Bonn grounds 757 as crash mystery grows

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The German authorities yesterday grounded an aircraft belonging to Birgen Air, owner of the Boeing-757 that crashed into the Caribbean on Wednesday.

Though officials cited irregularities in the airline's paperwork, the move heightened speculation in the local media about Birgen Air's maintenance standards. Numbed by the worst disaster to befall German holiday-makers, the press has turned its attention to the safety record of small airlines which ply the lucrative routes to beaches in the sun.

German investigators have discarded the theory that the 757 was brought down by lightning, and are asking questions about the crew's fitness to fly one of the safest jets in the world, and the condition of the plane. Built in 1985, the airliner has until recently flown only between Argentina and the Dominican Republic. The airline in the Dominican Republic which leased the plane, Alas Nacionales (National Wings) was in effect a local representative of the Itsanbul-based Turkish charter line Birgen Air, owners of the plane. Alas Nacionales is run by a Turkish pilot, Captain Peter Dirim.

Most of the passengers on the aircraft had booked their Caribbean holidays through the Hamburg-based Oger Tours,run by a Turkish businessman, Vural Oger. Birgen Air had a 10 per cent holding in Oger Tours.

US Coast Guard cutters and helicopters continued to help the Dominican navy and local fishing boats to search for bodies yesterday. Finding survivors was virtually ruled out.

Rescue workers said 129 bodies had been recovered of the 189 passengers and crew. A US Coast Guard spokesman in Miami said all had been found by Wednesday lunchtime, within 13 hours of the crash. With strong winds and currents, it was unlikely any further bodies would be found, other than those possibly entombed if any part of the fuselage remained intact some 4,000 feet down.

Aviation authorities were investigating when the Turkish crew on the crashed plane had arrived in the Dominican Republic, whether they had flown the aircraft before and whether it was they who would have flown a larger Boeing 767 originally scheduled to be used for the flight that went down.

Birgen Air says the pilot, Ahmet Erdem, received training in the past few months in the United States. If he was qualified to fly the 757, the next question is whether he was fit to fly. The Germans are implying that the crew of "exotic" charter companies do not always get the same periods of rest to which employees of bigger companies based in developed countries are entitled.

They will also want to see the plane's maintenance records. The Dominican Republic, where the jet was based, has been on the black list of the US Federal Aviation Authority. The FAA bans flights from countries where it believes maintenance is inadequate.

Mystery still surrounds many aspects of the crash. The director of the Dominican civil aviation authority said the crew had tried to turn back five minutes after take-off. His deputy, as well as local air traffic controllers, said the crew gave no indication of anything wrong and the plane had simply disappeared from radar screens at just over 5,000 feet altitude and some 13 miles off the coast.

There is also confusion over why the planes were switched at the last moment. Birgen air and Alas said the 767 suffered mechanical problems while a German official said the smaller 757 had been substituted because the flight was under-booked.

The discrepancies made the search for the flight recorder all the more urgent, but strong local currents would make the search extremely difficult, according to US air safety experts who arrived to assist.