Mayday (2013) s16e06 Episode Script

Dangerous Approach

Folks, this is your captain speaking.
- We'll soon be landing in Durango.
- A commuter flight over the Rocky Mountains speeds towards disaster.
Somewhere out there in the black of night was an aircraft down in our county.
A desperate search uncovers twisted wreckage five miles from the runway.
- Half the people were killed.
- What are we missing here? We were having a hard time understanding how the crew impacted so far short of the airport.
An unexpected tip-off points to a shocking possibility.
What exactly did she say? One that will rock the entire airline industry.
The best way I could describe the investigators was astounded.
It's a cold winter's evening at Stapleton Airport in Denver, Colorado.
Captain Stephen Silver and First Officer Ralph Harvey are just about ready for take-off.
- Hey.
Everybody seated? - Yep.
Everybody's in.
- And all good outside? - The walk-around was all clear.
Trans-Colorado Flight 2286 is a short hop to Durango-La Plata County Airport in southern Colorado.
Listen, when we get to Durango, I'd like to get in the air again as quickly as possible.
It shouldn't be a problem.
We won't need to refuel.
It's the crew's fourth flight of the day and they're running late.
Bad weather has put them 40 minutes behind schedule.
Let's see what else we can do to get these folks back on time.
- You got it.
- We're always running behind, it seems like.
You're constantly trying to get caught back up, 'cause you have connecting flights.
Passengers want to make these flights just as we would, too, if we were a passenger in the back.
Tonight, there are 15 people in the cabin of the turbo-prop commuter plane, including Susie Welch.
My brother was sick in California and I was there coming home from visiting him.
And I missed my connection.
So it was a plane that I wasn't supposed to be on in the first place.
Trans-Colorado 2286, you are cleared for take-off.
Trans-Colorado is a small regional carrier that operates flights for Continental Airlines.
2286, cleared for take-off.
Thank you.
Captain Silver is in command.
He loved flying.
You know, it was in his blood.
You could see it.
Brad Howard flew with Captain Silver in the late 1980s.
Stephen was a very happy, jovial, energetic pilot.
I enjoyed flying with Steve.
You're handling flying this leg, right? You bet.
First Officer Harvey will operate the controls for this flight, leaving the captain free to handle radio calls.
Take - off power.
Airline pilots routinely trade the flying duties.
Part of it is for the reduction of fatigue so that one person's not doing all the work.
But it also divides the jobs up so that first officers that will be captains are gaining experience.
The captain keeps an eye on the airspeed as they accelerate for take-off.
And rotate.
I was a little bit apprehensive because the weather wasn't so great before I got on.
But when I got on, I thought, "Wow.
This is What was I worrying about? It's fine.
" The crew's day began in Denver.
After two short hops to Riverton and Casper, Wyoming, they circled back to Denver.
Now they're headed for Durango, a route that takes them over the southern Rocky Mountains.
In fact, just about 20 miles to the north of Durango is the most numerous 14,000-foot peaks within the continental United States.
Denver Flight Watch, Trans-Colorado flight 2286.
I'd like the latest weather for Durango and Cortez, please.
The latest we have is indefinite ceiling, obscured visibility, light snow and fog.
They're still forecasting moderate icing below 18,000.
Thank you.
The mountains become very obscured quite fast when a front moves through and visibility, of course, then drops down.
Nothing we can't handle.
About 20 minutes from the airport, the captain and the first officer review the landing.
So we're still doing the straight in to runway 2-0, OK? Runway 2-0.
Sounds good.
Control, we'll plan on a DME to runway 2-0.
That's approved.
Trans-Colorado 2286 cleared for runway 2-0 approach at Durango Airport.
Like many small airports in America, Durango does not have its own air traffic control.
The controller is in Denver, more than 200 miles away.
Once they cleared you for that approach, they basically gave you the responsibility to get that aeroplane down on the ground.
Radar coverage terminated.
Please report landing by radio.
Have a good night.
We're down to 1-4 and we're cleared for the approach.
2286 Wilco.
The passengers should be on the runway in less than five minutes.
Folks, this is your captain speaking.
We'll soon be landing in Durango so if you could please buckle up your seatbelts, we should have you on the ground shortly.
The entire flight, actually, was smooth as glass, like one of the smoothest flights I've ever had.
There was no cause for alarm, anything unusual at all.
Speed set.
One-quarter flaps.
One-quarter flaps.
The pilots work quickly to prepare for landing.
- Gear down.
- Gear down.
- Three green.
- They know that they have a lot of altitude to lose.
They've got a lot of airspeed to lose, and it also requires the appropriate use of different devices on the aeroplane to create additional drag to help it slow down.
Do you have the runway? Something's wrong.
The pilots can't see the runway.
Damn! We're too low! - Pull up! - No! No! No, no, no! Hold on! There was just this big boom.
I thought we just had a rough landing.
And the plane began to do a flip.
That's when I thought, "It's happening.
We're crashing.
" Help me, Jesus! Trans-Colorado 2286, this is Denver.
Please come in.
The flight to Durango is now overdue.
Trans-Colorado 2286, how do you read? Trans-Colorado 2286, how do you read? Both Denver and the La Plata County Airport personnel had tried to contact the aircraft via radio.
Trans-Colorado 2286, please come in.
It was pretty much aircraft was overdue, and somewhere out there in the black of night was an aircraft down in our county.
Trans-Colorado 2286, please come in.
Help us! It was dark and it was very cold.
And, just looking around, I could see that we could be anywhere.
Please! Is anyone out there? I just thought, "Here I am.
Lord, help me.
" Susie Welch discovers that she's not badly injured.
But it's clear other survivors of the Trans-Colorado crash are suffering terribly.
We have to get out.
They needed help as quickly as they could get it, you know, and we couldn't give what they needed at the time.
Susie faces a difficult decision.
Stay and tend to the injured, or leave in search of help.
They usually say, "Stay where you are.
Someone will come and get you.
" But we were out in the middle of nowhere.
We didn't know if anybody knew anything.
The weather wasn't really good that night, at all.
There were snow flurries in the area and it was extremely cold.
If the injured don't get help soon, they could freeze to death.
Just hang on.
We'll send for help.
Welch and some other able-bodied passengers decide to set out on foot.
It may be the best chance of survival for everyone.
I was thinking, "My family.
They don't know where we are.
They have no idea if I'm even alive.
" That gets me.
We had approximately four feet of snow on the ground, which really hampered our rescue activities.
After more than an hour, they catch a lucky break.
They come across a highway.
I saw a semi and a car and I thought, "Hallelujah.
" That was a relief, to see that.
Some passengers are now safe.
Rescuers go in search of the others.
We moved emergency responders and equipment to that particular location on US Highway 160, east of Durango, approximately six miles.
It was a remote area and so it made it difficult for the emergency responders to get there.
It took us a long time to figure out exactly where the crash was.
Finally, rescuers reach the aeroplane.
Of the 17 people on board, the crash has killed nine, including both pilots.
Half the people were killed, which is, you knowof course, it's a heartbreaker for a lot of people.
The next morning, daylight reveals the full extent of the destruction.
The front of the aircraft, from the wing forward, was fairly well-demolished.
The tail was broken off in parts and the good portion of the left wing was missing.
Tom Haueter of the National Transportation Safety Board now faces a huge task.
Yeah, left wingtip right here.
Yeah, thanks, guys.
figuring out why a commuter plane slammed into the ground five miles from the airport.
We were having a hard time understanding how the crew impacted so far short of the airport.
That was going to be the big mystery here to try to understand.
Sorting through the wreckage is like trying to piece together a giant jigsaw puzzle.
And that's not the only challenge.
In 1988, planes with fewer than 20 passengers are not required to carry flight recorders.
The lack of a cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder makes things much, much more difficult because you have to then take the evidence from the aeroplane and then deduce what happened to lead the aeroplane into the ground.
- Thank you.
- Haueter immediately turns his attention to an obvious suspect.
The weather.
Denver Flight Watch, Trans-Colorado flight 2286.
I'd like the latest weather for Durango and Cortez, please.
Trans-Colorado 2286, Durango.
The latest we have is indefinite ceiling, obscured visibility, light snow and fog.
They're still forecasting moderate icing below 18,000.
Icing is a potentially deadly phenomenon that can occur from 32 down to minus-four degrees Fahrenheit.
Super - cooled water coats the surface of an aircraft's wings and freezes, degrading aerodynamic performance.
The biggest problem is it changes the shape of the wing.
All of a sudden, you start getting - instead of a nice, rounded edge, it starts becoming a blunt edge.
And now, instead of the smooth airflow, you get turbulent air flow and you start losing lift on the wing.
That's what happened to American Eagle flight 4184.
The plane was en route to Chicago when ice build-up on the wings sent it into a deadly roll.
The crash killed all 68 people on board.
The critical question now, did ice on the wings of flight 2286 lead to a similar tragedy on a snowy night in the Colorado Rockies? The descent to runway 2-0 in Durango is over mountainous terrain.
A crew would have had little time to recover if ice on the wings caused a - sudden loss of lift.
- No! No! No! No! Pull up! Did the plane's wings ice over? Was it the right temperature range for icing? Haueter studies weather reports from Durango's airport.
Normally, icing's a problem if you have liquid that's very cold, hits the aeroplane and freezes on it.
It has to be raining or drizzle.
The weather at the airport was overcast and cloudy but the temperature was negative-24 Fahrenheit.
It's a dead end.
Temperatures were well below the minimum required for icing.
It was so cold that night, there was no liquid water out there to form on the aeroplane, just snow.
And so icing could be eliminated pretty quickly.
The location of the crash site, just five miles from the runway, suggests another possibility.
One-quarter flaps.
To prepare for landing, the pilots have to extend the plane's flaps and lower the landing gear.
Gear down.
Three green.
The increased drag means the plane needs more power to maintain lift during the last few minutes of flight.
Investigators wonder, "Did a sudden loss of engine power cause the crash?" Were they producing power at impact? Was there any obvious problems with the engines prior to impact? So you start looking at everything in detail.
They check the position of the engine levers.
The engine speed is set for 'high', exactly where it should be.
It seems the pilots had the right settings.
Speed set.
What about the engines themselves? Did they somehow fail? A trained investigator can find clues to engine performance by looking at the propeller blades and how they bent in the crash.
The blades were in position to produce thrust.
And also by rotational damage, they were running at impact.
If they hadn't been running, they would have been just pulled back.
But you see where they were actually chopping away at the ground and the trees and being pulled forward when they hit.
It was definitely going at full speed.
No fault with the engine.
With no black boxes, it's difficult to know where else to look.
Accident investigators very definitely utilise a process of elimination.
You eliminate the things that you know that didn't contribute and then eventually, you'll get to the three or four or five things that did contribute to it.
Haueter here.
An unexpected call brings a surprising new lead.
One of the survivors has made an alarming allegation.
Really? Hi.
Welcome aboard.
You're down to the left.
Good evening.
How are ya? You are right in the back there.
One of the passengers reported that she thought she smelled alcohol on the first officer.
The first officer helped board the passengers.
A very gracious gentleman by all accounts, but she was disturbed by that.
The NTSB immediately adds aviation psychologist Malcolm Brenner to the investigative team.
We were actually alarmed.
We were very concerned that alcohol might turn out to be a factor in this case.
As soon as the team came back, I was launched, I think, the next day, almost immediately, to follow up and see what I could learn about the first officer.
A check of the first officer's driving record turns up more damning evidence.
Arrested twice for drunk driving.
For us, that is a major trouble sign.
That would suggest that there is a serious alcohol issue.
Lab tests are ordered to check for alcohol in the blood and urine of both pilots.
Let me know when you get the results.
- You're handling flying this leg, right? - You bet.
If the first officer was impaired when flight 2286 left Denver, that could explain the aircraft's tragic fate.
So, this is the route from Denver to Durango and here is where they hit the ground.
While they wait for lab results, investigators examine other evidence.
They hope recordings of the controller's conversations and transponder data can help them build a better picture of what was happening in the cockpit.
Trans-Colorado 2286, climb and maintain flight level 230.
Climb and maintain 230.
Thank you.
For most of the flight, there's no sign of a problem.
They didn't provide a mayday, any calls or any warnings like that.
Trans-Colorado 2286, cross the Durango one mile, fix at or above 14,000, cleared for runway 2-0 approach.
So now they're here.
We're down to 14,000 and we're cleared for the approach, 2286 Wilco.
But as the plane approaches Durango investigators spot something very strange.
They're dropping really fast.
Planes usually descend at a slow, steady rate of about 1,000 feet per minute.
Flight 2286 is descending at nearly triple that rate.
A much faster, much greater rate of descent approach than normal and so we're kind of wondering what was happening here.
Did alcohol impairment cause the pilot flying to make a reckless descent? Was the first officer flying drunk? Blood and urine tests are in.
Technicians have carefully checked samples from both pilots.
Despite suspicions raised by a passenger's tip-off, the results show no alcohol in the first officer's blood.
He was not drinking before the crash.
- Hello, Sir.
- The passenger must have been mistaken.
Either she smelled cologne or something else but, fortunately, it turns out alcohol was not an issue.
And I was relieved to find out that the first officer had dealt with that issue and it did seem to be in a commendable way.
What went wrong in the final minutes of flight 2286 is still a mystery.
We're down to 14,000 and we're cleared for the approach, 2286 Wilco.
Investigators now wonder about the instructions the crew received from air traffic control.
Were they told to fly an approach that was simply too risky for the conditions that night? The air traffic recording soon gives investigators their answer.
Trans-Colorado 2286, for your approach to Durango, would you rather shoot the ILS or will the approach to runway 2-0 be sufficient? The recording reveals that the controller did not dictate the approach to Durango.
Instead, he gave the crew two options.
The first was to fly an easy path around the airport to a runway equipped with an instrument landing system, or 'ILS', that guides the pilots down.
The second option, runway 2-0, has no ILS.
It requires pilots to descend in a series of steep steps to avoid mountains north of Durango.
The way that the air traffic controller handled the flight was exemplary.
They offered them the choice of which runway and which instrument procedure that they would like to do but left the decision, appropriately, to the captain.
We'll plan on using the 2-0, thank you.
For some reason, the captain chose to fly the steeper, more difficult approach.
We have hills here, here and here.
Why didn't they take the easy way down? These are normally very, very well-trained pilots, so what could have been the factors that occurred here? Thanks for coming.
Have a seat.
Malcolm Brenner hopes other Trans-Colorado pilots can explain the decision.
So, tell me about Captain Silver.
What kind of a pilot was he? Everyone agrees that Stephen Silver was a skilled pilot, but he was known to want to rush at times.
A number of people noted he tended to push to keep the aeroplane on time.
He was a person that pushed the limit on things, as a personality type.
There's even a letter in his file praising him for his ability to get in and out of an airport in just seven minutes.
Listen, when we get to Durango, I'd like to get in the air again as quickly as possible.
It shouldn't be a problem.
We won't need to refuel.
Let's see what else we can do to get these folks back on time.
The captain's concern over lateness helps explain his chosen approach to Durango.
So we're still doing the straight in to runway 2-0, OK? Runway 2-0.
Sounds good.
Control, we'll plan on a DME to runway 2-0.
Cleared for runway 2-0 approach.
Estimates show that the straight-in approach to runway 2-0 saves about ten minutes of flight time.
To me, it seems almost instinctive that he thought this is his way to catch up and get in faster.
Folks, this is your captain speaking.
We'll soon be landing in Durango.
I think that this captain felt as though it was his responsibility to try to get the passengers where they wanted to go when they were expected to be there, and he took that very personally.
The information explains why Captain Silver chose such a challenging approach on a snowy night.
But it doesn't explain the crash.
Other pilots say they often use the very same runway approach.
Professional pilots do these kinds of approaches with great regularity.
So I suspect that they were aware of the challenging nature of the approach.
Tricky approach.
But lots of pilots say they did it all the time.
To try to understand where things went wrong, investigators compare the flight path pilots are supposed to follow for runway 2-0 to the actual descent of flight 2286.
- What they discover is astonishing.
- Look at this.
They're way too steep, even for this approach.
The comparison reveals that, after opting for a challenging approach requiring a steep descent, the Trans-Colorado pilots flew in even steeper.
And here, they're finally on the right flight path but they just keep dropping.
It's like they had no idea of their altitude.
We don't know exactly what happened, obviously, 'cause we don't have the recorded information we do in a modern aeroplane.
It's quite clear that the crew descended below the published approach.
Why exactly, we don't know.
Investigators wonder if the plane's altimeters or any other flight instruments might have malfunctioned.
Were there possibly internal failures? Do we see anything clogging the lines that provide pressure to the instruments? And so you look at all the connections.
A thorough inspection turns up nothing.
All the control systems were properly hooked up and should have been functional at the time.
We found nothing mechanically wrong with the aircraft.
Once again, the investigation hits a wall.
- Do you have the runway? - There's still no explanation for why two trained airline pilots flew their plane into a hillside just - short of the Durango airport.
- Damn! We're too low! - Pull up! - No! No! No, no, no! Hold on! In Denver, Malcolm Brenner digs into the qualifications of the two pilots on Trans-Colorado Flight 2286.
People don't normally go out with the intention of crashing aeroplanes.
So what was it in their training, their background, something in their personal history, anything else that could have caused them to make this error? The file of First Officer Ralph Harvey, the pilot who was flying, contains some disturbing details.
Tested for captain.
Proficiency test.
Instrument flying.
Below average.
Brenner uncovers a history of failed tests.
He learns that the first officer's mediocre flying actually cost him a job.
He was released from a previous employer because he failed to be able to upgrade in complex instrument flying conditions.
This particular individual was very challenged to do this on a regular basis and do it well.
So, we're still doing the straight in to runway 2-0, OK? Runway 2-0.
Sounds good.
Nothing we can't handle? Brenner suspects that flying the challenging approach to Durango in limited visibility was more than the first officer could manage.
I think, as long as the weather is good, he would probably be a very adequate pilot.
His trouble is when things start to happen very fast, it seems like.
But there's another troubling question.
The duties of airline pilots are usually carefully divided.
Landing lights? - On.
- The first officer was flying.
Speed set.
So the captain should have been monitoring the instruments and watching for mistakes.
This first officer had a history of having some difficulties with complex instrument procedures and so this would be a first officer that a captain would want to watch pretty closely.
It seems Captain Silver was not watching closely.
The evidence suggests he never corrected his first officer's mistakes.
For some reason, the captain didn't take over and save the plane.
I need to know why.
They contact friends and family, trying to piece together what the pilots were doing in the hours leading up to their last flight.
They're looking for any sign of stress or fatigue.
Fatigue can be insidious and a lot of it depends on what was the quality of sleep that he got the night before.
Brenner learns that the captain had dinner with his parents the night before the crash.
It looks like plenty of time to rest.
As far as anyone can tell, Captain Silver spent a quiet evening with family, then went home to sleep.
- What a day.
- Less than 24 hours later, he would fail to correct his first officer's perilously quick descent towards Durango.
After an exhaustive investigation, Brenner and his colleagues still don't know why.
What are we missing here? When you find a mechanical failure, it's obvious.
Something fatigued and broke.
And because that part failed, this happened.
Trying to really understand why people make mistakes can be very difficult.
The case seems to have hit a dead end - Hello? - .
until a phone call - changes everything.
What? What exactly did she say? We got a call from a member of the public.
This was a pilot who said that he had met with a woman who he believed was the fiancee of the captain who died in the accident.
What a day.
Investigators learn that, on the eve of the crash, Captain Silver may not have spent a quiet night alone after all.
- Time to have a bit of fun.
- Now you're speaking my language.
They hear a story about drug use and a woman who is alleged to have made a stunning admission.
I'm sure glad we buried him right after the accident.
The night before, we'd done a bag of cocaine.
You realise this is a very serious allegation.
The best way I could describe - the investigators was astounded.
- Thank you.
It's very disturbing to have a drug involved.
Cocaine was something that we hadn't really expected.
We've got a new story on the captain.
The stunning claim contradicts what many friends and family have said about the dedicated pilot.
Everything that we received on the captain of the aircraft is that he was well-trained, a good pilot, certainly had all the experience and there were no issues.
And the captain's fiancee denies the entire story.
A letter from her lawyer contends she wasn't even with the captain the night before the crash.
The ingestion of these drugs, you just don't see this with professional pilots.
Though the captain's blood has already been analysed, the test wasn't sensitive enough to detect cocaine use.
The first one was done by the hospital and their testing was at a very high level.
They were - looking only for overdose.
- Call the lab.
We need to run the captain's samples again.
Subsequently, the specimens were sent to the toxicology lab in Oklahoma City.
In that case, they go down to very sensitive levels.
Technicians conduct a second and then a third toxicology test on samples from the deceased captain of flight 2286.
Because of the seriousness of it, they wanted to make sure that there wasn't laboratory error involved.
The results leave no room for doubt.
They reported that, in the blood, there had been cocaine in the recent past.
He wasn't asleep.
He was up, using cocaine.
If, as the evidence suggests, the captain had been partying all night and had come to work, he probably got very limited sleep.
He was in withdrawal by the time of the accident.
And many of the things that are characteristic of withdrawal, such as a slowing of reaction and a general feeling of not being well, would not help him on this type of approach.
Brenner now understands the shocking chain of errors, negligence and criminal behaviour that led to the crash.
This accident begins with a captain who was in no shape to fly.
His first flight of the day is scheduled to depart at 1:15pm.
He must report for duty at 12:30.
Seven hours later, after three flights, the twin turbo-prop is running late and the captain is feeling the effects of cocaine withdrawal.
Listen, when we get to Durango, I'd like to get in the air again as quickly as possible.
It shouldn't be a problem.
We won't need to refuel.
Because of his actions, his deliberate actions, he presented himself for duty not qualified.
And that goes against everything that professional pilots are taught.
Trans-Colorado 2286, for your approach to Durango, would you rather shoot the ILS, or will the approach to runway 2-0 be sufficient? Control, we'll plan on a DME to runway 2-0.
The captain's habit of rushing leads him to choose a risky approach when a safer option is available.
What a horrible decision.
In withdrawal, he's not half the pilot he is when he's alert.
The struggling first officer is soon overwhelmed by the difficult approach.
But the captain doesn't notice.
Do you have the runway? For this individual to have allowed himself to fall into this condition is very, very hard for me to understand.
With one pilot struggling at the controls and the other battling fatigue, neither is watching the plane's altitude.
- Damn! We're too low! - Pull up! No! No! No, no, no! Once they lost track of their altitude, they didn't have a chance.
The NTSB's final report cites the first officer's poor flying and the captain's use of cocaine as contributing causes of the Trans-Colorado crash.
The drug revelations make headlines across the country.
It's thought to be the first time that a commercial pilot involved in a crash has tested positive for drugs.
I was totally naive to the situation with Steve.
It totally shocked me.
The FAA soon implements important changes, including more frequent drug testing for pilots.
As a result of this accident, to a large extent, drug testing programs became practical and they've been very, very successful.
To my knowledge, there has not been any other case of drugs involved in an airline accident.
The Durango crash leads to other reforms, as well.
Regulations now require black boxes in all commuter planes and any plane with ten or more seats must have a ground proximity warning - device.
- Pull up.
to alert pilots if they're flying too low.
In the case of this accident, the Safety Board reconstructed that a ground proximity device would have given warning at least 23 seconds prior to the collision.
And in aviation, that actually is quite a bit of time.
For survivors like Susie Welch, painful memories linger.
But she knows her ordeal and the terrible loss of life were not in vain.
Flying is safer now than it ever was because they're making these changes.
And so I think that's That makes me really happy.
Captioned by Ai-Media ai-media.