As U.S. air cargo deaths mount, the industry remains under the radar

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SHADY SHORES, Texas -- At 24, Nicholas Hibberd already was teaching others to fly, and with the hours he logged ferrying freight, this pilot's son was chasing his own dream of passenger flight.

He did not know it, but his cargo plane was terribly flawed that brisk December morning. A week before, the attitude indicator, a crucial device that shows the plane's position along the horizon, had gone haywire, aborting a flight. For days before Hibberd's cargo run, crews reinstalled and checked it.

The problems could have grounded a passenger jet filled with people. But not so for air cargo -- where delivering goods on time is industry lifeblood.

In overcast skies 34 minutes before sunrise, the Cessna 402C lost control. "The attitude indicator is, ah, is ah, not helping me out too much so I may need a little bit of help," Hibberd radioed, keeping cool amid sudden chaos. "It's very hard to fly . . ."

Losing the instrument in turbulent weather, experts say, is like driving in a pitch-black tunnel with no headlights.

The Federal Aviation Administration has ignored specific pleas to upgrade safety for a highly competitive industry plagued by a culture of cut corners, loose oversight and risky flying, a Miami Herald investigation found.

In an instant the plane crashed, killing Hibberd and thunderously raining debris upon a home in this rural town 30 miles northwest of Dallas, narrowly missing the couple inside.

His 2002 death, quietly marked with a white cross and wreath that straddle the side of the road here, is one tragic snapshot in an industry tainted with many.

From Texas to Alaska to Colorado and beyond, cargo pilots are dying in large numbers. Other cargo planes are falling from the sky in treacherous near misses, including an aged DC-3 that crashed on a bustling Fort Lauderdale street last year, its wreckage and fuel settling just yards from homes in what prosecutors now say was an illegal bandit flight.

Yet beyond loved ones left behind, few are paying attention, and the Federal Aviation Administration -- the industry's watchdog -- has ignored specific pleas to upgrade safety for a highly competitive business plagued by a culture of cut corners, loose oversight and risky flying, a Miami Herald investigation found.

The newspaper analyzed National Transportation Safety Board reports on every fatal U.S. cargo crash since 2000, along with FAA inspection and enforcement files, internal company memos, safety studies, lawsuits and industry reports. Those records, coupled with interviews with aviation experts, former government regulators and cargo pilots, reveal systemic safety breakdowns in this oft-ignored industry:

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |