Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

As controversial as ever

Tempers flared after Egyptian and French investigators provided differing conclusions for the 2004 Flash Airlines crash. Amirah Ibrahim reports

With families of the victims in the audience, a press conference announcing the results of investigations into a 2004 Flash Airlines crash near Sharm El-Sheikh, that killed 148 people, turned tense this week, as French and Egyptian investigators gave differing explanations for the tragedy.

Leading Egyptian investigator Shaker Kelada said none of the four technical failure hypotheses to explain the plane's sudden sharp veering had been conclusive. "Those scenarios focused on technical failure at the right wing, the auto pilot, the control wheel or auto pilot indicators," Kelada said. He formally ruled out "external intervention" such as sabotage. "The final report found that the automatic pilot system had not functioned properly, and that the pilot subsequently suffered from "spatial disorientation" when the plane crashed. No single scenario of the four could be determined to be the one that caused the crash, but it was [definitely] one of them."

Spatial disorientation -- estimated to cause 15 to 20 per cent of aviation accidents -- is a frequent problem for pilots, particularly when they lose sight of visual landmarks. According to the French investigators, it was the main cause for the plane's demise. "The plane remained pilotable at all times, and we consider that pilot spatial disorientation led the plane to go right" instead of left, said Paul- Louis Arslanian, who heads the French Civil Aviation Investigation and Analysis Bureau.

Arslanian's dismissal of the Egyptian investigations stunned the Cairo press conference. "It has to be said clearly that the accident was due to a technical failure, and not the pilot's fault," said the father of co-pilot Omar El-Shafei who perished in the crash. Dressed in black, and wearing a pendant with a photo of her son, she also demanded that Kelada clearly and officially absolve the crew of any responsibility.

A visibly affected Kelada said, "we have attached Mr Arslanian's report, in which he agreed to two of the four scenarios. The point of difference between us is that he wanted to put the human factor as a main cause, which we did not see any proof of."

Other family members thought both sides were wrong. "If the investigations suggest four previously unknown technical failures, and if it took the plane only 17 seconds to crash," asked the father of one of the pilots, "how can you ask the pilots to deal with unknown problems in such a short time?" He said the blame needed to be shifted to Boeing, the plane's manufacturer.

The plane's problems began two minutes after takeoff, as the autopilot was turned on for just three seconds before being disconnected. Kelada spoke of an unspecified "event" that distracted the cockpit crew between the moments when the pilot asked for autopilot activation and when the co-pilot remarked that the plane was heading toward the right.

Investigations revealed a series of motions, including a right banking and subsequent right turn. For a few seconds, it seemed both pilots could not understand why the plane suddenly started to turn. The captain tried to turn the autopilot on again but it did not respond.

As the bank angle continued to increase, the airplane reached its highest altitude of 5,460 feet. The captain ordered the autopilot turned on, and the co- pilot responded positively, but no autopilot engagement was recorded. Several attempts by the crew to turn on the autopilot ended in failure. The crew then attempted to retard power in order to retain control over the plane, and both engine throttles were moved to idle. The nose down pitch, however, continued.

"We found indications that the crew could have been deceived by wrong auto pilot indicators," Kelada said. While the crew attempted to control the plane, thinking the autopilot was not working, the plane was in fact under the control of the autopilot. When they discovered the false indicators and actually succeeded in putting [the plane in] the right position, it was too late."

Marc Chernet, head of the group defending the interests of the victims' families, said they were "satisfied with the conclusions" of the 1,300-page Egyptian report, "even if they are not forthcoming about the precise cause of the accident." In any case, he said, "we do not believe at all that the crew suffered from spatial disorientation."

Chernet did ask, however, why the report did not feature a clear condemnation of Boeing -- the plane's manufacturer -- or include a firm recommendation to ground the Boeing 737-300 and review suggested technical failure of the wings and autopilot.

"We recommended a review of those problems, but we cannot judge a whole fleet on just one case," Kelada said.

Although there were no Boeing officials in attendance at the press conference, reporters found out that several of the families had already settled with the aerospace giant. Families of five US- French victims had obtained $1 million in compensation for each victim, while Boeing had also reached a settlement with families of 13 Egyptian victims, each of whom received $200,000 in compensation. The majority of French families had filed a lawsuit -- still ongoing -- against Boeing.

"This kind of divergence is common in this type of investigation," Arslanian said at a press conference in Paris on Sunday. He said the pilot's "lack of sleep", and the speed with which he had moved from military aviation to civil flights, had to be considered. "I will not talk of lies by the Egyptians, but of differences of assessment," he said.

Kelada's reply was that the pilot, an ex-air force pilot, already had a professional record as a commercial pilot. Arslanian and Kelada had both gone to France to present the final report to the families of the victims there.

The remains of 16 French victims returned to France on Monday. Those of 67 others were already sent home last October. Some family members have chosen to bury their loved ones at a memorial site in Sharm El-Sheikh near the scene of the crash.

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