More than two years after the incident, the images are still as impressive (see amateur video). On 29 April 2013, a Boeing 747 freighter crashed, seconds after taking-off from the US military base at Bagram in Afghanistan. Constructed and commissioned in 1993, the ‘plane was operated by National Air Cargo, Inc. (dba National Airlines) but used by the US Air Force to transport military equipment to Dubai (United Arab Emirates). All seven crewmembers on-board the ‘plane died in the crash: four pilots, two mechanics and the cargo’s loadmaster. Florida-based National Airlines operates on-demand cargo and passenger charter services.
Today, we now know the probable causes that led to the accident. In an investigative report by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), we learn that on 29 April 2013, the five armoured military vehicles inside the Boeing’s cargo hold, weighing a total of 78 tons, were not properly restrained.
The NTSB’s investigation states: ‘‘These vehicles were considered a special cargo load because they could not be placed in unit load devices (ULDs) and restrained in the airplane using the locking capabilities of the airplane’s main deck cargo handling system. Instead, the vehicles were secured to centreline-loaded floating pallets and restrained to the airplane’s main deck using tie-down straps.’’ And found: ‘‘Strong evidence that at least one of the MRAP vehicles (the rear M-ATV) moved aft into the tail section of the airplane, damaging hydraulic systems and horizontal stabilizer components such that it was impossible for the flight crew to regain pitch control of the airplane.’’
In their report the NTSB points to several fatal errors on the part of National Airlines, amongst which: ‘‘National Airlines’ procedures in its cargo operations manual not only omitted required, safety-critical restraint information from the airplane manufacturer Boeing and the manufacturer of the main deck cargo handling system Telair, (…) but also contained incorrect and unsafe methods for restraining cargo that cannot be contained in ULD’s.’’ Also, that current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidance for operators (and overseeing inspectors) for restraining special cargo loads is inadequate.
And finally, we learn that the person responsible for loading was trained by National Airlines and had just completed a straight 21-hour work period at the time of the crash. Following this investigation report, the NTSB has just issued six recommendations to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which includes the creation of an instruction manual for special cargo operators, together with training and certification for those responsible for loading, and a limitation of their working time.