Monday, March 12, 2012

Kenya Airways flight was ‘on its own’ when it crashed

Expert tells inquest into the deaths of four Britons in May 2007 crash that neither pilots nor auto-pilot appeared in control before crash

The ill-fated Kenya Airways flight from Cameroon that crashed in May 2007 did not appear to be under control of either the pilots or the auto-pilot when it started to bank sharply, an inquest in the United Kingdom heard this week.

Some 114 passengers and crew were killed when the aircraft crashed into a mangrove swamp outside Douala in a heavy rainstorm. No one survived.

Nine Kenyans and four Britons were among those who died.

The inquest into the deaths of Anthony Mitchell, 39; Adam Stewart, 43; his wife Sarah Stewart, 50; and 45-year-old Stuart Claisse heard that there was a “strong possibility” their relatives may not have been aware when the plane went into a “spiral dive”, before it crashed.

Whenever a Briton dies an “unnatural death” abroad, an inquest is conducted whenever possible to establish the cause of death, Lincoln Coroner’s Court heard on Saturday from Marcus Cook, an inspector at the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and himself a pilot.

He told the inquest: “You’re sitting at the back. It’s dark. You can’t see anything. You’ve no cockpit instruments.”

But he added: “They may have felt the roll.” Mr Cook told the inquest the plane crashed shortly after takeoff when it banked, or rolled, too far to the right.

He said that just after the plane was airborne, it appears the captain was not controlling it.

“About 15 seconds later, for no real reason, it appears that all input into the flight control by the captain ceases, and it ceases for about 55 seconds,” he said. “At this point the airplane is about 1,000 feet above the ground.”

Mr Cook said there was no record of the auto-pilot being engaged at this point, and there was a chance that it had been selected but not successfully engaged.

Coroner Stuart Fisher asked him: “So for clarity: the plane is in flight at 1,000 feet, pilots are not flying the aircraft and it’s not being flown on auto-pilot?”

Mr Cook answered: “Not at this point.”

He told the inquest the plane continued to bank to the right – aircraft tend to drift to the right after take-off but can be corrected simply by the captain steering it back on track – until a “bank angle” warning sounded once it had gone over a 40 degree angle.

The auto-pilot was then successfully engaged, he said, and the pilot, who has not been named in the inquest, took action to try to counter the roll.

However, all of his attempts such as steering and using the plane’s rudders simply increased the roll to the right.

Mr Cook went on: “At this point bank angle is 50 degrees and increasing. In my eyes that was still recoverable. “The bank angle then increases and the nose drops below the horizon. The airplane then enters a spiral dive.”

At this point the pilot says “we’re crashing”, Mr Cook told the inquest. He told families he believed that the pilots may have become spatially disorientated and distracted if they were focusing on weather reports and may not have believed what the plane’s instruments were telling them if they had not been monitoring them.

The inquest also heard that post-mortem examination reports in all four cases recorded a cause of death as multiple injuries sustained from an aircraft crash. The wreckage of the plane was located after more than 40 hours of searching dense rainforest in drenching rain and thick fog.

Mr Mitchell, one of the Britons who died, was a journalist with the Associated Press news agency, based in Nairobi.

Flight 507 was a scheduled Abidjan–Douala–Nairobi passenger service operated with a Boeing 737-800 that crashed in the initial stage of its second leg on May 5, 2007, immediately after takeoff from Douala International Airport.

The plane was only six months old when it crashed. It departed Douala at 00:05 GMT (01:05 local time) on 5 May; the flight was due to arrive in Nairobi at 03:15 GMT (06:15 local time).

Kenya Airways disclosed a passenger list indicating that the 105 passengers on board were citizens of 26 different countries, most of them from Cameroon.

Seventeen passengers boarded in Abidjan, while the rest boarded in Douala.

An investigation by the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority determined that the pilots failed to notice and correct excessive bank following takeoff.

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