Sunday, August 24, 2008

Aviation: Spanair crash recalls 1987 Detroit disaster

A US accident with remarkable similarities may hold the key

Experts investigating last week’s Spanish air crash, in which 154 people died, are reviewing a disaster in Detroit two decades ago that had striking similarities.

Mechanical failure, human error or a combination of the two are presumed to have doomed Spanair flight JK5022 as it tried to take off for the Canary Islands from Barajas airport in Madrid on Wednesday afternoon.

Initial reports that the port engine of the MD82 aircraft had caught fire as the plane hurtled down the runway appeared to have been disproved by a video that the airport has given to investigators.

The tape, which has been viewed by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, and King Juan Carlos, showed the plane reaching almost the end of the runway before struggling into the air.

It lurched to the left, then the right, plunged onto a wing tip and skidded across a field for 500 yards before exploding next to a stream.

Miraculously, 19 people, including three children, survived Spain’s worst air disaster in 25 years. The government declared three days of national mourning.

Experts from America’s National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing and the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney were helping with an investigation that has focused on a mechanical problem that had forced the plane to abandon an earlier take-off.

The pilot had told passengers that he had a “red light” and had to return to the gate.

Spanair said the problem was a minor glitch involving an air intake temperature gauge near the cockpit. The gauge was turned off and the plane cleared for take-off “in accordance with regulations”, as one airline official put it.

Experts said the gauge problem was not likely to have caused the crash, but Manuel Bautista, Spain’s civil aviation chief, said that it could have contributed to it.

“A problem with a temperature sensor may not matter at all or it can be very important,” he said, “depend-ing on what other circumstances accompany it.”

He said the aircraft must have suffered more than one kind of problem because engine failure alone would not have been enough to bring it down.

“There has been more than one breakdown,” he said, adding that modern passenger aircraft were designed to survive the loss of one engine during take-off. “I am not sure that the engine has failed.”

According to experts, any engine failure would have occurred after the aircraft reached what is known as “commitment speed”, the speed at which the pilot cannot abort take-off, whatever happens.

Whether or not an engine failed, a critical mistake may have been made in preflight planning in calculating the settings for the flaps and slats that the MD82 has on the trailing and leading edges of its wings to provide extra lift during take-off.

Another possibility is that the crew was distracted and neglected to extend the flaps and slats.

It may seem unlikely but it has happened before: experts noted striking similarities between the crash and that of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 in Detroit in 1987.

The first officer on that flight had failed to pull the lever that would have extended the MD82’s slats and flaps. The crew was apparently distracted by a late change in the departure runway, which caused the captain to miss a turn.

Like the Spanair flight, the American plane continued along the runway far longer than normal. When it finally laboured up into the air, it began oscillating from side to side until it fell sideways onto the ground and disintegrated with the loss of 154 passengers and crew. Only a four-year-old girl survived.

Five of the 19 survivors of Wednesday’s crash had been sitting towards the front of the plane, including Rafael Vidal, a 30-year-old telecoms engineer who was bumped off an earlier flight because it was full.

“Flying first class is what saved him,” said Pilar Rodriguez, his mother, claiming that the front part of the plane had been less badly affected by the explosion of the fuel tanks.

Another survivor was Anto-nia Martinez, 27, one of the stewardesses, who said from her hospital bed: “I will never fly again.”

She had been sitting in the first row and was the only crew member to survive. She suffered a broken arm, broken ribs and a head injury but did not lose consciousness. Nor, surprisingly, did she lose any hair, according to her mother, who had expected it to have been burnt. Three other survivors were said to be in a critical condition.

Many of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition, and forensic teams were taking DNA samples from relatives to help with the process of identification. About 50 sets of remains had been identified and returned to their families. An official funeral for the victims has been scheduled for September 1.

Among the dead were a newly married couple from London. Ronaldo Gomes Silva, a 25-year-old Brazilian, and his Spanish wife, Yanina Celisdibowsky, met in the capital and had lived there for three years.

Francisco Martinez, one of the first firemen to arrive at the crash site, told how Amalia Filloy, who was severely injured, had urged him to pull Maria, her 11-year-old daughter, from the wreckage first. Filloy and an older daughter died but Maria survived with her father.

The firemen said he had also rescued one of two little boys who survived the crash. “He asked if what was happening was for real,” said Martinez. “He thought it was a film and asked where his father was and when the film would end.”

Spanair acknowledged that another of its MD82s had made an emergency landing last Saturday because of an engine problem but denied taking any short cuts with safety.

“We should wait for the result of the investigation to be certain of understanding exactly what happened,” said Marcus Hedblom, the company’s director. “We are going to have to be patient.”

Spanair crash recalls 1987 Detroit disaster
Times Online -