Just 20 years ago today, a McDonnell DouglasDC-9 took off from Miami for an hour and a half flight to Atlanta. On board were 110 passengers and crew, ranging from four years old to 84. Included in the passenger manifest was San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver, who was coming off of a playoff year with the Chargers. Unfortunately, the airplane and the 110 people onboard never made it to Atlanta.
ValuJet was founded in 1992 as a low cost carrier and began operations the following year. The carrier grew tremendously in its first few years, with a southern network focused on sun destinations in Florida, and a low cost model to attract a growing market. The carrier purchased older DC-9s from other airlines and focused on cutting costs at every corner. The airline outsourced almost everything it could and gave crew bare bones training.
This business model caused trouble. In 1995 the Department of Defense rejected a bid by ValuJet to fly military personnel, citing maintenance issues with the company. In the beginning of 1996, the FAA sent an internal memo, which to put simply, called for the grounding of the airline for re-certification. The FAA was well founded in their concerns. In 1994 ValuJet airplanes performed 15 emergency landings, in 1995 that number rose to 57 and for the first four months of 1996 the number reached 57 again. It was so bad that in February of 1996 the FAA required ValuJet to receive FAA approval before adding any new aircraft or routes. Clearly something was not right with the airline.
On May 11th, 1996, ValuJet flight 592 departed from gate G2 in Miami. At the controls were experienced crew, Captain Candalyn Kubeck, who had 8,200 hours, and First Officer Richard Hazen, who had more than 11,000 hours of experience. The flight was scheduled for an hour and a half to the company’s hub in Atlanta. With the flight crew was three flight attendants and 105 passengers. The flight took off and began its climb to their cruising altitude normally. Six minutes after takeoff passengers in the cabin began smelling smoke. Meanwhile, the pilots in the cockpit heard a loud bang in their headsets and experienced a drop in the electrics. Quickly the situation grew out of control. Thick smoke billowed into the cabin and with the loss of electrics, the flight attendants opened the cockpit door to notify the pilots, violating procedure. The pilots requested an emergency return to Miami and then the nearest airport as the fire and smoke thickened. Witnesses on the ground saw the plane begin to turn steeply and nose dive toward the Florida everglades. At 2:14pm, 31 minutes after push back from the gate, the aircraft crashed nose down into the Everglades, killing all onboard instantaneously.
The NTSB investigated the crash and found the cause of the fire was the improper storage of an oxygen generator by Valujet maintenance contractor SabreTech and the transport of aircraft tires in the airplane’s cargo hold. The cargo hold was designed to suppress any fire, however the tyres provided fuel for the fire to grow and escape the cargo hold. The NTSB found that the majority of the blame should be placed on SabreTech for improper transport and storage of the generators but also found ValuJet to blame for their lack of supervision of their contractor.
For ValuJet, the carrier was grounded a month after the crash and wasn’t allowed to resume service till the end of September. The following year, ValuJet purchased the smaller AirTran Airways and reverse-merged with the carrier to hide the tattered Valujet name. AirTran was eventually purchased by Southwest Airlines in 2011. A memorial for the victims is located eight miles south of the crash site with 110 concrete pillars, one for each victim.
The crash of Valujet 592 sent shockwaves through the industry and showed the FAA was not doing enough to protect the flying public. It also helped to create changes in the industry that has led to better fire protection in cargo holds and made flying safer for the public.