The Amsterdam Disaster: 'It was a million-to-one chance'

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The Independent Online
The disaster at Schiphol was all the more surprising because of the excellent safety record of both the airline and airport involved in the tragedy.

El Al has a worldwide reputation for the quality of its staff and procedures and the Dutch government's faith in Schiphol is reflected by plans for dramatic expansion of the airport by the turn of the century.

But the Boeing 747 would have been carrying 70 to 80 ton of highly flammable aviation fuel in its wings, said Chris Darke, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association. The pilot would not have had 'a cat in hell's chance' of landing safely with only two engines and a fully-laden cargo plane.

'It would appear he just did not get enough height. With one engine out it would be possible to make it back to the airport but with two on fire he would not have had a cat in hell's chance,' he said.

'Normal procedure would have been to drop the fuel but as he was over a highly populated area and had fires on board, that was not an option. This was a million-to-one chance. It's like an air disaster movie,' Mr Darke added.

Lee Silverman, spokesman for El Al in Britain, said this was the first accidental crash the airline had suffered since it was founded in 1948. 'We have extremely skilful pilots and we ensure the maintenance is good,' he said.

Despite serving such a small country, the airline is the world's tenth-largest carrier of cargo. Much of Israel's agricultural produce is exported by air. 'Most of the roses sold in Britain on Valentine's Day will have been growing in Israel the day before,' said Mr Silverman.

In 1948, when Israel was only a few months old, its fledgeling air force was given the job of bringing back President Chaim Weizmann from a trip to Geneva. The air force improvised. A military transport was fitted with a sofa and refrigerator, and the plane was given a coat of paint, a logo reading El Al - Hebrew for 'To the Skies' - and a Star of David on its tail. Regular passenger service began a year later.

El Al is known for its extraordinary security. Its much-vaunted passenger checks can take hours. Every El Al pilot has been trained by the Israeli air force, and plainclothed guards reportedly travel on its planes.

El Al didn't start building its reputation for its tough security until it endured a string of terrorist attacks, beginning with the one and only hijacking of an El Al jet in 1968. Since then, a virtual mystique has grown around its ability to shield itself from terrorism.

A decade ago, the government- owned carrier was on the verge of bankruptcy. It still has a heavy burden of debt, but it benefited during the Gulf war when most airlines cut off Middle East routes. El Al carried a near-record 1.75 million people in 1991. The result was a record dollars 39m in earnings last year, its sixth consecutive annual profit.

The Jewish state's airline is denied airspace over most Arab countries, but it has made recent gains, including agreements to land in Moscow and overfly the former Soviet Union.

Schiphol, founded in 1917, has not had a major crash for the last 20 years. Last year it handled 18.5 million passengers and there are plans to increase this to 30 million by the year 2000. At present it is Europe's fourth-biggest airport after Heathrow, Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Schiphol is sited in the district of Haarlemmerpolder, 17km south of the centre of Amsterdam. Once, only six small villages were in the vicinity. But over the last decade expansion for an expanding population has meant contruction in the area of buildings up to 12 storeys high. Gert Knook, spokesman for the Dutch air traffic control department, said last night. 'It's very difficult to speculate about how this will affect Schiphol so soon. But what makes this incident so tragic is that the airport has such a good safety record.'

(Photograph omitted)

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