Friday, February 20, 2015

NTSB Open Docket of Bagram Cargo Crash Documents

The chilling video of a Boeing 747 crashing on take-off from Bagram Afghanistan meant that this tragic accident from April 2013 made headline news.

This is the dashcam video of the aircraft’s take off. Please note that it shows the actual impact and may be disturbing.

The Ministry of Transportation and Commercial Aviation in Afghanistan was joined by the American NTSB for the investigation.

The NTSB has now opened a docket on the crash, releasing factual information which forms the basis of the investigation. There is no analysis nor conclusion at this time; the final report has not yet been released. But the documents and photographs are enough to give us a heart-breaking picture of what happened that day.

The full set of files is available here:

It’s hard not to draw conclusions from the information released so far. I’ve collected the key facts where they seem to help shed light on the cause.

The Boeing 747-400 registration N949CA was a converted cargo plane operated by National Airlines.

On the 29th of April in 2013, the cargo plane crashed shortly after take-off from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. All seven crew members onboard were killed and the aircraft was destroyed.

Bagram Airfield is the largest US Military base in Afghanistan. It is run by US Armed Forces but also occupied by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan Armed Forces.

The airfield was built in the 1950s and played a key role for the US during the Cold War and then in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In 2007, Bagram Airfield was described as the size of a small town having over 40,000 inhabitants, with traffic jams, commercial shops and dual runway operations.

The original flight schedule was for the Boeing 747 to fly from Chateauroux, France to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan and then continue to the Dubai World Center at Al Aktoum, UAE airport. However, National Airlines couldn’t obtain clearance to overfly Pakistan for the flight departing Camp Bastion to Dubai. The dispatcher instead planned for the flight to fly to Bagram, refuel, and continue from there to Dubai.

The aircraft was held up en route to Camp Bastion as a result of indirect fire at the airport from the Taliban. The load manifest shows that the plane was loaded by National Air Cargo. National Airlines transported the cargo but National Air Cargo was responsible for the load planning, cargo/pallet build up and aircraft loading. The Boeing 747 was loaded with 94,119 kgs of cargo, including 5 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armoured military vehicles on the main deck. National Air Cargo ground crew told the NTSB investigators that the Dubai offices conducted classes on how to palletize a Stryker, a military vehicle which weighed about 12-13 tons.

Of the five mine resistant armoured vehicles loaded onto the Boeing 747, two were MRAP all-terrain vehicles weighing about 12 tons each. The other three were MRAP Cougars weighing about 18 tons each.

It was the first time that National Airlines had transported the 18-ton military vehicles.

More importantly, it was the first time that National Air Cargo had ever attempted to load an 18-ton Cougar on a National Airlines B747-400.

The National Air Cargo Operations Specialist who was in charge of the pallet build-up for the accident flight load told NTSB Staff he did not have an SOP (standard operating procedure) for any particular load, there was no specific manual that they followed when building the pallets, and he did not know the load capacity of a pallet.

He further said that the only manual he had for reference in Camp Bastion was a dangerous goods manual. National Air Cargo staff did not have a copy of the National Airlines Cargo Operations Manual in Camp Bastion, and did not have a computer to view any manuals online.

There were seven crew. Two captains and two first officers, along with two mechanics and one loadmaster. The aircraft had a rest facility on board, allowing the 747 to be flown with a double crew. The accident Captain was highly experienced and described as “excellent” in his training transcripts and “having great CRM” by crew who had flown with him. The accident First Officer was new to the aircraft but was considered to have strong skills, both monitoring and flying, and was described as very well prepared for the change to the B747-400.

The loadmaster had worked for National Airlines for two and a half years and had been a ground handling supervisor/trainer before that.

Neither the accident Captain nor his First Officer had prior experience carrying mine resistant armoured vehicles. Neither did the loadmaster: he had never worked a National Airlines flight with an MRAP as part of the cargo load before, not even the 12 ton version. No special guidance, strapping diagrams or photos were provided to him.

The Chief Loadmaster was asked if there was a conscious decision by National Airlines to approve the loading of the 18-ton Cougars. He told the NTSB that it was up to National Air Cargo (the company who took the order) and that as the operator the flight, they stuck to “you call, we haul”.

The five heavy military vehicles were loaded onto the Boeing 747 and the flight crew continued on their journey to Bagram Airfield.

It’s early on in the Operation Chairman’s Factual Report that the focus turns to the broken strap that the flight crew found in the cargo bay after they landed at Bagram Airfield.

According to recorded data, at about 0957 while the airplane was still on the ramp in Bagram, the captain was made aware of a broken strap found by one of the other crewmembers, and the cockpit crew had a discussion about a possible shift of the cargo load during landing in Bagram. There was additional discussion on re-securing the load prior to departure.

Here’s the transcript of that conversation.

09:57:33 First Officer There’s your trouble Brad.
09:57:35 Captain What is it? What the [expletive] was that from?
09:57:39 First Officer One of those [expletive] straps is busted
09:57:42 Second Captain [unintelligible] tire
09:57:44 Captain No no, I know that… [unintelligible] No I know, but…
09:57:45 First Officer Give you one guess what was right there.
09:57:49 Captain What was right where?
09:57:49 First Officer Right here.
09:57:50 Captain A knot?
09:57:51 First Officer Uh huh.
09:57:52 Captain That was the one right at the door?
09:57:54 First Officer No… This was at… [unintelligible]
09:57:56 Captain So you (go on/goin) puttin more straps (on [expletive])?
09:57:59 First Officer (well) it just shifted (apparently/barely)
09:58:01 Second Captain There was a bunch of them first… That first (truck).
09:58:02 Captain Did it move? … [expletive] moved?
09:58:04 First Officer Yes. Just tightened up on the straps. The truck?
09:58:06 Second Captain [unintelligible] like… Tightened those straps up uh, quite a bit, on the first one
09:58:13 First Officer You know how that… Well you go look at the… Went and looked at them now… all the ones [unintelligble] they had a bunch like this, to keep them from moving backwards… a bunch like this [unintelligble][unintelligble]movin forward? All the one that were keepin em from movin backwards were all [expletive] loose.
09:58:28 Second Captain What the [expletive] do you think’s gonna happen when you [expletive] slam it on the runway and slam on the [expletive] brakes and don’t use reverse… [said in a joking manner]
09:58:35 Captain [sound of laughter]
09:58:36 First Officer There ain’t nothing you coulda done about that.
09:58:37 Second Captain [unintelligible]I’m putting it on the [expletive][expletive] board. I’m gettin off this plane, I’m scared. [said in a joking manner]
09:58:46 Captain Throw that out man, that’s evidence. [unintelligible] [The Loadmaster] don’t want that hangin around either.
09:58:50 Unknown No.
09:58:53 Captain I hope instead of [unintelligible] rather than just replacing that (strap) I hope he’s beefing the straps up more
09:58:59 Unknown Just on that one spot.
09:59:00 First Officer Yeah.
09:59:02 Unknown All the rest of them are fine.
09:59:06 First Officer He’s cinching them all down.
10:14:49 Notice [break in transcript]
10:14:57 Captain What’s up dude?
10:15:01 First Officer Did you throw that other strap away?
10:15:04 Captain What did you – Did you put a couple more on? How far did it move… a couple of inches?
10:15:13 Loadmaster Yeah they just moved a couple inches… cause you know, it’s nylon ya know, so.
10:15:20 First Officer (you throw some) numbers (in here)?
10:15:21 Captain That’s scare-… that’s [expletive] scary- without a lock (for those big heavy things/[unintelligible] anything). Man I don’t like that. I saw that, I was like [expletive], I never heard of such a thing.
10:15:30 Unknown [unintelligible] I’d be kinda interested ta… wish I could put a camera down there and watch it…
10:15:36 First Officer (You’d probably)[expletive] yourself.
10:15:37 Captain Right.
10:15:37 Unknown See what they do
10:15:39 Captain Those things are so [expletive] heavy you’d think though that they probably wouldn’t hardly move no matter what

Clearly, the Captain is not happy with the situation. Ultimately, it’s the Captain’s decision whether it is safe to fly or not, not the loadmaster’s. However, in order to declare cargo as unsafely loaded, the Captain has to have the training to make a qualified opinion.

A National Airlines B747-400 Check Airman stated that “the loadmasters have their job–there is very little interaction between pilots and loadmasters.” A B747-400 FO stated that pilots at National Airlines “relied on the loadmasters 100% to make sure the load was done and secured properly.”

A National Airlines B747-400 Check Airman told the NTSB that there were guidelines on how to strap down cargo in a document referred to as the “loading manual” but pilots were neither trained nor evaluated on that information.

There was nothing included in the National Airlines Flight Operations Training Manual that covered the review of a cargo load by the pilots.

In this company culture, the Captain could not feel supported in going against the loadmaster, even if he accepted that the final decision to fly or not fly rested with him. The Captain quite simply did not have the knowledge or expertise at his disposal to make that kind of decision.

The Captain was, as the National Airlines First Officer said to the NTSB, completely reliant on the loadmaster.

He decided to continue. In fact, it never seemed to have occurred to him that he could do anything else.

Here’s what the Captain would have said was a really [expletive] scary thing: loadmasters aren’t certified. There’s no agreed training, there are no currency checks, there’s nothing official.

There was no specific training for the Chief Loadmaster position.

The documents include an interview with Charles Dsouza, Base Support at Camp Bastion and one of the staff who helped with the palletizing and loading.

In the accident flight, he was pushing loads into the airplane. The load had 5 MRAPs, 3 Cougars and 2 smaller MRAPs. The Cougars were 18 tons, and this was the first time they had ever loaded something that large. They used PGF pallets, two together with a sheet of plywood between them. They tied the pallets together with straps, 3 long and wide ways. They were the same straps used on the tie down to the airplane.

He said the pallet could handle the weight of an 18 ton Cougar. He said there’s no written guidance on how to build a pallet. They just did it, not by manual, but by working as a team.

He never received training to build and load pallets. No one complained about his load. The load master checks his work, and Ralph was his supervisor who also checked his work. He said if there were any problems with the straps and chains, the load master would correct them, or Ralph would correct him.

The Chief Loadmaster told the NTSB that they’d never needed to replace any straps and there was no training to tell when a strap was no longer safe.

Although the FAA has no regulatory oversight over loadmasters, cargo loading on aircraft is within their jurisdiction. Cargo loading equipment and continuous analysis surveillance are considered “high criticality items” which means that these operations must be surveyed by the FAA every six months.

The Principal Maintenance Inspector from the FAA told investigators that he’d attempted to observe the loading process for National Airlines; however he’d only seen National Airline’s B747-400 loaded once, in 2012 when he went to Dubai for five days and they did a ramp inspection.

In Dubai for the one time he observed National Airlines, they loaded only general items and military items. He could not remember if the load was going into Afghanistan, and told NTSB Staff he was not allowed to go to Afghanistan because the State Department would not issue them visas to travel to Afghanistan, and they could only observe the aircraft in Dubai.

One FAA cabin safety inspector out of Minnesota was able to do an enroute cabin inspection, and he said he heard that “there was some fallout from it.”

When asked how he would survey an operation overseas like the National Airlines B747-400, he said that “you would just go to DXB [Dubai, UAE] and see what you see,” and the one time he went to Dubai, he observed the 757 when it arrived and left.

The Principal Maintenance Inspector said that he didn’t observe any of the pallet build ups since that was the Principal Operations Inspector’s responsibility. He said that he never had an opportunity to observe the straps.

The Principal Operations Inspector told the NTSB that he didn’t know that National Airlines was strapping the heavy vehicles to the seat tracks until after the accident, when he saw photographs of the strapping.

The FAA was not aware of any risk analysis done by National Airlines for the carriage of 18 ton military vehicles, and the FAA was not notified by National Airlines that they were carrying multiple MRAPs prior to the accident.

The FAA did not conduct a risk analysis when it was discovered that National Airlines was hauling heavy military vehicles like MRAPs because, according to the [Principal Operations Inspector], “the manual seemed sufficient,” and “if they were following their manual there should not be an issue.”

The FAA conducted a review of National Airlines manuals after the accident, specifically because it was unclear whether loadmasters were referring to Boeing or Telair when they discussed the guidance in the Cargo Operations manual. Turned out that National Airlines had combined the Boeing and Telair guidance into the manual to allow for “one stop shopping rather than having to reference separate manuals.”

A National Aviation Safety Inspection Program had just run an assessment of National Airlines at the time of the accident. The primary problem identified was that National Airlines were having problems training and hiring loadmasters.

The Director of Safety at National Airlines stated that no risk analysis was conducted for the carriage of heavy, centre-loaded floating palletised loads like the MRAPs. He said he wasn’t involved in the decision to begin carrying large, heavy military vehicles and the Safety Department was not asked to prove input.

In other words, no one actually took responsibility for making sure that the cargo transports were safe and the staff had no experience and little or no guidance.

“You call, we haul.”

The crew did not take on any additional cargo in Bagram, and only took on fuel for the flight to Dubai. The airplane refueled to 48,000 kilograms of fuel. A National Air Cargo ground crew met the airplane during refueling, and only spoke with the loadmaster at the entrance of the main deck door. The flight release for the Bagram to Dubai leg had been emailed to the captain while the airplane was in Camp Bastion, so there was no paperwork exchanged, and the ground crew did not enter the airplane or cockpit and only spoke with the loadmaster.

The aircraft taxied out normally for departure on runway 03 at Bagram. The take-off roll appeared normal and the aircraft rotated around the Charlie intersection of the runway.

Nine seconds later, the cockpit voice recorder stopped recording. Three seconds after that, the Flight Data Recorder stopped recording. The airborne aircraft pitched up until it appeared to stall, at which point it turned to the right and crashed into the ground just beyond the departure end of runway 03.

Twelve items were recovered from the runway following the accident in the vicinity of Taxiway C which was near the point of takeoff rotation. Eleven were identified as airplane structure and one was identified as being part of an MRAP.

The data and the physical evidence suggest that at least one 12-ton MRAP vehicle broke loose of its restraints and damaged the FDR and the CVR before breaking through the aft pressure bulkhead. That damaged hydraulic systems #1 and #2. The stabilizer jackscrew assembly was displaced and had scuff marks of paint on it, which possibly occurred on impact. However, if the paint was from the MRAP sliding into it and the stabilizer jackscrew was displaced during take-off, safe flight and landing were not longer possible.

That is just key information that I picked up out of the documents; there’s a lot more information in the docket. It seems to me that the investigators aren’t very far from a conclusion and it’s already pretty clear what some of the recommendations will be.

For me, the hardest part of this to read was the CVR transcript. The sound of the crew laughing and joking around is heartbreaking, knowing in an hour they would find themselves in an aircraft that could not be controlled. No report in the world can make that better.

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