UK to help solve Spanish crash riddle

BRITISH ACCIDENT investigators travelled to Spain yesterday to help discover why a holiday jet carrying 245 passengers and crew skidded off the runway on landing and broke into three pieces.

More than 50 of the British passengers were taken to hospital after the accident at Gerona airport, on the Costa Brava, late on Tuesday. Yesterday only the pilot and four passengers were still receiving treatment, and none was said to be in a serious condition.

The Britannia Airways Boeing 757 landed in thunderstorm, and those on board spoke of it bouncing and skimming across the wet runway before careering into a muddy field and coming to a halt.

Passengers screamed and there was some panic as they scrambled to get clear, but others stopped to help women and children escape. "I thought my husband and I were dead and we would never see our children again," said Rita Sharp,from Swansea, who was among those treated in hospital. "I have seen the pictures of the plane broken in three today and we were all lucky to get out."

Experts believe that the weather will turn out to be the main factor. But they are also interested to know about the quality of information that the pilot was getting from the control tower as he tried to land the aircraft. "Was he given good information? And given that information, did the pilot make a good decision to continue with the landing? These are the things that will be considered by investigators," said David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine.

The three-man British team consists of an engineering expert, an operations expert and someone skilled in interpreting the "black-box" flight recorder. They will work alongside Spanish investigators.

The airport director said the stormy weather contributed to the accident but it was too early to establish the direct cause. One spokesman told Spanish radio that the airport power system cut out for a while, plunging the area into darkness. Another report said the pilot may have been momentarily blinded by lightning.

The flight left Cardiff at 8.40 on Tuesday evening, with most on board bound for holidays in resorts along the Costa Brava. But the plane ran into a terrible storm that lashed Catalonia on Tuesday night, and the pilot had already made one unsuccessful landing attempt before coming in again.

"We touched down but then it was like someone throwing a pebble across a lake. We just skimmed along the runway," said said David Dennis, 72, a retired steel worker from Swansea.

Brian Perry, another passenger, from Caerphilly, said: "Flashes of lightning were all around us as we made the approach. The plane seemed to touch ground and then bounce. It was certainly out of control."

A spokesman for Gerona airport's air traffic control said: "The Britannia Airways plane arrived and made a passing approach to assess the conditions. Under normal circumstances, if there is a problem about landing at Gerona, aircraft will fly on to Barcelona. But the weather there was also very bad."

A Britannia spokesman said: "At no time were the passengers in danger, although it must have been an unusual experience for them. The 757 is a very sturdy plane."