.

Spanish officials have reportedly stated that above leaks to the Wall Street Journal and El Mundo are incomplete, but did not deny them.

In a September 7 article, El Mundo states that during the flight preparation and takeoff attempts, the aircraft had some of its systems in flight mode rather than ground mode; this explains why de-icing of the Total Air Temperature probe activated on the ground, causing overheat (in flight, the heater activates when there is no air flow in the probe, a sign of icing); this also explains why the flaps and slats alarm did not sound (this alarm it is disabled in flight mode).

The maintenance logbook of the airplane has comments, 2 days before the crash, for an "autoslats failure" visual alarm occurring on slats extension; however autoslats are not used on takeoff, and it can not be inferred that the slats system had a defect. The logbook also shows that overheating of the air temperature sensor occurred repeatedly the day before the crash.

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References

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