Preliminary plae crash report 'in 10 days'18/08/2005 - 17:51:29
Investigators trying to determine why a Cypriot passenger jet crashed into a Greek mountainside, killing 121 people, today said they had collected almost all the information they needed and hoped to have preliminary results in about 10 days.
The mysterious crash has baffled authorities, with chief investigator Akrivos Tsolakis saying he had never encountered such a case in 50-year-long career as an airman and safety officer.
Investigators are examining whether the 115 passengers and six-member crew aboard the Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 had fallen unconscious, possibly as early as shortly after take-off. The aircraft appears to have flown from Cyprus to Athens on autopilot.
Tsolakis told The Associated Press an air traffic control diagram showed the plane had flown on automatic pilot to the Greek capital’s international airport, but at 34,000ft above the runway. It then turned and maintained a holding pattern over several islands east of Athens for more than an hour.
The plane later turned northward and eventually crashed into a mountainside north of Athens.
“What troubles us is that the automatic pilot was functioning up to a certain point, and then it was disengaged, possibly by human action,” Tsolakis said.
He said the automatic pilot had been programmed to fly the plane up to Athens’ international airport. He said it was unclear how or why it was disengaged.
“Possibly, there was human intervention. I’m not speaking with certainty, because I don’t have all the evidence yet,” Tsolakis said.
Two air force F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane when Greek authorities were unable to establish radio contact with the passenger plane, the government has said.
According to the government, the fighter pilots, who first established visual contact with the plane while it was in its holding pattern over the island of Kea, reported seeing the co-pilot slumped over the controls, apparently unconscious, and said the pilot was not in his seat. They also later saw what appeared to be two people trying to regain control of the plane.
Some answers could be provided by the contents of the plane’s flight data recorder, or black box, which has been sent to Paris for decoding. Tsolakis said he expected to receive some results from France later today.
France’s Inquiry and Analysis Bureau (BEA), which was analysing the recorder, said the box “was exposed to fire but its external appearance shows no deformations linked to the impact.”
A brush fire sparked by the crash burned through much of the debris, charring many of the bodies beyond recognition and potentially hampering the investigation.
However, the BEA stressed it would not disclose any information from the analysis as Greece was handling the investigation.
Coroners examining the remains of 118 bodies recovered from the crash site on a mountainside north of Athens said they hoped to have completed autopsies by Saturday.
Crews were still searching for three bodies, but coroner Nikos Kalogrias said they might never be found. “This is, unfortunately, the consequence sometimes of the impact of a plane crash,” he said.
Autopsy results on the 26 identified bodies have shown passengers and at least four crew members – including the co-pilot – were alive, but not necessarily conscious, when the plane went down. The body of the plane’s German pilot has not been identified, and it is unclear whether his is one of the three still missing.
The six-member team of coroners was also carrying out toxicology tests to determine whether the crew and passengers might have lost consciousness before the crash. Results of tests to determine whether those on board had inhaled carbon monoxide – which would have rendered them unconscious – were expected by the weekend.
If the results were negative, coroners would not be able to rule out that some other factor could have knocked out the passengers and crew, Kalogrias explained.
Tsolakis, the chief investigator, said the possibility the aircraft underwent sudden decompression was still being examined.
He said the investigators had received almost all the information it needed from authorities in Greece, Cyprus, Britain and other European countries about the airline company, the plane’s maintenance record, the history of the pilot and co-pilot and accident statistics.
Authorities have still not released the full account of what the fighter pilots saw, or anything about the passenger jet’s final 23 minutes of flight.
In London, the British pilots’ union urged Greek authorities to release preliminary findings.
“There have been several apparently conflicting reports and a number of statements that just don’t add up,” said Captain Melvyn Granshaw, head of the British Airline Pilots’ Association.
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