August 17, 2005

Cyprus president says Greek crash “peculiar”

By Brian Williams

ATHENS (Reuters) - Cyprus's president said on Wednesday the
weekend crash of a Cypriot airliner was "peculiar" with only
one precedent, indirectly suggesting a link to U.S. golfer
Payne Stewart's similar plane death six years ago.

President Tassos Papadopoulos did not name the 1999 Learjet
crash that killed Stewart and five others as the precedent in
question, but Greek authorities have consistently highlighted
it as their only known close comparison to Sunday's crash.

The fate of Helios Airways' Boeing 737, which crashed near
Athens killing all 121 on board after apparently losing cabin
pressure or oxygen, continues to perplex investigators.

A link with the Stewart crash could shed some light on how
the Helios plane flew for a lengthy period on autopilot and out
of radio contact, seemingly pilotless.

Stewart's much smaller plane flew across half of the United
States after losing radio contact before spiraling groundward.

Papadopoulos, visiting Greece, said he would not hesitate
to bring in international investigators to solve the mystery.

"This is a peculiar accident. From my information sources
there has only been one other of this kind," he said after
meeting Greek Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos and
Transport Minister Mihalis Liapis, who lead the investigation.

The U.S. investigation of Stewart's accident warned of the
danger that pilots engrossed in a minor task may not have put
on oxygen masks swiftly enough when trouble broke out.


A year later a similar tragedy in Australia killed seven
miners and a pilot when their Beechcraft King Air 200 plane
lost cabin pressure after leaving Perth. It traveled on
autopilot for five hours before crashing in Queensland.

Robert Benzon, who headed the U.S. National Transportation
Safety Board probe into the Stewart case, is part of a team
from the United States looking into the Helios crash.

Investigators believe the key may lie in the Boeing's final
23 minutes as it fell from an altitude of about 34,000 feet


In that time F-16 fighter jet pilots flying alongside the
doomed aircraft said they could not see the pilot, the co-pilot
was slumped in his seat seemingly unconscious, and two unknown
people were in the cockpit apparently trying to fly the plane.

Initial autopsies have shown that many, possibly all, of
the 115 passengers and six crew were still alive, though maybe
unconscious, when the plane hit the ground.

Helios, Cyprus's first private carrier, has come under
pressure over its safety record with former passengers
complaining to the media of past scares.

Helios said on Tuesday the plane that crashed had suffered
a cabin pressure failure once before.

Cypriot police are going through the airline's maintenance
and other records in case the crash investigation leads to
criminal charges.

Yiannos Charalambous, son of co-pilot Pambos Charalambous
who was buried in Nicosia on Wednesday, said his father had
kept a diary of his time flying with Helios which was in a
leather bag he always carried with him.

"If I could get my hands on that bag much would be
revealed," the son told reporters at the burial.