World: Forces lose five planes in four days

One plane crash is unfortunate. Five in four days, the toll that has afflicted the US armed forces, is downright eerie. President Bill Clinton said yesterday that investigators were studying whether a pattern had emerged that required serious review or whether the crashes marked "an unfortunate string of coincidences".

The US defense department announced a decision to halt all military training flights for 24 hours pending a review of safety procedures. The litany of calamities began on Saturday when a cargo jet with nine crew aboard disappeared off the coast of southern Africa. Two crashes on Sunday, two on Monday and one on Tuesday have left three crew dead and five aircraft destroyed.

The most baffling crash was the first one, off the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, for the presumption is that it resulted from a mid-air collision with a German Air Force Tupolev 154, which went missing at the same time and in the same area with 24 people aboard. "It appears to be a really unique and tragic incident," said Lt-Col Bill Darley, a Pentagon spokesman.

Wreckage from the two planes has been found in an area of 10 by 20 square miles where search and rescue craft are concentrating their efforts. The body of one woman has been recovered. Neither plane, Lt-Col Darley said, had the on-board radar capability to detect neighbouring aircraft, leaving them both dependent on air traffic management on the ground. First reports from German military sources indicate that an air traffic control station in Niger failed to pass on the flight plan of the Tupolev to the Namibian authorities.

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