Jet speedometer blamed for crash

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

A speedometer which told the pilots they were flying faster than they really were caused last month's crash of an aircraft full of German tourists off the Dominican Republic, it emerged yesterday.

Initial reports from the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), released by Dominican Republic officials, suggested the velocity indicator on the Turkish-owned Birgenair Boeing 757 had been reading 335 knots (about 370 mph) as the jet reached 7,000 feet shortly after take-off from the resort of Puerto Plata on 6 February.

In fact, it was flying at a much lower speed, the engines stalled and the aircraft went into a dive, plunging into the Atlantic Ocean and killing all 189 people on board.

An article in yesterday's Washington Post said there were indications the Turkish flight crew had known before take-off that there were problems with its velocity instruments but decided to go ahead with the flight, returning German tourists to Berlin and Frankfurt. There was no immediate comment from the airline.

The 757, leased for the flight by Birgenair to its local affiliate Alas Nacionales, had been idle at Puerto Plata for at least two weeks, raising concerns at the time that its maintenance may not have been up to scratch. It was pressed into service at the last minute to replace a Boeing 767 which Alas Nacionales was scheduled to use. Some officials at the time said the 767 had had problems with its hydraulics. Others said the airline had opted for the smaller 757 because the flight was considerably underbooked.

There was no immediate response from the Boeing company in Seattle, Washington, which lost its first 757 on 20 December when an American Airlines flight from Miami hit a mountain in Cali, Colombia, killing all but four of the 164 on board. Pilot error or a misunderstanding with the Cali control tower have been provisionally blamed for that crash.

General Hector Roman Torres, the Dominican Republic's head of civil aviation, told the Associated Press that the NTSB had reached its conclusion after studying the flight recorders recovered from the seabed last week by a US Navy guided robot. "An alarm went off indicating that the aeroplane was losing a lot of velocity, and 84 seconds later the aeroplane hit the water," he said.

The US banned all Dominican Republic airlines from landing in the US three years ago, saying its civil aviation authority was not up to international standards. Before the crash occurred, the Dominicans had hoped to overturn the ban. But Germany, too, said this week it wanted a European Union "black list" of countries with low air-safety standards following the Dominican crash, vowing to go it alone if necessary.