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Airbus crash blamed on pilot error

THE CRASH of a Pakistani airliner, which splintered against a mountain in Nepal on Monday, killing all 167 crew and passengers aboard - including 37 Britons - was probably caused by pilot error.

Officially, the Nepali government has refused to reveal any details of the disaster, the second time in the past two months that an Airbus has gone down in the Himalayan kingdom.

Flight PX268 began its final descent into Kathmandu, which has no radar facility, more than 1,300ft below its required flightpath. Peaks like jagged broken glass surround Kathmandu, and this difference in altitude proved fatal.

The airliner smashed into the rocky face of a mountain, the last ridge before the clear and easy approach over the rice paddies into Kathmandu airport, only seven miles away.

An army helicopter pilot, who wants to remain unidentified, surveyed the wreckage. 'If the pilot had just been 100ft higher, he'd have cleared the ridge and made it safely into the valley. Just 100ft.'

The force of the impact scattered debris of fuselage, luggage and charred corpses over a half-mile radius. There were no survivors.

Most of the passengers were either British, Spanish or Dutch and bound for trekking holidays in the Himalayas. In the midst of the carnage, rescue workers came across a few personal mementoes such as a family photograph, a melted video camera and a single hiking boot.

Steve Powers, an American journalist was one of the first to reach the crash. 'It was night, and there were fires burning everywhere in the forest. Pieces of metal hung from a tree like a tattered bed sheet.'

To guide aircraft through the treacherous descent into Kathmandu, the controllers require that pilots make radio contact with the tower at 10 miles out, then 8 miles, and, finally, at 3 miles.

At the 10-mile mark, the pilot should have cleared the Himalayan ridges, at 9,500ft. But, according to a civil aviation source, 'the pilot must have made an instrument error. He was at 8,200ft when he should have been 1,300ft higher.' The last ridge looming in front of the airliner was hidden in cloud.

'Once he reported in, there was no time for the control tower to warn him,' said the Nepali aviation source. The last communication from the Pakistani pilot to the tower was 2.39pm. 'There was no technical fault reported by the pilot, just the routine 10-mile check,' he said.

A senior military aviation officer connected to the disaster inquiry said: 'There is a 99 per cent probability it was the pilot's mistake.'

The Airbus A300 cockpit has a standard altimeter and a device known as a terrain pull-up mechanism. Both instruments warn how near the ground is.

A recording of the last conversations between the pilot and co-pilots and flight data recorders were found yesterday, but Nepali authorities have not revealed the contents.

On 31 July, a Thai Airlines Airbus 310 crashed flying into Kathmandu, killing all 113 on board. The PIA plane was an earlier A300 version.

Helicopters flew back to the airport yesterday with the remains of the 47 people found so far. Many relatives queued alongside the tarmac to try to identify the bodies.

A Nepali woman recognised her husband, a police officer, only by his belt.

So far only two other bodies have been identified, one being that of a British missionary, Andrew Wilkins, 38. His wife and three children, who also died in the crash, have yet to be found.

The Britons who died, page 3

Dominic Sasse obituary, page 29