Cargo Hold Fire: The Story Of ValuJet Airlines Flight 592

On May 11, 1996, ValuJet Airlines Flight 592 was a regularly scheduled flight between Miami International Airport (MIA) and Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Georgia. The aircraft being used for the flight was a 27-year-old McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 with the registration N904VJ.

The flight was scheduled to depart at 13:00 but was delayed as the aircraft arrived late from Atlanta, landing at 13:10. While in Miami, the plane took on cargo that included company-owned material (COMAT) consisting of a nose tire, two main landing gear tires, and five boxes containing what was labeled as being “Oxy Cannisters -‘ Empty.” The flight plan was to climb and cruise at 35,000 feet for the one-hour thirty-two-minute flight back to Atlanta.

The plane departed Miami late but everything seemed fine

After a 40-minute delay, the plane pushed back from the gate at 13:40 and taxied to Miami Airport’s runway 09L. At 14:04, air traffic control (ATC) cleared the aircraft for takeoff and instructed the pilots to contact the north departure controller. At 14:04, the first officer on the flight made radio contact with ATC, informing them that they were climbing to 5,000 feet.

Four seconds later, ATC radioed the plane and told the crew to climb and maintain 7,000 feet. The first officer acknowledged the instructions and was contacted by ATC again, telling the pilots to turn left, heading three zero zero. The first officer once again acknowledged the instructions.

The pilots heard a strange noise

At 14:10 the pilots heard a strange sound which had the captain of the flight, 35-year-old Candi Kubeck saying, “what was that?”. At the time of the peculiar noise, the aircraft was at an altitude of 10,634 feet with an airspeed of 260 knots. At 14:10, the captain can be heard saying, “We got some electrical problem,” before five seconds later, saying, “We’re losing everything.”

At 14:10, ATC advised the pilots to contact Miami on frequency 132.45 Mhz. At 14:10:22, the captain said, “We need to go back to Miami,” followed by shouts in the background of “fire, fire, fire, fire.”

At 14:10:27, the cabin voice recorder recorded a male voice saying, “We’re on fire, we’re on fire.” Again the ATC controller told the pilots to contact Miami Center. At 14:10:31, the first officer radioed ATC saying that they needed to return to Miami immediately. ASTC acknowledged the call telling the crew to turn left, heading two seven zero, and maintain 7,000 feet. The first officer again acknowledged the instructions.

ATC then radioed the plane asking about the nature of the problem, to which the first officer replied, “fire with smoke in the cabin and cockpit.” ATC responded, “Rodger that, turn left to two five zero and descend to 5,000 feet.” At 14:11:26, the north departure controller advised Miami Center that flight 592 had an emergency and was returning to Miami.

At 14:11:37, the first officer radioed to say he needed the closest available airport. The controller replied, “you are cleared to land on runway one-two,” while telling the pilots to turn left, heading one four zero. The first officer acknowledged the instructions, which was the last communication with the plane.

ValuJet Flight 593 disappeared from the radar screens at 13:42, with eyewitnesses reporting that they saw it nose dive, into the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area in the Everglades, killing all 110 passengers and crew.

The investigation

Following a fifteen-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that a fire in the cargo hold was responsible for the downing of the jet. The NTSB found that, just before taking off, expired chemical oxygen generators had been placed in the cargo compartment by ValuJet’s maintenance contractor, SabreTech. This violated Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations forbidding the transport of hazardous materials in passenger aircraft.

ValuJet workers loaded five boxes of what they believed to be empty canisters, thus making them certified safe for transport. They did not know that not only were they not empty oxygen canisters, but they were full of chemicals used to produce oxygen for passengers from the overhead service units in the event of depressurization.

When activated, the chemicals produce heat and oxygen that feeds the fire. The fact that there were also tires in the same compartment did not help matters either. The resulting fire burned cables needed to fly the plane, causing the pilots to lose control.

In 1998 the FAA issued revised standards that Class D cargo holds be converted to Class C or E and have both smoke detectors and fire suppression equipment.

Before the crash, ValuJet already had a poor safety record, and the impact of Flight 592 brought this even more to the public’s attention. Following the accident, ValuJet was grounded for several months, and when operations resumed, the public shunned it for other carriers. To get business to improve, ValuJet purchased AirTran and incorporated ValuJet into it, dropping the former airline’s name and brand.

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