Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: ValuJet Flight 592, May 11 1996

Rodney Culver & Walter Hyatt

On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet flight departed from Miami International Airport, bound for Atlanta.  The flight, 592, took off at 2:04PM and sought to abort flight almost immediately.  The flight crew radioed at 2:10PM. Captain Candi Kubeck, a veteran Eastern Airlines pilot, requested to return to Miami due to smoke in the cockpit and cabin. Smoke entered the cockpit when the flight crew opened the door to report fire, on the failure of the intercom system.  Given permission to return, Flight 592 turned and disappeared from radarscopes at 2:14PM. The 27-year-old DC-9 crashed in the Everglades’ Browns Farm Wildlife Management area, killing all five members of the flight crew and 105 passengers aboard.

Two witnesses fishing from a boat in the Everglades when flight 592 crashed stated that they saw a low-flying airplane in a steep right bank. According to these witnesses, as the right bank angle increased, the nose of the airplane dropped and continued downward. The airplane struck the ground in a nearly vertical attitude. The witnesses described a great explosion, vibration, and a huge cloud of water and smoke. One of them observed, ‘the landing gear was up, all the airplane’s parts appeared to be intact, and that aside from the engine smoke, no signs of fire were visible.’ Two other witnesses who were sightseeing in a private airplane [piloted by Daniel Muelhaup] in the area at the time of the accident provided similar accounts of the accident. These two witnesses and the witnesses in the boat, who approached the accident site, described seeing only part of an engine, paper, and other debris scattered around the impact area. One of the witnesses remarked that the airplane seemed to have disappeared upon crashing into the Everglades.

On board were San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver and his wife, Karen (Their children had not accompanied them on the trip). Culver had grown up in Detroit and played college ball at Notre Dame where he started at running back for vaunted Irish head coach Lou Holtz, and played for the national title against Colorado. Rodney Culver was the first black captain of a team at Notre Dame, a devoted Christian, and a hard-working and earnest man who completed his degree in seven semesters. He was drafted by the Colts in 1992, and was cut at the end of the 1993 season after seeing limited action.  He was picked up off the waiver wire by the Chargers, where he again saw limited action but played in Super Bowl XXIX for the AFC champions, who lost to San Francisco 49-26.  He had continued his evangelical calling, coordinating the Chargers’ chapel service and always signing autographs with accompanying scripture.
Also on board the flight was Austin-based winger and songwriter Walter Hyatt, generally credited as one of the founders of Americana music, which celebrates both folk and country roots of American music while also encouraging innovation. Hyatt had founded “Uncle Walt’s Band” out of Spartanburg in 1969, and then crashed the Nashville music scene.  After the band broke up in 1975, Hyatt formed “The Contenders” with fellow Uncle Walt’s Band member Champ Hood, and later reformed UWB in 1978.  in the late 1980s he went solo, and in 1990 signed with MCA where his album King Tears was produced by Lyle Lovett. A second album followed. Hyatt had been in Key West playing a club date when he returned to Miami and boarded flight 592 to return home to attend his daughter’s graduation.
About ValuJet Flight 592: The accident was  entirely preventable. According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the Flight 592 disaster, it was a clear day and the flight operated under visual flight rules. The aircraft had previously operated as flight 591 from Atlanta to Miami, and was running an hour late out of Atlanta due to “unexpected maintenance involving the right auxiliary hydraulic pump circuit breaker.” This maintenance issue was not related to the crash. In addition to the flight crew and 105 passengers, the craft carried 4,109 pounds of cargo including baggage, mail, and what is termed COMAT -- company-owned material.  The COMAT consisted of “two main tires and wheels, a nose tire and wheel, and five boxes that were described as ‘Oxy Cannisters [sic]-‘Empty.’ ”
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable causes of the crash as a consequence of maintenance- and safety-related decisions regarding oxygen generators.   Each DC-9 carried 144 oxygen generators for the passenger emergency oxygen masks. When these generators were swapped out on [tail number], maintenance records indicated six of the 144 generators had definitely been removed. The fire that brought down ValuJet 592 started in the class D cargo compartment because of “one or more oxygen generators being improperly carried as cargo” and the failure of the maintenance contractor, SabreTech

to properly prepare, package, and identify unexpended chemical oxygen generators before presenting them to ValuJet for carriage … the failure of ValuJet to properly oversee its contract maintenance program to ensure compliance with maintenance, maintenance training, and hazardous materials requirements and practices.

However, NTSB saved blame for the FAA, for not requiring “smoke detection and fire suppression systems in class D cargo compartments” and for failing to “adequately monitor ValuJet's heavy maintenance programs and responsibilities … ValuJet's oversight of its contractors, and SabreTech's repair station certificate …  [and] adequately respond[ing] to prior chemical oxygen generator fires with programs to address the potential hazards.” 
Put simply, ValuJet 592 was carrying hazardous cargo that was improperly secured, the hazard was realized, a fire resulted, and 110 people died. The NTSB report on communication from the tower and the flight data recorder indicate a fiery situation that was overwhelming the best efforts of an experienced flight crew.
         About ValuJet: ValuJet started as a good idea from people with a history of good ideas in the aviation industry.  Deregulation in 1978 had heightened regional competition and decreased travel costs, and low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Midway were pushing the major carriers for business. Starting with a single old Delta Airlines DC-9, ValuJet was going to crack the Delta-dominated Atlanta market by bringing the low-cost approach of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines into the southeast.  Within a year of starting operation in 1993 ValuJet had expanded to fifteen aircraft with flights reaching across the entire southeast, and by 1995 had expanded to nearly a hundred aircraft, combining new orders from Boeing with the purchase of old craft from foreign carriers.
Despite having a wealth of executive leadership from the industry, including the architects of ASA and WestJet, ValuJet still encountered problems.  Federal regulators cited the airline for repeated maintenance and safety concerns, and in February 1996 recommended removing ValueJet’s certification to fly – the airline had over 100  emergency landings in less than three years. And, 592 was not the first accident involving ValuJet. On June 8 1995, Flight 597 had aborted takeoff from Atlanta when the right engine exploded and caused a cabin fire. No one died, but five passengers and two flight attendants were injured.  The plane burned on the ground at Hartsfield International.
ValuJet was grounded on June 17 1996 and did not fly again until September. That November they brought former Continental chief Joseph Corr in to save the airline. The nearly total damage to ValueJet’s brand caused the carrier to merge with Airways Corporation to produce a new firm, AirTran.