August 14, 2005

Greece Crash Plane May Already Have Been Flying Tomb

ATHENS -- A Cypriot airliner that crashed in Greece may already have been a flying tomb when it plunged to earth with some of the 121 people aboard already either dead or unconscious, early indications suggest.

Sunday's crash, the worst air disaster in Greece and the worst involving a Cypriot airline, perplexed aviation experts astounded by what appeared to have been a catastrophic failure of cabin pressure and or oxygen supply at 35,000 feet -- nearly 10 kilometers (six miles) up, higher than Mount Everest.

There was also mystery over the last minutes of the Helios Airlines Boeing 737 flight which was declared "renegade" when it entered Greek air space and failed to make radio contact, causing two F-16 air force jets to scramble to investigate.

All 115 passengers and six crew died, most burned beyond visual recognition, when the plane, with neither pilot in control, spiraled down in a death dive into a mountainous area about 40 km north of Athens.

The plane was on a flight from Larnaca in Cyprus to Prague with a stop in Athens. An airline spokeswoman and Greek authorities denied some media reports that many of those on board were children.

Airport officials in Cyprus said flight HCY522 left Larnaca at 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) on Sunday and lost contact at 10:30 a.m.

Greek Defense Ministry officials said 90 minutes elapsed between the alert first being raised at 10:30 a.m. and the plane crashing at 12:03 p.m.

Greek government spokesman Theodore Roussopoulos said the F-16 pilots sent to investigate reported that with the pilots out of action there may have been a last-gasp effort by others on the plane to bring it back under control.

"The situation was characterized renegade, meaning the aircraft was not under the control of the pilots," Roussopoulos told reporters, explaining how the crisis unfolded after the plane failed to make radio contact.

"At a later stage, the F-16s saw two individuals in the cockpit seemingly trying to regain control of the airplane," Roussoupoulos said.

"The F-16s also saw oxygen masks down when they got close to the aircraft. The aircraft was making continuous right-hand turns to show it had lost radio contact."

A passenger on the doomed plane said in an SMS text to his cousin in Athens: "The pilot has turned blue. Cousin farewell, we're freezing."


Reuters photographer Yannis Behrakis reported from the crash site that dozens of bodies were still strapped into their seats, some with the remnants of oxygen masks over their faces.

"Two charred bodies were still hugging each other," he said.

The plane broke into many pieces on impact, with the two engines 500 meters away from each other, the cockpit a further 200 metros away and the tail broken off a further distance away.

Greece's defense ministry said it suspected the plane's oxygen supply or pressurization system may have malfunctioned.

Loss of cabin pressure was identified as the probable cause of two similar but smaller-scale air crashes in recent years.

Pro-golfer Payne Stewart and five others were killed when their Learjet aircraft crashed in the United States in 1999 after flying for more than four hours without radio contact.

In 2000 a plane crashed in Australia after flying for more than an hour from 25,000 feet up with no sign of life on board.

Experts told Reuters it was extremely rare for a plane to lose oxygen, and that emergency systems should have kicked in.

"The pilots should have had their masks on," a retired British pilot who did not wish to be named told Reuters. "Why they didn't put them on is the big mystery."

"A loss of pressurization in the cabin is in itself a rare event but to go as far as it incapacitates the pilot is hugely rare," the retired pilot said.

Greek media speculated a toxic gas from possible faulty air-conditioning could have incapacitated the two pilots before they knew they were in danger.

One of the F-16 pilots said he could not see the captain in the cockpit and his co-pilot appeared to be slumped in his seat.

A spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency, Daniel Holtgen, based in Cologne, Germany, said the cause of the crash was likely to be a combination of factors:

"It is highly unlikely that the loss of cabin pressure alone would cause such an incident. There would have to be other contributing factors."