Copa Airlines Flight 201
A Copa Airlines Boeing 737-200 similar to the aircraft involved in the accident.
|Date||June 6, 1992|
|Summary||Faulty instrument readings leading to nosedive and in-flight breakup|
|Site||Darién Gap, Panama
|Aircraft type||Boeing 737-204 Advanced1|
|Flight origin||Tocumen International Airport|
|Destination||Alfonso Bonilla Aragón Int'l Airport|
Copa Airlines Flight 201 was a Boeing 737-200 that was making a flight en route from Tocumen International Airport in Panama City to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport in Cali, Colombia, on the night of June 6, 1992. Flight 201 flipped and crashed in the Darien Gap just minutes after its departure from the airport.
The accident of Flight 201 is the deadliest airliner disaster in the history of Panamanian aviation, and the first and to date, the only fatal disaster in the history of Copa Airlines in the last 50 years.2 Initially, the flight seemed to have similarities with other incidents involving the Boeing 737 in the 1990s, such as United Airlines Flight 585.
An investigation later determined that the flight crashed due to faulty instrument readings and several contributing factors, including insufficient training.
The aircraft was a 12 year-old twin-engined Boeing 737-204 Advanced, tail number HP-1205CMP piloted by Captain Rafael Carlos Chial, 53, and First Officer Cesareo Tejada. The flight attendants on the flight were Iris Karamañites, Flor Díaz, Vanessa Lewis, Xenia Guzmán and Ramón Bouche.3 Copa 201 was carrying 40 passengers and 7 crew. The jet was manufactured in 1980 and entered service with Britannia Airways with tail number as G-BGYL. The aircraft was acquired by Copa Airlines as a result of the leasing agreement that had both companies in the 1990s, and the aircraft was still wearing a hybrid Britannia/Copa livery (full Britannia branding but with "Copa" titles on the forward fuselage and tail) at the time of the accident.
On the night of June 6, 1992, the aircraft took off from Tocumen International Airport in Panama City for a flight to Cali, Colombia with 40 passengers and seven crew members.2 Among its passengers were Colombian merchants conducting business in Panama.2 At 8:45 PM, Capt. Chial requested permission from Tocumen air traffic control to fly a different route because of severe tropical storms, taking the plane over Darién Province. A few minutes later, the pilot radioed Tocumen air traffic control again, announcing his intention to return to his original route.2
At 8:54 PM, Tocumen air traffic control received a second message from Capt. Chial, who reported problems of avoiding severe weather and requested permission to turn back to the original route, which was granted. Two minutes later, Flight 201 entered a steep dive of an angle of 100 degrees to the right and rolled uncontrollably to the ground, until it exceeded the speed of sound and broke apart in mid-air as a consequence. During the last seconds of the flight, Capt. Chial and Co-Pilot Tejada tried to level up the aircraft in a desperate attempt to save the plane, but it crashed and exploded in a jungle area of the Darien Gap at the speed of 400 knots (460 miles per hour), killing all 47 passengers on board instantly. 4
At 8:57 PM, Tocumen air traffic control radioed flight 201 with no answer from the aircraft. Seconds later, Tocumen ATC declared a full emergency in the airport, and informed the Colombian ATC at Bogota of the situation. At dawn the next day, search aircraft were sent to Flight 201's last known position.2 After eight hours, searchers spotted the first pieces of wreckage in the jungle of the Darien Gap. Because of the remoteness of the area and the difficulty of access, it took rescue personnel 12 hours to reach the site.2 After they reached the crash site, the investigations to find the causes of the crash began.
The crash killed 4 Colombian traders who boarded the flight back to Cali, along with an employee of Carvajal Ltd. that was traveling with his wife and daughter.
Initially, the team were concerned about the cause of the crash, because it bore some similarities to the crash of United Airlines Flight 585, which happened a year earlier in Colorado, United States. This crash also involved a Boeing 737-200. In that case, investigators considered the possibility of a serious design flaw in the Power Control Unit (PCU) of the 737 rudder system, which was causing uncommanded deflections, but it was not officially confirmed until four years later, after the incident of Eastwind Airlines Flight 517.
The cockpit voice recorder was recovered and flown to Panama City, then flown to the United States for analysis by the National Transportation Safety Board.2 However, NTSB analysts discovered that the tape was broken due to a maintenance error. Crash investigators had better luck with the flight data recorder, which showed the plane was in a high-speed dive before it broke up.2
The trouble was later traced to a faulty wiring harness to the artificial horizon and attitude indicating instruments, which had an intermittent short circuit due to a pinched wire. As a consequence, it caused the indicator to mislead Capt. Chial into believing he was banking left, prompting him to bank to the right. This eventually rolled the aircraft and caused it to go into a steep dive, with no chance of recovery.2
Also, the tilt switch was found at the scene of the accident in the position of both in VG-1, (both on VG-1). Investigators determined that the tilt switch was moved from the normal position to VG-1, causing crew to find intermittent errors of the flight attitude in their flight instruments.
Specifically, the investigation committee found that probably the attitude indicator Emergency (Stand-by) was available to the flight crew during the intermittent failure of Capt. Chial instruments systems (as the post-impact damage presented by the emergency indicator indicated that it was operating at impact with the ground), but it was not successfully used to identify the errors in the primary flight attitude instruments and to maintain control of the flight, because the airline' training and simulation procedures were made in a different cabin configuration from the aircraft involved, probably causing confusion.
Furthermore, the team found that the standardizing on the fleet cabs was a factor in the accident, because the flight crew repeated previous actions learned in the simulator to select an alternate source of guidance that it would have been appropriate for some of the Copa airplanes with an VG auxiliary font; but on the accident aircraft, the movement of the VG switch to the position of both in VG-1 (both on VG-1) resulted in the loss of reference from VG-2, and further confusion to the pilots.33
The possibility of rudder deflection in flight was discarded as a possible cause of the accident, but it was registered on the Boeing 737 rudder issues as an "accident with suspicious rudder deflection".
Copa had to reorganize the pilot and simulation training procedures after the crash, because it didn't show the difference between the aircraft and the crew' resource management in sufficient detail to give the crew knowledge to overcome intermittent errors in the indication of attitude and to maintain control of the aircraft.
Also, the airline had to reconfigure the working form of the fleet, to the extent that it became one of the most modern and safest airlines in America. The accident remains as the deadliest plane crash in the history of Copa Airlines and the Panamanian aviation (As of 2013).
As of September 2010, Flight 201 still exists as a valid flight number with the same flight path, but is now operated by an Embraer E-190.5
- List of accidents and incidents on commercial airliners grouped by location
- Boeing 737 rudder issues
- "HP-1205CMP COPA Boeing 737-204(A) - cn 22059 / ln 631 - Planespotters.net". planespotters.net. Retrieved 2008-09-06.
- "NOVA: The Mysterious Crash Of Flight 201". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2010-07-28.
- "47 Killed in Crash of Panama Airliner". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-08-16.
- El Tiempo (June 11, 2012 5:12 AM). "Explosion en avion: fallecen 47 personas". Retrieved June 11, 2012 5:12 AM.
- PlaneCrashInfo.Com - COPA Flight 201 Entry
- Airliners.Net - Pictures of the plane when it was owned by Britannia Airways
- MyAviation.Net - Picture of the plane when it was owned by Copa Airlines
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
- AirDisaster.Com - COPA Flight 201 Entry
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