Cypriot plane with 121 on board crashes in Greece

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

File photo of the crashed Helios Airways B 737 © airliners.gr/Elliot Kefalas

A Helios airliner (Boeing 737, flight HCY 522) with 115 passengers and 6 crew onboard has crashed into a mountain at 09:04 UTC (12:04 p.m. EEST) near Grammatiko, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Athens, while approaching the capital's airport. All on board perished. The plane was travelling from Larnaca, in the southeast of Cyprus (Greek:Kypros, Κύπρος) and scheduled to arrive in Prague after a stop in Athens.

In-flight events

Immediately after take-off, the pilots reported a problem with the air conditioning system of the aircraft and requested to stay at a low altitude. A few minutes later, the pilots alerted the station that the problem had been fixed and requested permission to ascend. This information however has been denied by the Director of Helios Airways. As the plane approached Athens, all communication abruptly ceased, and the plane never issued a mayday distress signal. Two Greek F-16 military aircraft were assigned to observe the plane. The pilots of the F-16s noted that one airliner pilot appeared to be unconscious and the other was not in the cockpit.

CBC reported the following:

On Wednesday [August 17, 2005], state-run and private media, quoting anonymous defense ministry officials, said the two fighter pilots saw someone in the cockpit take control of the plane, which was flying in a gradually descending holding pattern apparently on autopilot. That person, probably a man who experts say must have had flight training, then banked the plane away from Athens, lowering it to 2,000 feet and then climbing back up to 7,000 feet before the plane apparently ran out of fuel and crashed.

The F-16s accompanied the airliner until it crashed.

Possible malfunctions and causes

The Greek F-16 pilots saw at least one of the aircraft's pilots may have become unconscious before the crash, causing control of the plane to be lost. The emergency oxygen masks were also reported to have dropped.

There had been speculation that an electrical fire or some other cause could have flooded the cabin with carbon monoxide or another gas that would render the passengers unconscious. However, the chief coroner of Athens, Greece, said that tests showed none of the passengers or crew had carbon monoxide in their blood. It was also speculated that the air-supply system of the aircraft may have failed, causing a loss of air pressure within the cockpit. This malfunction can cause a steep drop in air temperature. On December 16, 2004 the same aircraft made an emergency landing after failure of the ventilation system at 35,000 feet and 3 passengers were hospitalized. However, an airline spokesman insisted that the plane was airworthy when it took off.

Tests showed that at least 26 people on the flight were still alive when it crashed.

After a cabin decompression occurred onboard a Learjet carrying golf pro Payne Stewart in 1999, all the travelers lost consciousness and the plane eventually crashed with no survivors.

Passengers

Helios Airlines was unable to supply a complete passenger list, having only first initials and surnames available for investigators.

The official passenger list released by Cyprus Police, as reported by CNA, indicates that there were 22 young persons onboard aged 4-16. Most of the passengers were Cypriot, a small number were Greek and one of the pilots was German. There were 4 Armenian passengers who lived in Cyprus.

The complete list, in Greek, has been published by the Cyprus News Agency.

Post-crash events

After the crash, a fire started around the airliner. It was extinguished by firefighters after 2 hours. The fire burned most of the bodies that are now being collected by special firefighter units and transferred to the city of Shisto, near Athens. Meanwhile, the two F-16 pilots were transferred to Ministry of Defense to give their report.

The flight data recorder has been recovered. The cockpit voice recorder was found the following morning in bad condition. The two devices will be sent to Paris for examination.

Nektarios-Sotirios Voutas [1][2] reported that a passenger (his cousin) sent a text message that read: "The pilot has turned blue [in the face]. [F]arewell we're freezing". He was arrested the following day as it appeared to be a hoax [3].

Reactions from Helios Airways

Helios has informed the relatives of the victims; however, the company has been met with criticism for failing to release the passenger list quickly.

Helios Airways released a statement on their website today, stating, "Our thoughts are with the families of those on board at this difficult time."

An emergency telephone number in Nicosia, Cyprus can be contacted at +357/70003737, 22 – 446146.

Official reactions

The Cypriot government has declared three days of national mourning and ordered flags to be lowered on half-mast.

Upon allegations brought by the Communications and Works Minister and the chief of police, warrants were issued by the attorney general to search Helios Airways offices [4]

Timeline

  • 09:00 (06:00 UTC) Scheduled departure time.
  • 09:07 (06:07 UTC) Airplane takes off from Larnaka airport.
  • 10:30 (07:30 UTC) Flight fails to establish contact with the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport
  • 10:37 (07:37 UTC) Last contact with Larnaka airport reporting problem.
  • 10:45 (07:45 UTC) Scheduled arrival time in Athens.
  • 10:55 (07:55 UTC) The Hellenic Armed Forces Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Panagiotis Chinofotis orders military planes to establish visual contact with the aircraft.
  • 11:05 (08:05 UTC) Two F-16 fighter planes take off from Néa Anghialos Air Base, Greece.
  • 11:18 (08:18 UTC) Fighter pilots note co-pilot slumped over the aircraft's instrument panel.
  • 12:04 (09:04 UTC) Aircraft crashes near Grammatiko.
  • 13:10 (11:10 UTC) Scheduled arrival time in Prague.

Cyprus and Greece are UTC+3, Czech Republic is UTC+2.

About Helios Airways

Helios Airways was founded in 1999 as Cyprus' first private airline. It is now a subsidiary of Libra Holidays Group of Limassol, Cyprus and is registered in Cyprus. Helios' remaining fleet consists of 2 Boeing 737-800 jets and an Airbus A319. Helios offers flights between Cyprus and London, Athens, Sofia, Warsaw, Dublin and Strasbourg.

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