Pilots likely lost control of the plane carrying Amazon cargo before the crash killed all 3 on board, according to an initial review of the cockpit recording

  • An Atlas Air cargo plane transporting Amazon goods crashed in Texas on February 23, killing all three people on board.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board has finally extracted the plane's so-called black boxes from the crash site.
  • The NTSB said on Tuesday that its preliminary review of the cockpit audio found that the pilots most likely lost control of the plane.

The National Transportation Safety Board has reached some early conclusions about what happened to Atlas Air Flight 3591, which crashed in Texas on February 23, killing all three people on board.

After a lengthy search for the plane's so-called black boxes, the NTSB published an initial review of the cockpit voice recorder on Tuesday. It said the nearly two-hour recording indicated that the pilots most likely lost control of the Boeing 767-300 cargo jet, which was transporting goods for Amazon and the US Postal Service. Eighteen seconds later, the recording ended, the NTSB said.

Finding the black boxes was especially challenging, as the cargo plane crashed in "muddy marshland," the NTSB said. Dive teams were dispatched to find them.

Read more: Amazon Air had its first deadly crash in its few years of operations — and their contract airline has a history of operational hiccups and labor problems, pilots say

Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB's chairman, predicted it would take more than a year of work to determine the cause of the crash, Flying magazine reported.

"This seems to be very much a mystery," Sumwalt said, according to the magazine. "But the NTSB has 52 years of experience solving such mysteries, and I'm confident we will get to the bottom of this."

The NTSB also said in its announcement of the preliminary review (emphasis added):

  • "The recording included the final portion of the flight; however, the quality of the audio is poor."
  • "There are times during the recording when the content of crew discussion is difficult to determine, at other times the content can be determined using advanced audio filtering."
  • "The crew was in communication with air traffic control and were being provided radar vectors for the runway 26L approach into George Bush Intercontinental Airport."
  • "Crew communications consistent with a loss control of the aircraft began approximately 18 seconds prior to the end of the recording."

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement on February 23 that the plane, which was flying from Miami to Houston, lost contact about 30 miles southeast of Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

"The aircraft was in what I would characterize as a normal descent," Sumwalt said at a press conference in late February, according to Transport Topics. "When it got to about 6,300 feet, it then began a very, very rapid descent."

The FAA then issued an alert notice. There was no distress call.

Atlas Air pilots Capt. Ricky Blakely and First Officer Conrad Jules Aska, as well as Mesa Airlines Capt. Sean Archuleta, who was riding in the jump seat, died in the crash.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected," Bill Flynn, Atlas Air's CEO, said in a statement on February 24. "This is a sad time for all of us. Our team continues to work closely with the NTSB, the FAA and local authorities on the ground in Houston. We would like to commend the efforts of all of the first responders. We sincerely appreciate their efforts and support in the investigation."

NTSB investigators and members of the recovery team retrieving the flight-data recorder.
NTSB/Flickr/Public domain

Thirteen pilots who work for airlines that Amazon Air contracts with have told Business Insider that their pay and benefits fall below industry standards.

But Daniel C. Wells, an Atlas Air captain and the president of the Airline Professionals Association, Teamsters Local 1224, emphasized in a statement to Business Insider that the cause of the crash remains unknown and that speculation should be avoided.

"We do not know what caused the tragedy in Texas," Wells said. "Our union is focused only on caring for the pilots' families, our crew members and their families and toward supporting the NTSB's investigation. We hope others will do the same.

"The legitimate concerns we raised in interviews done well before the accident have not changed. However, we want to caution everyone that our comments should not be misconstrued so as to imply any connections to or to speculate as to the cause of the tragic crash of GTI 3591."

Are you a pilot who works at Air Transport Services Group or Atlas Air and fly Amazon Air cargo jets? Contact the reporter at rpremack@businessinsider.com.