Sudden descent of Atlas Flight 3591 still a mystery in fatal Houston crash

After a grim Sunday morning spent sifting through the wreckage of Flight 3591 in the marshes outside of Houston, crash investigators shifted their focus from search-and-rescue to recovery, as all three crewmembers on board the Atlas Air Worldwide aircraft were confirmed dead following the Saturday afternoon crash. The aircraft was nearing the end of a routine run from Miami to Houston for Amazon Air.

According to flight tracking site FlightRadar24, Flight 3591 was about 40 miles southeast of George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), making its final approach at about 6,300 feet in altitude, when it made a mysterious and rapid descent until the tower lost radar contact at about 12:45 p.m. on Feb. 23. There was no evidence the crew reported any problems or had declared an emergency, although minutes before the incident the pilots had been talking with IAH air traffic controllers about maneuvering around a line of thunderstorms in the area.

Though only two bodies have yet to be recovered as of this morning, investigators have determined that the crash was too destructive for anyone to have survived. The Houston Chronicle reported this morning that the names of the Atlas Air pilots at the controls were Capt. Ricky Blakely and First Officer Conrad Jules Aska. The third person on board was Capt. Sean Archuleta, a pilot for a regional airline called the Mesa Air Group, who had been riding in the jumpseat of the 767-300 freighter at the time.

“We are tremendously shocked and saddened at the loss of our fellow crewmembers and the jumpseat rider in the tragic crash,” said Capt. David Bourne, director of airline division of Teamsters Local 1224, which represents the Atlas pilots. “We all understand the risks associated with our profession, as with any other; yet we are humbled when such tragedies occur.” He also offered “heartfelt thanks” to the first responders, including many private citizens, who rushed to the scene to offer help in the immediate aftermath.

Atlas Air CEO Bill Flynn, who flew to the crash site to help with investigators, said “this is a sad time for all of us,” adding that Atlas’ “primary focus is working to provide the families of those affected with care and support.” The carrier said yesterday that it has established a Family Assistance Center staffed with specialists to support the families.

The aircraft manufacturer Boeing also released a statement on Sunday, saying the company “is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the crew” of Flight 3591, and that it extends “our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the crew and stand ready to support the Atlas Air team.” Boeing has already sent a team to Houston to provide technical assistance to NTSB during the investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the main goal now, other than reclaiming the rest of the human remains, was to find the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, which may be buried deeply in the mud on the edge of Trinity Bay, where the freighter made final impact.

Several media outlets reported that a video clip taken by a surveillance camera at a nearby jail happened to record the last five seconds of Flight 3591, which is now being pored over by investigators. The video has not yet been released to the public, but Bloomberg reported that an NTSB official described the aircraft as being is a “steep nose-down attitude” during its rapid descent, showing “no evidence of the aircraft trying to turn or pull up at the last moments.”

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