Airbus accident is the fifth in four years

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The Independent Online
Yesterday's crash in Kathmandu was the fifth involving an Airbus in the past four years, but industry sources were quick to point out that there is nothing to link the accidents and that pilot error was found to be a contributory cause in the previous four.

The A300 in yesterday's disaster was the first to be involved in an incident causing the death of passengers, apart from the Iranair plane downed by a US missile in July 1988, killing all 290 aboard.

The A300, which normally carries about 240 people, was the first plane produced by the Airbus Industrie consortium in which British Aerospace has a 20 per cent stake. Airbus now has a total of 923 planes in service and a further 900 firm orders.

The plane that crashed yesterday was built in 1977 and was obtained by Pakistani International Airlines (PIA) from a German charter firm in 1986. According to Airbus Industrie, it had flown 39,100 hours on 19,200 flights, average for an aircraft of its age.

The previous crash involving an Airbus was also at Kathmandu. On 31 July a Thai Airways A310 crashed after a failed attempt at landing in difficult weather conditions. The pilot did not use the recommended flight path for an aircraft in such circumstances and crashed into the mountains, killing all 113 people on board.

Preliminary investigations into the Thai Airways crash suggested that navigation error on the part of the pilot was the cause. Kathmandu is a notoriously difficult airport in which to land because a steep descent is required and because it does not have either an instrument landing system or radar. Instead, planes use a radar beam, which requires greater pilot skill.

The three previous crashes of Airbuses all involved the A320, which uses 'fly by wire' computer technology. The most recent disaster occurred in January when an Air Inter plane approaching Strasbourg crashed in the Vosges mountains. Questions were raised about the cockpit lay-out.

However, the preliminary report, while recommending that some technical changes to the controls be made, was also critical of the pilots, who appeared to have been concentrating on the lateral flight path while the aircraft was descending rapidly.

Investigations following the two other A320 crashes, at Habsheim in eastern France in 1988 on a demonstration flight and at Bangalore in India in 1990, concluded that the pilots were to blame.

In August 1989, a PIA Fokker Friendship with 54 people aboard vanished in the mountainous north of Islamabad and was never found, leading to speculation that it crashed into a mountain, was hijacked to Afghanistan or strayed into Indian territory and was shot down. In November 1979, a PIA Boeing 707 crashed in Saudi Arabia killing all 156 people on board, most of them Pakistanis.

Alain Dupiech, a spokesman for Airbus Industrie, said: 'It is too early to speculate about the cause of the crash. We have dispatched a team to Kathmandu.'