We often hear less of cargo aircraft accidents than passenger jet crashes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean cargo crashes are rare. In the past few years, the rate of accidents per flight has been higher on cargo planes than passenger ones. Only on April 7, 2022, a DHL Aero Express Flight 7216 crashed on landing in Costa Rica. There were no human fatalities, yet the performing aircraft, i.e., Boeing 757, split into two. How did the accident occur? Let’s skim the details of the DHL plane crash in Costa Rica in 2022.
Background of DHL plane crash in Costa Rica
On April 7, 2022, DHL Aero Expreso operated an international cargo flight between Costa Rica and Guatemala. The cargo airline had deployed Boeing 757-25A (PCF) to perform flight DO7216 on the Costa Rica-Guatemala route. The 22.3-year-old Boeing 757-27AF, registered as HP-2010DAE, transported hazardous material with two pilots onboard.
Like any normal flight, the aircraft departed Juan Santamaria International Airport at 9:34 am local time. The destination airport was La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, about 531 miles away.
Hydraulic failure in the air
Shortly after takeoff, Boeing 757-27AF encountered a hydraulic failure while flying over the Costa Rican town of Mueller Sar Carlos. The freighter aircraft stopped climbing 10 minutes into the flight, just about 35 miles from the airport. The crew declared an emergency and requested approval to return to the air terminal. Due to the aircraft’s left hydraulic landing gear issue, the pilot and co-pilot requested an emergency landing at Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO).
The Boeing 757-200 freighter had a fuel supply enough to fly for about 2.5 hours. The pilot and co-pilot aboard the plane circled several times over the coast, holding a pattern to burn fuel. After 51 minutes in the air, the aircraft finally touched down at SJO Airport.
The emergency landing at SJO was dramatic as the 757-200 freighter veered off the runway and busted its gear. The footage shows the aircraft sliding on a collapsed left-landing gear, veering over 90 degrees to the right on taxiway Kilo. It crashed on a grassy field next to a runway in front of the Costa Rica Fire Station and split into two.
As a result of the runway excursion, the aircraft broke apart into two pieces, igniting a plume of black smoke. It suffered heavy damage; the fuselage broke in half, the tail detached, and its entire empennage split from the rest of the body.
What happened next?
As DHL B757-200F crash-landed at SJO Airport and sustained damage, the airport fire department was activated. When it crashed into the ditch, the bright yellow plane of German logistics company DHL was doused with firefighting foam. The rescue units foamed the cargo jet to avoid a spill and worked on the ditch to prevent fuel leakage into the draining system.
Fortunately, neither the pilot nor the co-pilot suffered any physical injury due to crash-landing. Both crews escaped the accident without physical harm, but one took medical tests as a precaution.
The aftermath of the DHL plane crash in Costa Rica
Following the B757-200F plane crash, the flight operator DHL Aero Expreso acknowledged the incident confirming the aircraft damage upon landing. The carrier issued a statement reporting the safety of both crew members in the incident.
The DHL plane crash in Costa Rica resulted in the closure of the air terminal for about five hours. The airport suspended operations until the emergency was cleared, affecting some 8,500 passengers and 57 commercial and cargo flights.
Both airport authorities and DHL collaborated in moving the aircraft stuck on the side of the runway. The aircraft remained there for a week after the accident but didn’t affect any operations. On April 13 and 14, San Jose Airport closed its only runway for five hours to clear the debris of the damaged B757-200 freighter.
Removing the aircraft stuck in the green area south of the kilo taxiway was not a one-step task. The mobilization team had to stabilize the aircraft’s collapsed parts, keep them on a flat size and unload the mail/packages B757 carried.
The runway closure in SJO Airport affected over 50 daily flights on April 13 and 14, including JetBlue, Aeromexico, United Airlines, LATAM Cargo, etc.
Investigation of the accident
The official investigation launched by Costa Rica includes the participation of several parties. They include the US National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) due to the crash of US-made aircraft and Panama’s aviation authorities due to the aircraft’s Panamanian registration. The airline involved, i.e., DHL’s incident response team is also working with concerned authorities in the investigation procedures.
The ICAO Annex 13 requires the state in charge of an investigation to hand over the preliminary accident report to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) within 30 days. Looking into Costa Rica’s civil aviation authority’s website, the officials haven’t published the preliminary report publicly. Costa Rica likely decided to keep the initial report confidential.
What happened to the aircraft?
The HP-2010DAE registered Boeing 757-200 has been written off due to damage beyond repair (its tail section split). The aircraft was initially a passenger aircraft on the Far Eastern Air Transport fleet, first delivered in December 1999. The aircraft went to Taiwan-based Eva Air on lease for 20 months, from May 2002 to Jan 2004. The jet was then retired from passenger service and transferred for conversion into a freighter in 2010. Getting a second life in the all-cargo realm, the aircraft joined the fleet of DHL Aero Expreso in November 2010. The jet was a workhorse of the cargo airline, ferrying mail and packages between Latin American cities.
Operated by DHL Aero Expreso on a lease, the damaged Boeing 757-200 legally belongs to Altavair, a commercial aviation finance company. It is an asset management firm that owns over 100 narrow-body and wide-body Boeing and Airbus jets.
DHL Aero Expreso
DHL Aero Expreso is a wholly-owned subsidiary of German logistic giant DHL based at Tocumen International airport, Panama. Founded in February 1996, the airline currently operates DHL-branded parcel and express services to 17 international destinations. It is the parent company of two DHL-branded carriers-DHL Ecuador and DHL de Guatemala.
On April 7, the carrier operated Boeing 757F to provide services for its DHL-branded logistic subsidiary in Guatemala. Operating for DHL de Guatemala, the aircraft was scheduled to ferry cargo to La Aurora International Airport. But B757 never made it to Guatemala due to hydraulic issues and the following crash-landing at Costa Rican airport.
- A fleet of DHL Aero Expreso
DHL Aero Expreso offers cargo services using a fleet of 8 Boeing jets. It has 2 Boeing 737-400SF (Special Freighter), 3 Boeing 77-200PCF (Passenger to Freight Conversion), and 3 Boeing 767-300ER/BCF (Extended Range).
The all-Boeing jets of Aero Expreso operate freight services to Central and South American destinations. These include Oranjestad, Bridgetown, Santiago, Bogota, Willemstand, Guayaquil, Quito, Guatemala City, Lima, San Juan, Port of Spain, Caracas, etc. The Panama City-headquartered carrier has added Miami International Airport, US, to its international freight network.
DHL de Guatemala
DHL de Guatemala is a subsidiary of DHL Aero Express, serving the DHL-branded logistics network in Guatemala. Based at La Aurora International Airport, the carrier flies to key cities in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama. Regarding its fleet, it only has one ATR 42-320F turboprop regional airliner in service.
Accidents at Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO)
Juan Santamaria International Airport (SFO) is a major air hub situated on the outskirts of the Costa Rican capital San Jose. It is the second-busiest Central American airport behind Tocumen Airport, with more than 3 million passenger movements annually. It is the primary gateway to Costa Rica and features North, South, Central America, Europe, and the Caribbean routes.
SFO Airport has witnessed four accidents, including the latest DHL plane crash in Costa Rica. The first accident was on May 23, 1998, when a Boeing 727 hit the fence at the end of the airport’s runway. The excess weight in the aircraft’s front part caused the accident as the plane crashed into a nearby field. The aircraft was performing the San Jose-Managua-Miami flight carrying 23 passengers. The leased B727-100 caught fire, but there weren’t any fatalities.
The second accident involving SANSA regional airline occurred on January 6, 1990. SANSA flight 32, operated by CASA C-212 Aviocar, was flying on the San Jose-Palmar Sur route, carrying 20 passengers and three crew onboard. Shortly after takeoff from SJO, the plane collided with Cerro Cedral mountain, killing all on board.
The next accident occurred 17 years later, on September 3, 2007. A North American Rockwell Sabreliner 70, registered N726JR, veered off the right side of the runway and spanned 180 degrees during the aborted takeoff. The aircraft busted its landing gear and skidded off into the grass. The mid-sized jet sustained significant damage, and hence it was written off.