American Airlines Flight 965

American Airlines Flight 965 was a regularly scheduled flight from Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida, to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport in Cali, Colombia. On December 20, 1995, the Boeing 757-200 flying this route (registration N651AA[1]) crashed into a mountain in Buga, Colombia, around 9:40 pm killing 151 of the 155 passengers and all eight crew members.[2][3]

American Airlines Flight 965
Wreckage of N651AA at the crash site
DateDecember 20, 1995
SummaryControlled flight into terrain caused by navigational error and pilot error
Sitenear Buga, Valle del Cauca, Colombia
3°50′45.2″N 76°06′17.1″W
Aircraft typeBoeing 757–223
OperatorAmerican Airlines
IATA flight No.AA965
ICAO flight No.AAL965
Call signAMERICAN 965
Flight originMiami International Airport, Miami, Florida, United States
DestinationAlfonso Bonilla Aragón Int'l Airport, Cali, Colombia
Fatalities159 (initially 158)
Survivors4 passengers (initially 5) and a dog

The crash was the first U.S.-owned 757 accident and is currently the deadliest aviation accident to occur in Colombia.[4][5] It was also the deadliest accident involving a Boeing 757 at that time,[6] but was surpassed by Birgenair Flight 301 which crashed seven weeks later with 189 fatalities.[7] Flight 965 was the deadliest air disaster involving a U.S. carrier since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.[8]

The Colombian Special Administrative Unit of Civil Aeronautics investigated the accident and determined it was caused by navigational errors by the flight crew.[9]


A Boeing 757 (N650AA), identical to the one involved in the accident

The aircraft was a Boeing 757–223 registered N651AA. Its first flight was on August 12, 1991, and was delivered to American Airlines on August 27, 1991; it was the 390th Boeing 757 built. The aircraft was powered by two Rolls-Royce RB211 engines.[10][11]

Flight history


At that time, Flight 965 mainly carried people returning to Colombia for the Christmas holiday, vacationers, and businesspeople.[12] A winter storm in the Northeast United States caused the airline to delay the departure of the airliner for 30 minutes to allow for connecting passengers to board the flight, and seasonal congestion caused further delay.[13] Flight 965 took off at 6:35 pm EST (23:35 UTC), nearly two hours late.[9]:2[14][15]

The cockpit crew consisted of Captain Nicholas Tafuri (57), and First Officer Donald "Don" Williams (39).[16] Both pilots were considered to be highly skilled airmen. Captain Tafuri had more than 13,000 hours of flying experience (including 2,260 hours on the Boeing 757/767), and First Officer Williams had almost 6,000 hours, with 2,286 of them on the Boeing 757/767.

Captain Tafuri had flown with the U.S. Air Force from 1963 to 1969 and served in the Vietnam War, and joined American Airlines in 1969. First Officer Williams had flown with the U.S. Air Force from 1979 to 1986, and joined American Airlines in 1986.

Going off-course

Cali's air traffic controllers had no functional radar to monitor the 757, as it had been blown up in 1992 by the terror group FARC.[17] Cali's approach uses several radio beacons to guide pilots around the mountains and canyons that surround the city. The airplane's flight management system (FMS) navigation computer already had these beacons programmed in, and should have, in theory, told the pilots exactly where to turn, climb, and descend, all the way from Miami to the terminal in Cali.[15]

Since the wind was calm, Cali's controllers asked the pilots whether they wanted to fly a non-precision straight-in approach to runway 19 rather than coming around for a precision ILS-approach to runway 01. The pilots agreed to the straight-in approach, hoping to make up some time. The pilots then erroneously cleared all the programmed approach waypoints from the flight plan in the aircraft FMS. When the controller asked the pilots to report passing over the Tulua VOR (identified as "ULQ") north of Cali, it was no longer programmed into the FMS flight plan, so they had to find the VOR identifier "ULQ" in their approach chart. In the meantime, they extended the aircraft's speed brakes to slow it down and expedite its descent.[9]

By the time the pilots had selected the Tulua VOR identifier "ULQ" into the FMS flight plan they had already passed over it. The pilots then tried to select the next approach waypoint Rozo in the FMS. However, the Rozo non-directional beacon (NDB) was identified as "R" in their approach chart but not in the FMS. Instead the FMS database used a different naming convention and identified the Rozo NDB as "ROZO". Colombia had also duplicated the identifier "R" for the Romeo NDB near Bogotá 150 nmi (170 mi; 280 km) from Cali, which is not in line with the ICAO standard effective from 1978 to only duplicate identifiers if more than 600 nmi (690 mi; 1,100 km) apart. By selecting "R" from the waypoint list, the captain caused the autopilot to start flying a course to Bogotá, resulting in the airplane turning east in a wide semicircle. The pilots then attempted to correct this by turning back to the south. By the time the error was detected, the aircraft was in a valley running roughly north–south parallel to the one they should have been in. The pilots had put the aircraft on a collision course with a 3,000-meter (9,800 ft) mountain.[18] The air traffic controller, Nelson Rivera Ramírez, believed that some of the requests of the pilots did not make sense, but did not know enough non-aviation English to convey this.[19]


Twelve seconds before the plane hit the mountain, named El Diluvio (the Deluge),[20] the ground proximity warning system (GPWS) activated, announcing an imminent terrain collision and sounding an alarm. Within a second of this warning, the first officer disengaged the autopilot, and the captain attempted to climb clear of the mountain. Within two seconds of the warning, take-off power was selected, and in the next second, pitch was increased to 20.6° upwards, causing activation of the stick shaker.[21] The stick shaker mechanically vibrates the control yoke (the "stick") to warn the flight crew of an imminent aerodynamic stall.

When take-off power was selected, neither pilot had remembered to disengage the previously deployed speed brakes, which were fully extended and significantly reduced the rate of climb. At 9:41:28 pm EST, the aircraft struck trees at about 2,720 metres (8,920 ft) above mean sea level on the east side of the 2,700-meter-tall (9,000 ft) mountain. The last record on the flight data recorder indicated that the plane was flying at 187 kn (346 km/h; 215 mph) and with a pitch attitude of almost 28°. The crash was 9.7 km (6.0 mi; 5.2 nmi) south of Tulua VOR and 28 km (17 mi; 15 nmi) north of the approach end of runway 19 at Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport.[9] Initially, the aircraft cleared the summit, but struck the trees with the tail and crashed shortly after the summit.

Five passengers, all seated within two rows of each other, survived the initial impact, but one died two days later of his injuries.[22] In addition to the four human survivors,[23] a dog, which had been in a carrier in the cargo hold at the time of the crash, survived the accident.[24]

Crash investigation and final report

The crash was investigated by the Special Administrative Unit of Civil Aeronautics (Spanish: Aeronáutica Civil) of the Republic of Colombia,[9] with assistance from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), as well as other parties, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Allied Pilots Association, American Airlines, Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, and Rolls-Royce Engines.

The investigations revealed that neither the Boeing fixed-base simulator nor the flight management system simulator could be backdriven with the data obtained directly from the accident airplane's flight data recorder (FDR). Because the 757 flight simulators could not be backdriven during the tests, whether the airplane would have missed the mountain/tree tops if the speedbrakes had been retracted during the climb attempt could not be determined with precision,[9] but the final report stated that if the flightcrew had retracted the speedbrakes one second after initiating the escape maneuver, the airplane could have been climbing through a position that was 46 m (150 ft) above the initial impact point. Because the airplane would have continued to climb and had the potential to increase its rate of climb, it might well have cleared the trees at the top of the mountain.

The Civil Aeronautics prepared a final report of its investigation in September 1996, which was released through the U.S. NTSB.[25]

In its report, the Civil Aeronautics determined these probable causes of the accident:

  1. The flight crew's failure to adequately plan and execute the approach to runway 19 at SKCL and their inadequate use of automation
  2. Failure of the flight crew to discontinue the approach into Cali, despite numerous cues alerting them of the inadvisability of continuing the approach
  3. The lack of situational awareness of the flight crew regarding vertical navigation, proximity to terrain, and the relative location of critical radio aids
  4. Failure of the flight crew to revert to basic radio navigation at the time when the flight management system-assisted navigation became confusing and demanded an excessive workload in a critical phase of the flight

In addition, the Civil Aeronautics determined that these factors contributed to the accident:

  1. The flight crew's ongoing efforts to expedite their approach and landing to avoid potential delays
  2. The flight crew's execution of the ground proximity warning system escape maneuver while the speedbrakes remained deployed
  3. FMS logic that dropped all intermediate fixes from the display(s) in the event of execution of a direct routing
  4. FMS-generated navigational information that used a different naming convention from that published in navigational charts

The Civil Aeronautics's report also included a variety of safety-related recommendations to the involved parties (number of individual recommendations in parentheses):[9]

Investigators later labeled the accident a nonsurvivable event, citing the impact forces and subsequent destruction of the aircraft.[9]:15,55[15]


Scavengers took engine thrust reversers, cockpit avionics, and other components from the crashed 757, using Colombian military and private helicopters to go to and from the crash site. Many of the stolen components reappeared as unapproved aircraft parts on the black market in Greater Miami parts brokers.[26] In response, the airline published a 14-page list stating all of the parts missing from the crashed aircraft. The list included the serial numbers of all of the parts.[26]

In 1997, U.S. District Judge Stanley Marcus ruled that the pilots had committed "willful misconduct"; the ruling applied to American Airlines, which represented the dead pilots.[27] The judge's ruling was subsequently reversed in June 1999 by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which also overturned the jury verdict and declared that the judge in the case was wrong in issuing a finding of fault with the pilots, a role which should have been reserved for the jury only.[28]

American Airlines settled numerous lawsuits brought against it by the families of the victims of the accident. American Airlines filed a "third-party complaint" lawsuit for contribution against Jeppesen and Honeywell, which made the navigation computer database and failed to include the coordinates of Rozo under the identifier "R"; the case went to trial in United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami. At the trial, American Airlines admitted that it bore some legal responsibility for the accident. Honeywell and Jeppesen each contended that they had no legal responsibility for the accident. In June 2000, the jury found that Jeppesen was 30% at fault for the crash, Honeywell was 10% at fault, and American Airlines was 60% at fault.[29]

An enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) that could have prevented the accident was introduced in 1996.[30][31][32]

Since 2002, aircraft capable of carrying more than six passengers are required to have an advanced terrain awareness warning system.[33][34]

As of August 2021, American Airlines continued to operate the Miami-Cali route, as American Airlines Flight 921, operated by Boeing 737-800 aircraft.[35]

Notable passengers

The U.S. government encountered difficulty while trying to distinguish Americans from non-Americans, as many passengers held dual citizenships.[36]

  • The events of Flight 965 were featured in "Lost", a season-two (2005) episode of the Canadian TV series Mayday[15] (called Air Emergency and Air Disasters in the U.S. and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and elsewhere around the world). The episode was broadcast with the title "Crash on the Mountain" in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Asia.
  • The accident was also featured on Why Planes Crash on MSNBC, in a 2015 episode titled "Sudden Impact".
  • The 2018 episode "Disastrous Descents" of the TV series Aircrash Confidential, produced by WMR Productions and IMG Entertainment, featured the accident.
  • A documentary film released in 2021, American 965,[37] directed and produced by a former British Airways captain with Fact Not Fiction Films, suggests a different possible cause for the accident.[38][39]
  • Outlook, a BBC World Service radio program, had an episode titled "The Father and Daughter Finding Closure After a Plane Crash", which consisted of interviews with two of the survivors of the crash.[40]
  • The accident is featured prominently in the 2011 novel The Sound of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez.

See also

Similar accidents


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  2. "ASN Accident Description (American Airlines-965)". Aviation Safety Network. December 20, 1995. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  3. AA965 Cali Accident Report Aeronautica Civil
  4. Ranter, Harro. "ASN Aircraft accident Boeing 757–223 N651AA Buga". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  5. Ranter, Harro. "Colombia air safety profile". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  6. Ranter, Harro. "Boeing 757". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  7. Ranter, Harro. "ASN Aircraft accident Boeing 757–225 TC-GEN Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  8. Acohido, Byron (January 18, 1997). "American Airlines jet crashes in the Andes". The Seattle Times. Retrieved May 6, 2009.
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  11. "N651AA American Airlines Boeing 757–200". Retrieved January 4, 2020.
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  14. "Cali Accident Report". Retrieved May 30, 2019.
  15. "Lost". Mayday. Season 2. Episode 5. 2004. Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic Channel.
  16. "The List of the 164 People on Flight 965." Associated Press at The New York Times. Saturday December 23, 1995. Retrieved on May 6, 2009.
  17. Mickolus, Edward F.; Simmons, Susan L. (1997). Terrorism, 1992–1995: A Chronology of Events and a Selectively Annotated Bibliography. ABC-CLIO. p. 904. ISBN 978-0-313-30468-2.
  18. "AOPA "Lessons from Cali" Article". Archived from the original on February 14, 2006. Retrieved February 14, 2006.
  19. "The AA965 Cali accident". Georgia Institute of Technology. Archived from the original on June 16, 2007. Retrieved March 29, 2008.
  21. "B752, vicinity Cali Colombia, 1995". SKYbrary Aviation Safety. April 5, 2021. Archived from the original on February 3, 2016. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
  22. Sider, Don (January 8, 1996). "Miracle on the Mountain". People. Retrieved June 22, 2009.
  23. Dussan, Michelle (July 30, 2021). "Experience: I survived a plane crash that killed 151 people". The Guardian. Retrieved July 30, 2021.
  24. "Four Survive American Airlines Crash in Colombia". AP NEWS. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  25. "NTSB Report Summary". National Transportation Safety Board. Archived from the original on February 13, 2009. Retrieved March 29, 2008. Note: passenger number on NTSB summary is 156, vs. 155 on final report
  26. Bajak, Frank (December 8, 1996). "Bogus parts plague airline industry". Sunday News. pp. A9. Retrieved December 8, 2021 via Associated Press.
  27. Wald, Matthew L. "American Airlines Ruled Guilty Of Misconduct in '95 Cali Crash." The New York Times. Friday September 12, 1997. Retrieved on August 24, 2009.
  28. "Cali Crash Case Overturned". CBS News. CBS. Associated Press. June 16, 1999. Retrieved August 30, 2009.
  29. "Crash of American Airlines Boeing in Failure Knowledge Database". Hatamura Institute for the Advancement of Technology. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
  30. Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) – Honeywell Aerospace Engineering Archived October 2, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  31. "Accident Overview". Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved June 16, 2020.
  32. Phillips, Don (May 5, 1996). "Cali Crash Questions Safety of Automated Flight". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 16, 2020.
  33. "Installation of Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) Approved for Part 23 Airplanes, Advisory Circular 23-18" (PDF). Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. June 14, 2000. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
    Note: Original text copied from U.S. FAA Circular AC23-18
  34. "Sec. 121.354 – Terrain awareness and warning system". Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  35. "Flight history for American Airlines flight AA921". Flightradar24. Flightradar24. Retrieved June 16, 2020.
  36. "Number of survivors reported drops to 4 Finding how many Americans on board difficult, official says." Associated Press. December 23, 1995.
  37. "American 965 (2021)", IMDb, retrieved December 28, 2021
  38. "American 965 Documentary Film". Retrieved December 28, 2021.
  39. "Investigative documentary 'American 965' opens in Los Angeles this week exposing shocking new evidence". Los Angeles Issue. July 9, 2021.
  40. "Outlook – The father and daughter finding closure after a plane crash", BBC Sounds, December 16, 2021, retrieved December 28, 2021
External image
Pre-crash photo taken from
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