Tuesday, August 16, 2005

From combined dispatches

Aviation specialists puzzled yesterday over the cause of a plane crash that killed 121 persons in Greece on Sunday, saying they can’t understand the behavior of the flight crew or what happened to the pilot.

The plane appears to have been operating on automatic pilot for several hours. The co-pilot was unconscious in the cockpit 40 minutes before the crash, and the captain was nowhere in sight.

A Greek Defense Ministry official reported that many of the bodies recovered on a hillside Sunday evening had been frozen, supporting theories of a catastrophic loss of pressure in the airplane cabin. Temperatures at 35,000 feet, where the plane was flying, average about 68 degrees below zero.

But chief Athens coroner Fillipos Koutsaftis reported last night after performing autopsies on six bodies that all appeared to have been alive when the aircraft smashed into the hillside, perhaps after running out of fuel.

“Our conclusion is they had circulation and were breathing at the time of death,” he said, acknowledging that they might have been unconscious for some time.

Cypriot police armed with a search warrant raided the offices of Helios Airways in the coastal city of Larnaca yesterday, seeking “evidence that might be useful in a possible criminal investigation.”

Greek state television had quoted the Cypriot transportation minister as saying that the plane had decompression problems in the past. But a Helios representative said the plane had “no problems and was serviced just last week.”

Greek fighter jets were sent to intercept the airliner at 34,000 feet when air traffic controllers were unable to raise the pilots on the radio as the aircraft entered Greek airspace.

The fighter pilots saw that the airline pilot was not in the cockpit, the co-pilot was slumped over his seat and oxygen masks were dangling from the ceiling, said government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos. The air force pilots also saw two persons possibly trying to take control of the plane, he said.

But aviation specialists said pilots are trained to put on oxygen masks in the event of a loss of pressure and dive to about 12,000 feet, where there is enough oxygen for people to breathe.

Coroners said they will examine blood and tissue samples from the victims’ lungs to determine whether anything they inhaled could have caused their deaths.

Authorities were eager to recover the body of the pilot, which is missing, in hopes that it might provide clues to why he left the plane’s controls and how he died. The body of the Cypriot co-pilot reportedly was found in the cockpit.

Authorities also hope to learn more from the so-called “black boxes” that record flight data and cockpit voices.

But Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the plane was on autopilot for so long that the voice recorder — which tapes over itself every 30 minutes — may be blank.

In Washington, the executive air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association International told the Associated Press that he found it odd that the crew would not have responded better to a loss of pressure.

“It’s a very rare event to even have a pressurization problem, and in general crews are very well trained to deal with it,” he said.

Bill Waldock, an aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, pointed out that if the aircraft had sustained a severe loss of pressure, the windows should have been frosted over, as they were in the 1999 crash of a Learjet 35 that killed golfer Payne Stewart and four others. The fighter pilots were able to see inside the Helios craft.

Paul Czysz, emeritus professor of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, said the depressurization theory did not explain why the co-pilot was slumped over.

“Even if the pressurization system was failing, it doesn’t fail instantaneously. Even if it goes fast, you can seal the cabin, you’ve got all the oxygen in the cabin to breathe, you’ve got the masks, and you’ve got plenty of time to get to 12,000 feet,” he said.

The decompression theory was furthered by a man in northern Greece who on Sunday reported receiving a text message from a passenger that told him, “Farewell, cousin, here we’re frozen.”

Police yesterday arrested the man, saying they had determined that he was lying.

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