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Technology 'does not reduce rate of air crashes'

NEW TECHNOLOGY is failing to prevent pilots crashing mechanically sound aircraft into the ground, according to a survey of air safety in 1992.

The survey by Flight International magazine shows that while the chances of being on an aircraft which crashes have remained remarkably similar over the past 10 years, the number unaccountably hitting the ground when there are no mechanical defects or other obvious causes is rising.

This is despite the fact that many aircraft now carry a sophisticated 'ground proximity warning system', which sounds a warning if the ground is too near.

There were 47 fatal accidents involving passenger aircraft last year. Of these, 21 were a result of hitting the ground, resulting in half the total fatalities - 706 out of 1,425. David Learmount, the flight safety expert of Flight International, says these accidents are caused by pilots. 'This is theoretically one of the most avoidable types of accident, especially with modern technology. Every time this happens, it means the captain has not followed the rules.

'Pilots give different explanations about why it seems to be happening more often. Some say that it is caused by modern cockpits where the computer has too big a role. Others say it is old cockpits that are most likely to be the cause, while the rest say it is lack of discipline.'

Notable disasters last year caused by what is officially called Controlled Flight Into Terrain, include the two Airbuses which crashed last summer while trying to land at Kathmandu in Nepal, and the Airbus which crashed in mountains near Strasbourg in France.

The aircraft in the Strasbourg crash was not fitted with the warning system and last week the operations manager of Air Inter, which operated the aircraft, was charged with negligence by a French magistrate.

Over the past decade, the number of accidents has increased slightly, but only at the same rate as the number of flights, which last year totalled around 14.8 million with a record 1.3 billion passengers carried.

Mr Learmount's figures show a slight increase in accidents in the last three-year period but he added: 'It is not sharp enough to say whether it is statistically significant.

'Three-year periods are too short from which to draw conclusions.'

The 1992 figure of 1,422 deaths (excluding three caused by war or terrorism) was the highest since 1985 when there were 1,800, and compares with 1,090 in 1991 and 611 in 1990.