American Airlines Flight 965 crashes north of Cali, Colombia killing 159.
American Airlines Flight 965 was a regularly scheduled flight from Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida, to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport in Cali, Colombia. On December 20, 1995, the Boeing 757-200 flying this route crashed into a mountain in Buga, Colombia, killing 151 out of the 155 passengers and all eight crew members. Flight 965 was the deadliest air disaster involving a U.S. carrier since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. Five passengers, all seated within two rows of each other, survived the initial impact, but one died two days later of his injuries. In addition to the four human survivors, a dog who had been in a carrier in the cargo hold at the time of the crash, also survived the incident.
The Colombian Special Administrative Unit of Civil Aeronautics investigated the accident and determined it was caused by navigational errors by the flight crew.
At that time, Flight 965 mainly carried people returning to Colombia for the Christmas holiday, vacationers and businesspeople. A winter storm in the northeast United States caused the airline to delay the departure of the airliner for thirty minutes to allow for connecting passengers to board the flight, so Flight 965 pushed back from Gate D33 in Miami at 5:14 pm, and then taxied to runway 27R, but seasonal congestion caused the 757 to take off at 6:35 pm, 1 hour 21 minutes late.
The cockpit crew consisted of Captain Nicholas Tafuri, age 57, and First Officer Donald Williams, age 39. Both pilots were considered to be highly skilled airmen. Captain Tafuri had more than 13,000 hours of flying experience and First Officer Williams had almost 6,000 hours. The cabin crew consisted of Purser Pedro Pablo Calle and Flight Attendants Magdalena Borrero, Rosa Cabrejo, Teresa Delgado, Gilberto Restrepo, and Margaret “Maggie” Villalobos. All cabin crew personnel were born in Colombia and were veterans from Braniff International Airways who had moved to Eastern Air Lines and then to American Airlines, when the routes were transferred from one airline to the other. They had voluntarily chosen the flight, as a prerogative awarded by seniority, to spend Christmas time with their families in Bogotá.
Cali’s air traffic controllers had no functional radar to monitor the 757, as it had been blown up in 1992 by the terror group FARC. 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 wind was calm, Cali’s controllers asked the pilots whether they wanted to fly a straight-in approach to runway 19 rather than coming around to runway 01. The pilots agreed, hoping to make up some time. The pilots then erroneously cleared the approach waypoints from their navigation computer. When the controller asked the pilots to check back in over Tuluá, north of Cali, it was no longer programmed into the computer, and so they had to pull out their maps to find it. In the meantime, they extended the aircraft’s speed brakes to slow it down and expedite its descent.
By the time the pilots found Tuluá’s coordinates, they had already passed over it. In response to this, they attempted to program the navigation computer for the next approach waypoint, Rozo. However, the Rozo NDB was identified as R on their charts. Colombia had duplicated the identifier for the Romeo NDB near Bogotá, and the computer’s list of stored waypoints did not include the Rozo NDB as “R”, but only under its full name “ROZO”. In cases where a country allowed duplicate identifiers, it often listed them with the largest city first. By picking the first “R” from the list, the captain caused the autopilot to start flying a course to Bogotá, resulting in the airplane turning east in a wide semicircle. By the time the error was detected, the aircraft was in a valley running roughly north-south parallel to the one they should have been in. The pilots had put the aircraft on a collision course with a 3,000-meter mountain. The air traffic controller, Nelson Rivera Ramírez, believed that some of the requests of the pilots did not make sense, but did not know enough non-aviation English to convey this.
Twelve seconds before the plane hit the mountain, named El Diluvio, the Ground Proximity Warning System activated, announcing an imminent terrain collision and sounding an alarm. Within a second of this warning the first officer disengaged the autopilot, and the captain attempted to climb clear of the mountain; however, neither pilot had remembered to disengage the previously deployed speed brakes, which reduced the rate of climb. At 9:41:28 pm Eastern Standard Time it struck trees at about 8,900 feet MSL on the east side of the mountain. The crash was six miles south of Tuluá VOR and 28 miles north of the approach end of runway 19 at Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport. During the investigations, it was found that neither the Boeing fixed-base simulator nor the flight management system simulator could be backdriven with the data obtained directly from the accident airplane’s flight data recorder. Because the 757 flight simulators could not be backdriven during the tests, it could not be determined with precision whether the airplane would have missed the mountain/tree tops if the speedbrakes had been retracted during the escape attempt. However, the final report stated that if the flightcrew had retracted the speedbrakes one second after initiating the escape maneuver, the airplane could have been climbing through a position that was 150 feet above the initial impact point. Because the airplane would have continued to climb and had the potential to increase its rate of climb, it might well have cleared the trees at the top of the mountain.
Scavengers took engine thrust reversers, cockpit avionics, and other components from the crashed 757, using Colombian military and private helicopters to go to and from the crash site. Many of the stolen components re-appeared as unapproved aircraft parts on the black market in Greater Miami parts brokers. In response, the airline published a 14-page list stating all of the parts missing from the crashed aircraft. The list included the serial numbers of all of the parts.
In 1997 U.S. District Judge Stanley Marcus ruled that the pilots had committed “willful misconduct”; the ruling applied to American Airlines, which represented the dead pilots. The judge’s ruling was subsequently reversed in June 1999 by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which also overturned the jury verdict and declared that the judge in the case was wrong in issuing a finding of fault with the pilots, a role which should have been reserved for the jury only.
American Airlines settled numerous lawsuits brought against it by the families of the victims of the accident. American Airlines filed a “third-party complaint” lawsuit for contribution against Jeppesen and Honeywell, which made the navigation computer database and failed to include the coordinates of Rozo under the identifier “R”; the case went to trial in United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami. At the trial, American Airlines admitted that it bore some legal responsibility for the accident. Honeywell and Jeppesen each contended that they had no legal responsibility for the accident. In June 2000, the jury found that Jeppesen was 30 percent at fault for the crash, Honeywell was 10 percent at fault, and American Airlines was 60 percent at fault.
An enhanced ground proximity warning system was introduced in 1996, which could have prevented the accident.
Since 2002, all planes with more than six passengers are required to have an advanced terrain awareness warning system.
As of November 2017, American Airlines still operates the Miami-Cali route, but as American Airlines Flight 921 and using a Boeing 737-800.