The Air Algérie aircraft that crashed in the Sahara last week, killing 118 people, plunged 30,000 feet into the desert in three minutes after running into a violent storm, investigators believe.
The inexperience of the Spanish crew, with only a month’s flying time on the demanding cross-Sahara route, may have played a part in the accident, according to aviation experts. Although contributory factors such as mechanical failure have not yet been ruled out, studies of radar records have more or less excluded the possibility that the Spanish-owned MD-83 aircraft was the victim of a terrorist bomb or a ground-launched missile.
The head of the Burkina Faso armed forces, General Gilbert Diendéré, said that radar records of the aircraft’s course suggested that the pilot had tried to steer around the storm but had returned to his original course too soon. “It was while he was performing this manoeuvre that the accident happened,” he said.
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Gérard Feldzer, a French expert on air accidents, told Le Figaro: “It seems that the pilot reacted to the storm too late… An aircraft needs 10 to 15 kilometres to turn. If it gets too close to a storm, it can be too late to turn around. You get trapped in the air currents rushing up and down.”
The aircraft, leased to Air Algérie by the Spanish company Swiftair, crashed into a remote part of the desert in Mali last Thursday 50 minutes after leaving Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso for Algiers. Of the 118 people on board, 54 were French, including three large or extended families.
General Diendéré said that the radar records suggested that the aircraft had plummeted from 10,000m (around 30,000ft) in three minutes. It hit the ground almost intact, suggesting that it had not suffered an explosion in mid-air.
France has been helping the Malian government to fight an Islamist rebellion in northern Mali for 18 months. There were fears that the aircraft may have been struck by a ground-to-air missile like with the Malaysian airliner brought down over eastern Ukraine the previous week.
French and Malian army rescue teams have found both black-box flight recorders at the crash site.