Episode 62: Singapore Airlines Flight 006

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Summary:

As a typhoon crawled toward Taiwan, Singapore Airlines Flight 006 began its taxi toward the runway, and the flight crew was prepared for a slippery but safe departure toward calmer skies en route to Los Angeles. Before the plane was airborne, a frightening observation from the cockpit threatened the lives of every person on board. In this week's episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Stephanie walks us through the events and decisions that contributed to the first fatal flight in the airline's history and questioned how the plane ended up in a perilous position.



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Where Was Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Flying?

It was October 31, 2000, in Taiwan, and Singapore Airlines Flight 006 was scheduled to fly from Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles International Airport in California. Flight 006 originated in Singapore the day before, on October 30, where all three members of the flight crew piloted the aircraft to Taiwan; they had about 24 hours of rest time between the first and second legs of their flight. And rest time was certainly welcome for the flight crew: the journey between Taiwan and LA is typically around 14 hours, which certainly qualified it as a long-haul journey for the crew and the passengers.

Who Was Part of the Flight Crew for Singapore Airlines Flight 006?

There were three members of the flight crew on Singapore Airlines Flight 006. Captain Foong Chee Kong was 41 years old and had been with Singapore Airlines since March of 1979. He joined the airline as a cadet pilot, but his path to captain took 19 years, and it included two re-deployments to the role of air steward, or flight attendant, in the early 1980s. I couldn't find any specific reason as to why he was re-deployed to that role on two separate occasions, but he did eventually progress to first officer on the Boeing 747-300 in 1986, followed by attaining first officer on the 747-400 in 1991, and he was promoted to captain on the Airbus A310 in 1995. He was promoted to captain of the aircraft he was piloting, the 747-400, in 1998. He had 11,235 hours of flight experience during his career, with just over 2,000 of those hours in the 747-400. In the official accident report, it was noted that Captain Foong had exceeded his minimum training requirements and that those same records indicated he was an above average pilot, and the senior instructor pilot who conducted his most recent base check gave him an average rating.

First Officer Latiff Cyrano was 36 years old and joined Singapore Airlines in 1994 as a cadet pilot. He started out as a first officer on the Airbus A310 before transitioning to the Boeing 777 in 1998 and the 747 in February 2000. First Officer Cyrano had 2,442 hours of flight experience with 552 hours in the Boeing 747, and he, too, was rated as an average to above average pilot during his most recent line check.

The third member of the flight crew was relief pilot Ng (ung) Kheng Leng, who was 38 years old. Like his colleagues, he started as a cadet pilot, flew as a first officer on the A310, and was promoted to first officer on the 747 in 1995. He had 5,500 hours of experience with 4500 of those hours on the Boeing 747. He was also rated as an above average pilot.

What Aircraft Was Used for Singapore Airlines Flight 006?

The aircraft in service that night was the Boeing 747-400. This particular plane was delivered three years before in 1997, and it had just gone through a maintenance check the month before in September 2000, where records determined it was airworthy and had no known open or deferred issues.

What Was the Weather Like for Flight 006?

As passengers prepared to board their flight to the USA, Typhoon Xangsang was preparing to arrive at the airport. The typhoon was about 360 kilometers, or 580 miles, southwest of the airport that night, but the effects were certainly being felt: winds were gusting at 75 to 90 knots, which is about 85-100 miles per hour or 140 to 165 kilometers per hour. There were warnings everywhere: the Taipei Meteorological Center had issued a SIGMET, or a Significant Meteorological Information, and the Taipei Aeronautical Meteorological Center had issued gale warnings and typhoon warnings which were in effect at the time Flight 006 was preparing for takeoff. And it was pouring outside, making visibility poor at best: surface conditions were reported to be just 800 meters, which is about a half a mile— and that is on the ground.

Still, Flight 006 was ready for an on time departure. One important distinction to make here is that these weather conditions sound really serious, and they absolutely are, but airports in Asia do not always close for severe weather. It really comes down to the airport, the airlines, and in some ways regional practices. In this case, on this night, the wind speeds and visibility were still within acceptable ranges; in order for the airport to close, minimum visibility would have had to be under 200 yards, and visibility was 500-600 yards, which exceeded the minimum requirement. So as the rain came down in sheets around it, the plane taxied to the runway just after 11:00 PM.

Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Prepares for Takeoff

In addition to running through checklists, it's not surprising at all that it was the weather that carried most of the conversation between members of the flight crew. They discussed the fact that the airport in nearby Hong Kong was closed. They confirmed their departure runway, 05 Left, and Captain Foong observed some of the other aircraft traffic on the ground, saying, "Everybody waiting for each other for takeoff you see haha." Relief pilot Leng said, "Yah, it is coming in ah, the longer they delay the worse it is," and Captain Foong said, "Yah, worse if we are going to get out, if don't take off ah .going to go very slow here, ok, because you going get skid." They continued to joke a bit about the weather conditions; First Officer Cyrano said, "Turning left skidding er turning right err skidding left two seven zero," to which Relief Officer Leng said, "The weather radar will be all red ha ha."

At 11:14, Singapore Airlines Flight 006 was asked to hold just short of runway 05L, and the tower provided a final weather report: "Singapore six, for information now surface wind zero two zero at two four, gust four three." Captain Foong mentioned it was better, and Relief Officer Leng said, "Less, less gust already." Captain Foong remarked that he could see the runway, another sign the conditions were improving. At 11:15, the crew let the tower know they were ready for departure, to which the tower responded, "Singapore six roger, runway zero five left, taxi into position and hold." The cabin crew were asked to take their stations, preparing them for departure as well. The CVR picked up the sound of cabin announcements completing, checklists completing, and Captain Foong reminding his flight crew the weather was still a factor when he said, "It going to be very slippery I am going to slow down a bit, slow turn here." At 11:16 Flight 006 began its takeoff roll; the crew called out eighty knots, then V1. At 11:17, Captain Foong yelled, "Shit! Something there!" Over the next eight seconds, the CVR recorded the sound of multiple impacts before the recording stopped completely. Singapore Airlines Flight 006 had not taken off— and it was not going to.

Flight 006 Passenger Accounts

There were 159 passengers on board that evening, and aside from the weather it was a pretty standard takeoff sequence for all of them— until it wasn't. And while no one could have known exactly what was happening, the magnitude of what was happening was understood immediately. The plane burst into flames on the runway, breaking into three separate parts with the fuselage splitting in two and the tail snapping off. A photographer at the airport, Simon Kwong, said, "The aircraft was broken into three sections and seriously destroyed by fire. Even with strong winds and heavy rains I can still smell the burning." Pieces of flaming wreckage were scattered across the runway, including passengers still belted into their seats. Harald Linge said, "All of a sudden, there was a bang and chaos and flying debris and all of a sudden the tail was lying on the [left] side. The thing I remember most clearly was people on the right side dangling from their seats. It was very eerie. It was a scene from a bad Hollywood movie. I was glad I made it out alive." Harald Linge was a passenger seated toward the back of the plane; he was one of 96 people who survived the crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006.

The scene of the plane crash was devastating, especially as the rain poured down and the winds whipped around emergency workers trying to put out the flames while passengers tried to escape from what seemed like certain death. 33-year-old Doug Villerman, who was from Louisiana, said, "It felt like we bumped into something huge. It looked like the front end just fell off. From there, it just started to fall apart. I ran to the escape hatch with the stewardess but we couldn't get it open. Two feet away from me, I saw flames. Everyone was just panicking. I tried to open the escape hatch on the top just a slit and saw a lot of smoke. The fumes were just incredible. But eventually we got it open. We were just all so scared it was going to blow up." Music produce John Diaz watched the horror unfold around him as well; he said, "Flames shot up right next to me and some fellow not very far from me got, I guess, jet fuel splashed on him, because he just lit up like a torch."

Toward the back of the plane in row 61, Dr. Deborah Brosnan was happy to have a full row to herself; her husband was seated several rows behind her to make use of the same benefit. Deborah told the Irish Times that she was returning home to Portland, Oregon after a trip to Bali, where she had attended a marine biology conference. Still, she had sensed something was wrong even before the plane started its takeoff roll. She said, "It was in the middle of a hurricane, there were definitely gale force winds. Just before we took off, I looked out and saw the wings banging up and down and I remember thinking `this is bad'. Two people asked the attendants if it was OK to take off and she said `we always fly in typhoons.' The pilot's voice came on. He was very short. He just said `Fasten your seat belts, we're going.' As we were about to take off there was a bang, and then another bang and the panels of the plane fell on top of me. I had the seat belt on but I found myself sliding down against the window on to my back. I curled into a ball. I could see a flame coming. I looked up and saw a fireball coming over my head. Then everything went quiet. At first, I couldn't believe I was witnessing this. We found an exit but couldn't get it open. Someone said go forward. We climbed over the bulkhead. We slid down on to the grass and we were out." When she looked back at the plane, Deborah said she saw people hanging upside down from their seatbelts and screaming. Soon, the plane erupted into a ball of flames, and she didn't know if the people she saw survived.

Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Survivors

In total, 96 people survived, including 25 who walked away without a scratch. 39 people suffered from serious injuries, and 32 had what were classified as minor injuries. Of those who perished, 81 of the 83 total fatalities died immediately or soon after the crash, and two people succumbed to their injuries at the hospital, including one passenger who reportedly sustained burns to 100% of his body. 4 of the 16 crew members passed away; all three members of the flight crew survived. The rescue efforts were equally incredible; passenger Paul Blanchon was able to assist emergency workers with the rescue, and he recalled attempting to save a passenger who was trapped under the tail section of the plane. He said, "There was a gentleman when I got out of the plane who was trapped underneath the tail section of the plane. Obviously, we could not lift the tail to get the tail off the ground. There was smoke blowing flames from the other and it was engulfing the tail section. It seemed like forever for the emergency crews to get there, but I'm sure it was only a few minutes. It was a very major disaster." Although the plane was fully equipped with safety features including slides, they weren't usable that night due to the winds; one passenger was forced to jump from the very top of the plane, and she injured her spine during the fall. The official accident report noted that the crash was not survivable for anyone who was seated in the middle of the planes in rows 31-48 because when the plane ripped apart, the fire that erupted was fed by the fuel system, which was located in that part of the aircraft. The plane was ready for a 14-hour flight and had 15,000 gallons of fuel on board; there was absolutely no way to get out of the way fast enough or survive flames that overcame that section as quickly and severely as they did. Ultimately, it took a full hour to control and extinguish the fire.

Singapore Airlines 006 Press Conference and Family Briefing

Many of the people who lost their lives were burned beyond recognition, and DNA testing was required to confirm their identities in the days after the crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006. By November 2, just more than a day after the crash, grieving family members began to arrive from multiple corners of the globe to identify loved ones and seek answers. In the earliest moments after the crash, against the backdrop of the typhoon and a burning plane, executives from their airline initially told the press that there were no fatalities, which was almost immediately determined to be false. Singapore Airlines held a press conference to brief news outlets and families about the crash and their quest to find answers, which provided little comfort to many who were coming to terms with the enormous and unexpected loss. According to an ABC News article, some relatives were furious with the lack of information and the airline's apparent desire to protect their reputation as one of the safest airlines in the world; the crash was the very first fatal accident in their 28-year history. During a contentious press conference, Singapore Airlines CEO Cheong Choong Kong told the families, “There is a need for information and the need for accuracy and also the need to be considerate to the feelings of the people concerned ... we were in a difficult position." Tan Yin Leong, who lost his brother Tan Yip Thong, told Mr. Cheong, "Tell the press the true story. Don’t hide any more. Are people’s lives more important or SIA’s reputation?” Another woman also begged for answers, yelling at Mr. Cheong, “Everyone here knows who the dead are but we were still crying back in Singapore and up till now, we know nothing. You owe us an explanation!”

The passengers who lost their lives were placed in body bags that were stored next to coffins as investigators combed the crash site. Personal belongings were also identified and placed near the coffins. Religious groups within the local community arrived to pray for the deceased, with priests, nuns, and Buddhist monks offering what comfort they could. As guards looked on, one woman was described as falling to her knees sobbing when she saw the body of a passenger she had come to identify.

Why Did Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Plane Crash?

Although the weather was bad, the airport was still open and the plane was cleared for takeoff; the control tower actively monitors conditions including wind speed, visibility, and other factors like air traffic in the area, but ultimately it is up to the flight crew to decide whether it is safe to take off. If there is a problem— for example, if visibility is suddenly reduced— aborting a takeoff is an option. But the flight crew didn't abort; they made the decision to go, they reached V1 speeds, and then the place seemed to explore. I want to call back to a quote shared by one of the passengers, Deborah Brosnan, who said the captain told them over the PA system, "Fasten your seat belts, we're going." She described the statement as being very short, and it sounds almost abrupt in how it was positioned to passengers and the crew. So one question is whether they saw some kind of opening— perhaps the winds were dying down just enough, or they somehow saw some kind of a break in the clouds that might get them into the air more smoothly. But that is barely worth considering, because we know what happened next: Captain Foong said there was "something there," which seemed to indicate he saw something the plane might collide with in front of them. And it was that simple, panicked observation that turned out to be exactly what happened.

During the takeoff sequence, before it was airborne, Singapore Airlines Flight 006 slammed into a concrete barrier before smashing into construction equipment on the runway, including a crane. It was this impact that turned the plane into a fireball and scattered wreckage across 800 meters of runway. If you're wondering how in the world a 747 with a credentialed and capable flight crew could possibly encounter construction equipment on an active runway as they prepared for a transpacific flight, how the construction equipment could even be on that runway to begin with, it's a good question with a shocking answer: there was no construction equipment on runway 05L. Flight 006 was attempting to take off from runway 05R. They were on the wrong runway.

Why Was Singapore Airlines 006 On the Wrong Runway?

It would be pretty easy to jump to conclusions about how that could happen, and to be totally honest, in this case, most of those conclusions would probably be correct. So let's follow what the investigation uncovered, which shares the sequence of events and sheds some light on how the pilots navigated onto the wrong runway. Runway 05R was located adjacent to runway 05L, but it was out of service on October 31, 2000. In August 2000 a Notice to Airmen, known in aviation as a NOTAM, was issued to indicate that a portion of runway 05R would be out of service from September 13 until November 22 for construction work. The Singapore Airlines Flight 006 flight crew were aware of the NOTAM; this information was conveyed to them prior to the flight, and they were familiar with the airport. On the night of this flight, the crew was supposed to pass the runway 05R threshold marking area and continue to runway 05L for takeoff, but they didn't do that: instead, they began their takeoff roll from the closed runway.

So how did they end up there? There were a few factors at play that the investigation identified, each of which contributed to the probable cause of the plane crash. The first, and there's no surprise here, was the weather. There was a serious need for the plane to take off on time because of the typhoon; the storm itself was still hundreds of miles and hundreds of kilometers away from the airport, but planes can't take off in the middle of an actual storm. They can, though, take off before the worst of it arrives- and that was just what Captain Foong wanted to do. And the official accident report noted this: the impending weather impacted the crew's decision making, leading them to want to take off quickly to avoid getting stuck in a ground hold when the worst of the storm finally did reach the airport. But part of the challenge here is that even if they were actively trying to keep their takeoff on schedule, they still shouldn't have been on that runway.

The flight crew were interviewed within hours of the accident, and this was precisely what they told investigators: they believed they had lined up with the correct runway, but they could not see anything on the runway that might indicate there was something like construction equipment that they could crash into. All three of the pilots were sure that they were on the right runway, and part of the reason they were confident is because they confirmed with air traffic control that they were cleared for takeoff from runway 05L. And this is where lack of visibility really took its toll: in order for the tower to see the plane and confirm its location, they would have needed approximately 1600 meters of visibility. However, with the storm conditions, they only had 800 meters— just like the crew did. The tower could not get a visual on the plane, so when they were cleared it was under the assumption the aircraft was where it should be, and that was not the case.

Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Investigation

Investigators decided to simulate the crash sequence at the airport, using an actual 747 to push back from the gate as they taxied to the runway based on the specific data they had from both the FDR and the CVR. The FDR told them exactly how fast they should be going, and they aligned that data to the recorded conversation from the CVR to match observations made verbally by the crew. What they discovered is shocking in its own right: the crew was doing everything they were supposed to be doing. From the CVR, it was clear the environment was relaxed and focused. There were no audible indicators of stress from anyone in the cockpit. They were taxing slowly to ensure they didn't attempt to go faster than weather and runway conditions would allow, which meant the plane was creeping toward runway 05L. While Captain Foong monitored speed, First Officer Cyrano was watching the airport maps, and Relief Officer Leng was focused on wind speed. This was a critical job because planes typically take off into headwind, which allows them to attain maximum lift. Crosswinds can really impact a plane at takeoff, and strong enough crosswinds can even knock a plane off course. With winds as strong as they were and the typhoon bearing down on them, making sure the takeoff roll was initiated at a moment that would incorporate headwinds while eliminating the potential for crosswinds to blow them off course was essential. And as the flight crew managed these tasks, they lost something that was just as important: they lost situational awareness. They were so focused on speed, maps, and wind that they did not closely pay attention to the signs and lights that would have told them they were off track before they even started down the wrong runway.

With that in mind, investigators also observed that runway 05R was out of service, but there were no lights indicating that it was closed. If the pilots really through they had taxied past runway 05R and arrived in front of runway 05L, the sea of green lights along the wrong runway would not have corrected them. If they somehow missed the huge sign indicating they were at runway 05R, there was only one other indicator that would have told them something was wrong— and believe it or not, it was something they both noticed and discussed.

On the 747, there is a tool called the paravision display, or the PVD, which is used to visually confirm alignment with a runway. The PVD is programmed to connect to a beacon on the runway that will be used for takeoff, and on the display in the cockpit it will show as centered to the beacon when the plane is in the right spot for takeoff. The PVD was not centered to the beacon on October 31 as they prepared for takeoff; it was very clearly aligned to a beacon to the left of the plane, which was where it was programmed to connect: that beacon was aligned to runway 05L. First Officer Cyrano called attention to the fact the PVD was not lined up, to which Captain Foong said, "never mind we can see the runway, not so bad," which indicated he was going to use visual cues to confirm he could see the runway, which was true: he couldn't see the whole runway, but he could see that he was at a runway. This ended up being the final mistake in a series of errors that proved fatal for 83 people: shortly after that exchange, Flight 006 began its takeoff roll and crashed.

Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Victims

There were 83 victims of the crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006.

Jeffrey Platz was traveling back home after a business trip. He had told his girlfriend, Cherrie Horner, that there was a typhoon approaching as the plane prepared for takeoff. Cherrie stayed optimistic about his safety as reports confirmed there were survivors, and she saw a picture of him on a gurney when searching for news online, but when a man who fit his description was discovered wearing the same watch he had just purchased, she knew he was among those who passed away.

Tina Yeh, from California, had been visiting family in Taiwan and was not able to make it out of the aircraft before it burst into flames. She was a Yale graduate and an IBM employee At home, she was remembered as being a hard worker who loved her family; before the trip, she purchased new luggage for her father so that he would have a suitcase with wheels that would make his trip easier. Her co-worker Cindy Chock said, "I'm still in shock, but I'm trying to make sure I have all the good memories of her. I'm still not quite believing that I won't see her again."

Singapore Airlines Flight 006 Legacy

Ultimately, Singapore Airlines accepted responsibility for the crash of Flight 006, placing blame squarely on the flight crew and calling it human error. Four days after the crash, CEO Cheong Choong Kong said, “They are our pilots. That was our aircraft. The aircraft should not be on that runway. We accept full responsibility." All three pilots were held in Taiwan for 52 days after the accident before being released; although they were not under arrest, they were held to ensure they would comply with the investigation and in case they were needed for questioning. Both Captain Foong and First Officer Cyrano lost their jobs. The legacy of the crash led to swift improvements to aviation safety; recommendations that were made and implemented were increased frequency of communication between a flight crew and the tower during bad weather; a requirement that flight crews report each of their movements to the tower during bad weather, which helps ensure the tower knows their precise location; updated checklists that require visual confirmation that the plane is at the correct runway before takeoff; and improvements at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport to bring the airport to compliance with safety regulations, as their radar system was not operational during the time of the crash. Each of these improvements is essential from the perspective of aviation safety; the fact they were identified and implemented demonstrate that even though the crash was clearly preventable, no life that was lost was in vain.

In an interview 10 years after the crash, First Officer Cyrano was interviewed about the aftermath of the accident. Of the weeks after the crash, he said, “We stayed in different locations and moved around, as the Taiwan media were trying to track us down and each day, the tabloids ran big stories of the accident. It came to a point where security personnel were assigned to us.” Ultimately, he went on to become a consultant for Lufthansa before beginning a career as a lecturer for the Diploma in Aviation Management & Services at Temasek Polytechnic’s (TP) Engineering School in Singapore. Of that night, he said, “I was stunned when I saw the plane lying on its belly without the landing gears. The aircraft had broken up and its skin was burning away. But the most important thing was making sure everyone was evacuated safely. It was an accident. My conscience is clear and I managed to turn things around by positioning things differently."

For one flight attendant, Farzana Abdul Razak, she shared the struggled with depression and anger after the crash that claimed the lives of some of her colleagues. In an interview in 2017, she shared that one pilot reached out to her after the crash to apologize to her, but she couldn’t' accept that call; she wasn't ready to hear from him, and she never connected with him. With time having passed, she said, "It was a terrible, terrible accident, just a tragic accident. I'm doing much better, and I hope they are, too."

Show Notes:

In this episode, we share listener-submitted phobias: do you have anything in common with our community? We also wrap up with some good news from our world; don't forget to share yours with us for a possible mention on a future episode!

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Stephanie Hubka
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Singapore Airlines Flight 006

The wreckage from Singapore Airlines Flight 006. Source: Tailstrike

Singapore Airlines Flight 006

Officials survey the site of the crash. Source: Wikipedia

Singapore Airlines Flight 006

Wreckage from Singapore Airlines Flight 006. Source: Wikipedia