Jet death crash blamed on crew's tiredness

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The Independent Online
CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

Transport Correspondent

Tired pilots and a lack of up-to-date guidance equipment caused the Coventry air disaster in December 1994, in which five people died, according to the official accident inquiry.

The Air Algerie Boeing 737 was on a 14-minute transfer flight from East Midlands airport to Coventry when it hit an electricity pylon a mile from the runway, flipped over and crashed into a wood, having narrowly missed a housing estate.

The report concludes that the performance of the flight crew was impaired by the effects of tiredness. They had completed more than 10 hours of flight duty through the night. Pilots are normally supposed to work no more than nine hours at night, but in exceptional circumstances, when there are delays, they can work up to 12 hours.

The findings will give powerful ammunition to pilots' organisations throughout Europe which are opposing plans by the European aviation authorities to allow longer duty periods at night. A spokesman for the British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa) said: "Proposals in Europe to relax flight limits must be resisted at all cost. UK flight crews will continue to warn that flying and fatigue don't mix."

The accident also raises questions about the safety of foreign aircraft using UK airports and yesterday, Lord Goschen, the aviation minister, responded to the Air Accident Investigation Branch's report by announcing an increase in inspections on "foreign registered aircraft where there is doubt as to whether international safety standards are being observed".

The Air Algerie Boeing, with two crew and three passengers, was used to ferry veal calves to France and Holland following the ban imposed by many ferry firms in the face of animal rights protests.

The plane was chartered by Phoenix Aviation for a series of flights between Coventry and Europe. On the day of the crash, 21 December 1994, the pilots, who started duty at half past midnight, were due to make two round trips to Amsterdam, returning empty each time. They were due back at Coventry at 7 30am, but on the second return flight, visibility at the airport had deteriorated to less than the 1,100 metres required for the plane to land.

Although the aircraft was fitted with an Instrument Landing System (ILS) which would have allowed it to land in foggy conditions, the equipment could not "lock on" to Coventry's radio beam as it was unable to receive the airport's specific wavelength.

A few days earlier, Air Algerie engineers, worried about the 21-year- old plane's inability to land in conditions of poor visibility, had even tried to fit the required ILS equipment to the aircraft but had been unable to make it work and had refitted the older equipment. If the appropriate ILS equipment had been on board, the plane would have been able to land on its initial approach to the airport.

Instead, the pilot decided to divert to East Midlands, apparently without obtaining permission from Air Traffic Control and, according to the report, caused a potential hazard to aircraft landing at Birmingham.

After an hour at East Midlands waiting for the fog at Coventry to clear, the crew, anxious to finish their duty, took off for the short trip to Coventry.

Because of the lack of an automatic landing guidance system, the aircraft had to be "talked down" by an air traffic controller, using the airport's radar equipment.

This went ahead uneventfully, until there was a power failure at the airport, caused by the Boeing hitting an electricity pylon. The pilots, possibly due to fatigue, had failed to follow the proper procedure of cross-checking readings of the altimeter, which had been properly calibrated.

The report says no mechanical defects were discovered. Responsibility for the accident rested with the two pilots.

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