Preliminary analysis of air traffic control communications with the crashed Atlas Air Boeing 767-300ER freighter near Houston indicates that the crew was trying to avoid a weather system during the approach.
Meteorological data for the airport around the time of the accident, 12:40 on 23 February, points to good visibility but winds from the north-west gusting to 24kt.
The crew of the aircraft, operating as flight 3591 from Miami, had informed Houston approach control that they were descending through 17,800ft via the LINKK area navigation pattern, which initially takes the aircraft westbound over the Gulf of Mexico from the GIRLY to the LINKK waypoints.
Approach control instructed the 767 to “fly the runway 26L transition”, before advising that there was “light to heavy” precipitation moving eastbound, appearing to identify its location as VANNN, an approach fix for 26L.
“So once you get in closer, if you need to go vector around it, we’ll be able to accommodate that,” the controller tells the crew. The aircraft, at this point, had been in the vicinity of LINKK which is crossed at around 15,000ft before turning north-west to the airport.
The crew subsequently advised, some 2min later, that they would “go on the west side” of the airport, but were told that this would be difficult because there would be “a bunch of departures” heading in that direction.
“OK then, we’ll go the east side,” the crew replied, according to air-ground communication records archived by LiveATC.
At around 12:37 a controller informed an aircraft – the identify of which is unconfirmed, but possibly the 767 – that there would be “vectors to runway 26L” and that there would be “a turn prior to the weather ahead”.
Approach control also advised another aircraft, United Airlines flight 1788, also following the 26L transition, about the weather situation, adding: “The first guy’s going around it so I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to do the same thing [for you].”
No further confirmed contact was recorded with the 767 which, after turning west for its approach at around 8,000ft, rapidly lost height crashed into Trinity Bay some 60km south-east of the airport.