Pilot's last words give clue to cause of Swissair crash

Andrew Marshall,Nova Scotia
Sunday 06 September 1998 23:02

THE AIRCRAFT that crashed into the sea off Canada's coast last week, killing 229 people, seems to have suffered a catastrophic loss of power, suggesting that an electrical failure was the cause of its problems.

New clues to the crash of the Swissair jet off the coast of Nova Scotia emerged with the release of tapes of conversations between the pilot and air-traffic control. The tapes end six minutes before the crash, however, leaving a mystery over the final agony.

The pilot, Captain Urs Zimmermann, 50, radioed Moncton air-traffic control in New Brunswick at 10.14pm local time that he was in trouble, the tapes show. He said: "Swissair one-eleven [flight 111] is declaring Pan Pan Pan [the phrase used to indicate emergency]. We have smoke in the cockpit."

The pilot suggested returning to Boston, but air-traffic control told him Halifax was much closer and steered him towards the runways. He approached and then turned to lose altitude, since the airport was too close to allow him to descend safely in time, and to dump fuel over the sea to reduce his weight. All this suggests that even though the pilot's position was difficult, he still believed he had some time.

Minutes later, things took a turn for the worse. "We are declaring an emergency at time zero one two four," the pilot said at 10.24pm. "We are starting vent now," he added. It is thought this refers to dumping fuel. "We have to land immediately."

At this time the aircraft was flying south-south east, away from the airport, out to sea. During the last few moments the pilot's words were hard to make out, apparently because he was wearing a smoke mask, Vic Gerden, the chief investigator, said.

There was no further conversation between air-traffic control and the aircraft, apparently because its radio was no longer working. Air-traffic control tracked it by radar. The aircraft continued on its course and then turned sharp right. It continued to loop, making a turn of 360 degrees, before crashing into the sea. Its final movements suggest the pilot had lost control.

There had been previous wiring problems with MD-11s, but Swissair had corrected them, a spokesman said. It seems to have been a wiring problem that led to the explosion of TWA 800 over the Atlantic near Long Island two years ago.

One serious question that has been raised is whether the aircraft could have landed at Halifax had it not tried to lose altitude and fuel on a loop out to sea. Although it exceeded the manufacturer's guideline weight for landing, it might have been successful - but it could have crashed nearer to Halifax, perhaps claiming more lives on the ground.

DNA testing continued on the human remains that have been found, and one body was identified as that of a French woman. But the medical team will take weeks, even months, to identify other victims, and some may never be identified.

It was reported yesterday that four more Britons were on board the flight than was originally thought. Norman Depledge, his wife Caroline, their son Michael and daughter Jane, 28, were flying to Switzerland for a climbing holiday. The family, which moved to the United States in the Seventies, brings the number of British victims to 11.

The searchers have found signals from one of the aircraft's flight recorders, but divers were unable to locate it. They were expected to try again yesterday. The cockpit voice recorder or the flight data recorder could help to fill in the missing minutes, if they were working.

Sonar searches have located a large cylindrical object, which could be the remains of the fuselage.

Relatives and friends of the victims attended services of memorial over the weekend, still heavily protected by Swissair and local police. Swissair has apparently spared no expense to make sure that the families are looked after, in sharp contrast to TWA, which was accused of acting insensitively by many at the time of the 1996 crash.

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