Birmingham Plane Crash: One Of the Riskiest Jobs In the World is Being a Cargo Plane Pilot

A UPS jumbo cargo plane crashed around 6 a.m. Wednesday near Birmingham, Alabama, killing two pilots. The jumbo UPS A-300 Airbus took off from Louisville, Kentucky, caused at least two explosions, and spewed massive amounts of debris along its path when it crashed upon its approach to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. 

While the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating this morning's tragedy, the incident serves as a sad reminder of the unique risks and particularly poor conditions that cargo pilots — who are like truckers in the sky — face, such as extremely long working hours. The aircraft these pilots fly tend to be older models that have been retired from passenger flight, and pilots typically transport goods across inconsistent routes, for long hours at night, through all kinds of inclement weather.

This was not UPS' first fatal crash in recent years. A UPS cargo plane crashed on September 3, 2010, near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, killing two pilots. The plane was transporting 90,000 lithium batteries which can be sensitive to temperature, which appeared to have ignited a fire in the cargo area.

As recently as May, a cargo plane crashed near Bagram Airport in Afghanistan, killing seven. Officials were not able to identify one specific cause, citing a range of factors that may have led to the crash, including weather and large cargo movement.

A CNN report on the Bagram plane crash attempted to "calm plane crash fears" by claiming that the fiery images of the crash should not incite fear, stating, "Remember that conditions for cargo flight in Afghanistan aren't routine for passenger flights."

But the difficult conditions cargo crews face should not be swept under the rug. Cargo pilots tend to report headache and fatigue much more often than passenger pilots do. Cargo flight routes typically differ from those of passenger airlines, and frequently change destinations as they follow market forces. This increased exposure to changing routes and destinations tend to impact route familiarization and decrease safety margins of their flights.

Cargo aircrafts are rarely brand new equipment purchased at full price, and they tend to be older planes subject to less stringent maintenance requirements than passenger flights. The aircrafts used to transport goods are generally crafted from previously used planes that that have been retired from passenger service, and retrofitted to accommodate cargo areas. 

Airline Pilots Association, International has worked to promote a "One Level of Safety" model to promote safer conditions for all types of airline carriers. "Not all commercial air transport service is treated equally in the U.S. and Canada," they write, saying, "There are different sets of rules for passenger airlines, cargo airlines, and smaller passenger aircraft that need to be standardized." But the movement has faced some setbacks from the Federal Aviation Administration and various carriers in implementing universal regulations. The huge variance in the nature of these various transport services can make it difficult to harmonize safety procedures. Still, Wednesday morning's crash is a reminder that should be done to ensure the safety of those involved in transporting cargo across the globe.

UPS Airlines President Mitch Nichols issued a statement confirming this morning's incident, saying, "Our thoughts and prayers are with those involved."

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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