Airline admits crash jet 'on wrong runway'

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The Independent Online

Singapore Airlines was struggling to maintain its reputation as one of the world's safest airlines yesterday after admitting that the Boeing 747 which crashed at Taipei airport on Tuesday was attempting to take off from a runway that had been closed for maintenance.

Singapore Airlines was struggling to maintain its reputation as one of the world's safest airlines yesterday after admitting that the Boeing 747 which crashed at Taipei airport on Tuesday was attempting to take off from a runway that had been closed for maintenance.

The airline was forced into the admission after a senior Taiwanese prosecutor confirmed that the plane had collided with construction equipment on the second runway of Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek airport, which was undergoing repairs. "The aeroplane hit two cranes and then crashed," said Song Keo Yeh, the chief prosecutor of Taoyuan County. "The aeroplane was on the wrong runway from the very beginning. There's no mistake about that."

But the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) claimed that the airport authorities in Taipei appeared to have contributed to the disaster by failing to conform to international guidelines for cordoning off unusable runways.

Eighty-one people died in the crash of flight SQ006, which occurred during a rain storm caused by the approach of a typhoon. Early speculation centred on the possibility of wind shear - a sudden and violent change in wind direction that could have slammed the plane back down on to the runway.

Now the crucial question is how the plane strayed on to the wrong runway, and whether responsibility lies with the pilot or with the airport controllers who guided him.

Investigators in Taiwan have said that although runway 05R was closed for repairs and littered with construction machinery, it was not blocked off. Pilots used its lower sections to access taxiways to runway 05L, the clear runway that the Singapore Airlines pilot should have used.

"A white closed-runway marking [a cross] shall be placed at each end of the closed runway and at regular intervals along the runway," the CAAS said in a statement late yesterday. "Lighting on a closed runway shall not be operated, except as required for maintenance purpose."

Taiwan investigators have said that runway 05R - the closed runway - was lit with both runway lights, which run along each side, and centre-line lights, which mark the middle of the tarmac.

The Malaysian pilot, Chee Kong Foong, is being held in Taiwan for questioning, but Singapore International Airlines (SIA) yesterday stressed that the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy may not lie with him.

"When the possibility of a runway mix-up was suggested two days ago, we said at that time that it was unlikely an experienced captain could have taxied his aircraft on to a darkened runway that was out of use," Rick Clements, a spokesman for Singapore International Airlines, said on Friday.

"But the aircraft was on the wrong runway and we want to understand now how this could have happened ... My feeling is that the plane could have been directed to the wrong runway or the wrong runway was lit up by mistake."

The most likely sequence of events now appears to be as follows: at 11:16pm, instead of moving the plane on to the open runway known to pilots as 05L, Captain Foong turned his jet several seconds too early on to the closed runway 05R. Visibility at the time of the crash was severely restricted by heavy rain, but investigators said that the pilot told the control tower that he could see the runway clearly.

Taiwanese news reports on Wednesday quoted pilots from two China Airlines planes, who were awaiting take-off, saying that they saw SQ006 manoeuvre onto the wrong runway. Seconds later, just as its nose was lifting off the ground, the 747-400 barrelled into the heavy construction equipment and broke apart, scattering the bulk of the debris across a wide area of runway 5R.

The flight recorder reveals that Captain Foong swore and said, "Something there!", just before the jetliner crashed, caught fire and broke into three sections. After the accident, Singapore Airlines said that Captain Foong had said he had seen "an object" on the runway and tried but failed to avoid the obstruction.

According to the leader of the accident investigation, Yong Kay, the pilot was correctly directed by the control tower. But he said that it was too early to hold him responsible.

Yesterday's statements will lay the basis for multi-million dollar lawsuits against the airline, which until Tuesday night had not had a passenger fatality under its own livery in its 28 years. The airport may also face legal action.

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