Crash of West Caribbean Airways Flight 708
West Caribbean Airways Flight 708 was a West Caribbean Airways charter flight which crashed in a mountainous region in northwest Venezuela on the morning of Tuesday, 16 August 2005, killing all 152 passengers and eight crew. The plane, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, registration HK-4374X, was en route from Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City, Panama to Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport (FDF) in Fort-de-France, Martinique.
While flying at 33,000 ft, the aircraft's speed gradually decreased until it entered an aerodynamic stall. The crew, probably under the mistaken belief that the aircraft had suffered a double engine flame-out, did not take the necessary actions to recover from the stall. After a 7,000 feet per minute dive with engines in a flight idle or near flight idle condition, the plane crashed and burst into flames at 07:01 UTC into a field on a cattle ranch near Machiques, in the western Zulia State, Venezuela (about 30 kilometres from the Colombian border).
All the passengers were French citizens from Martinique, with the exception of one Italian, acting as the tour operator. The crew was Colombian. The flight was chartered by the Globe Trotters de Rivière Salée travel agency in Martinique. Most of the passengers were tourists returning from a week's vacation in Panama.
The 160-person death toll made the accident the deadliest of 2005. It is the deadliest air disaster in the history of Venezuela, the deadliest involving a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, and the third-deadliest involving a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 in general after Inex-Adria Aviopromet Flight 1308 and Dana Air Flight 992.
Medellín-based West Caribbean Airways started as a charter service in 1998. It specialized in flights to San Andrés in the Caribbean, parts of the Colombian mainland and Central America. A few months before the accident, the airline had been fined $46,000 for lack of pilot training and failure to log required flight data.
The aircraft involved in the incident was delivered to Continental Airlines on 4 November 1986 which operated it until 10 January 2005. At that time it was transferred to West Caribbean Airways, registered as HK-4374X. The jet's tail cone fell off in early July 2005 and was replaced.
The captain of flight 708 was 40-year-old Omar Ospina, and the first officer was 21-year-old David Mũnoz. The captain had 5,942 hours of experience, and the co-pilot 1,341 hours.
Flight 708 took off from Tocumen International Airport at 00:58 local time (05:58 UTC). It climbed initially to flight level (FL) 310, and subsequently to FL 330. The aircraft reached FL 330 (nominally 33,000 ft) at 06:44. Five minutes later, the crew turned the aircraft's anti-icing systems back on (having turned them off during the final part of the climb). The system uses power from the engines, thus reducing their maximum performance. With the anti-ice system on, the highest altitude at which the overloaded aircraft could fly – without stalling – was reduced to 31,900 feet (9,700 m).
The captain noticed the reduction in engine power, but he did not realize the source of the problem. Therefore, he started a rapid descent as a precaution. At that time, the airspeed was already near stall speed, and the autopilot had kept a nose-up attitude to maintain a constant height. When the airliner was pummeled by a sudden updraft, it finally entered a stall condition and the crew mishandled it. Although the cockpit voice recorder picked up the first officer correctly diagnosing the situation as a stall and attempting twice to communicate this to the captain, the captain was likely confused by the unusual behaviour of the engines, due to the anti-ice system and probably the air flow disruption caused by the updraft. The captain thought he was struggling with an engine flameout, which he told the first officer to communicate to the ground controller, and did not recognise the deep stall situation; he then mishandled the stall by maintaining nose-up attitude, which further decreased speed and deepened the stall until the plane eventually crashed.
All times are UTC. (For local time in Panama and Colombia, subtract 5 hours; for Venezuela subtract 4:30 hours; for Martinique, subtract 4.)
- 06:00 Flight 708 Departs from Panama en route to Martinique.
- 06:51 Crew reports trouble in one engine.
- 06:58 Crew requests and receives permission to descend from 31,000 feet to 14,000 feet.
- 06:59 Crew sends distress call: both engines malfunctioning, aircraft uncontrollable.
- 07:00 Plane crashes near Machiques, Venezuela.
The Comité de Investigación de Accidentes Aéreos (CIAA, Aircraft Accidents Research Committee) of Venezuela led the investigation on the causes of the accident. French Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile (BEA) was assigned the main responsibility of the investigation analysis for Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) with United States' National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also taking part in recovery of FDR data. On 22 November 2005, the CIAA released a report suggesting that a buildup of ice inside each engine's PT2 probe was responsible for the accident. Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder showed that the crew discussed weather conditions, including icing, and continually requested and performed descents which is the usual response to a low power or low airspeed situation.
Analysis of the debris showed that both engines exhibited indications of high-speed compressor rotation at the time of impact, which enabled investigators to conclude that the engines had not been previously damaged, and were functioning at the time of impact. Ground scars showed that the aircraft impacted with its nose up.
The CIAA, which had been renamed to the Junta Investigadora de Accidentes de Aviación Civil (JIAAC), released their final report into the accident and found the probable underlying causes of the crash to be the result of pilot error. Underscoring the finding listing pilot error as a cause, the JIAAC noted a lack of both situational awareness and crew resource management which would have better enabled the crew to properly respond to the stall and the severity of the emergency. The report stressed that the crew failed to operate the aircraft within its normal parameters, which resulted in a stall that was not properly recovered from due to poor decision-making and poor communication between the pilots. In addition, the poor financial position of West Caribbean Airways came under criticism; the airplane and crew involved in the accident flight were almost refused takeoff at their previous stop due to non-payment of catering and food service fees, the crew had not received regular paychecks in several months, and the captain had reportedly been forced to moonlight as a bartender to provide income for his family.
The accident was the topic of a one-hour episode of the TV series Mayday (also known as Air Crash Investigation in the UK, Australia and Asia and Air Emergency or Air Disasters in the United States), "The Plane That Flew Too High".
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