Flight 965 departed from Miami International Airport
on December 20, 1995
, bound for Cali
. It was a Boeing 757
carrying 156 passengers and 8 crew members. At 9:40 PM, just five minutes before its scheduled arrival, the plane went down in the Andes
, in the first fatal 757 incident in U.S. history, and the worst American air disaster since the downing of Pan Am flight 103
seven years before. Only four passengers and a dog survived the crash.
Colombia's Aeronautica Civil took on the investigation of the crash, with the assistance of the American NTSB and FBI. The circumstances of the investigation were complicated by the fact that the area of the crash was controlled by leftist guerrillas. While authorities were still able to recover the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, there was still plenty of speculation that the aircraft may have crashed due to an act of terrorism.
Cali's air traffic controllers had no radar to guide the 757's approach, so the pilots had to land the plane using the airport's instrument approach. Unlike the newer Instrument Landing System, Cali's approach uses several radio beacons to guide pilots around the mountains and canyons that surround the city. The airplane's flight management system already had these beacons programmed in, and should have, in theory, told the pilots exactly where to turn, climb, and descend, all the way from Miami to the terminal in Cali.
Since the weather was fair, Cali's controllers asked the pilots if they wanted to fly a different, more direct approach into the airport. The pilots agreed, and were told to check back in over Tulua, north of Cali. Tulua wasn't programmed into the computer, and so they had to pull out their maps to find it. In the meantime, they extended the aircraft's spoilers to slow it down and expedite its descent.
By the time they found Tulua's coordinates, they had already passed over it. They didn't realize this until they had already programmed the waypoint into the autopilot, and noticed that the airplane was turning left in a wide semicircle. So they fed the autopilot the Cali airport's coordinates instead, putting the aircraft on a collision course with a 3,000m mountain.
Nine seconds before the plane hit the mountain, the ground proximity warning system kicked in, and began blaring "PULL UP! PULL UP! PULL UP!" The captain and first officer grabbed the yoke and throttles, powering up the engines and pulling the nose up, but the spoilers made it impossible for the aircraft to climb, and it ended up making a spectacular belly flop, nose up, into the side of the mountain.
The blame has flown freely following this crash. American filed a lawsuit against Jeppesen and Honeywell, who made the navigation computer and failed to include the coordinates of Tulua. Cali's old approach system and lack of radar have both been blamed. Many pilots have blamed the lack of a flight engineer in modern cockpits, which places a greater workload on the two pilots in front. Many blamed the pilots for not studying the Cali approach before attempting to land there. Boeing has been blamed for not equipping its spoilers to automatically retract when the aircraft accelerates, a standard feature on Airbuses.
But the pilot's famous last words say it all:
"We got fucked up here. Where are we headed?"