Mon, May 27, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Theories abound to explain cause

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS One source says a Chinese missile strike cannot be ruled out, while another points to similarities to the crash of TWA Flight 800 in the US

By Chiu Yu-tzu and Patrick Kearns  /  STAFF REPORTERS

Coast Guard members salute the body of a China Airlines crash victim at Penghu's Makung Airport yesterday.

PHOTO: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

A Chinese missile or fuel-tank explosion similar to what brought down TWA Flight 800 off the coast of New York in 1996 were among the theories put forth by aviation experts and other sources yesterday to explain Saturday's China Airlines crash.

Kay Yong (戎凱), head of the Aviation Safety Council, said yesterday that flight CI611 experienced an "inflight breakup" at more than 9,100m -- crumbling into four large pieces before falling into the ocean.

The suddenness of the flight's demise -- the plane's pilots reportedly did not radio for help -- had some experts focusing on the possibility that an explosion might have brought the Boeing 747-200 down.

According to one anonymous source connected with a Taiwanese think tank, the possibility that a Chinese missile downed the plane can't be ruled out. The People's Liberation Army is currently practicing drills along China's southern coast, the source noted.

Indeed, it wouldn't be the first time that a military misfire has downed a passenger jet. In October, a Russian passenger jet crashed into the Black Sea after being unintentionally hit by an S-200 missile during Ukrainian air defense exercises.

According to the source, China's inventory of military hardware includes a missile known as the S-300 PMU, or "SA-10 grumble." The PLA demonstrated the missile in 1996 just before Taiwan's 1996 presidential election.

But the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Boa (文匯報) yesterday quoted a source in Beijing as saying that no missile tests were performed on Saturday.

The S-300 PMU has a range of 120km, a maximum speed of Mach 7 and would be difficult to be tracked by radar, the anonymous source said.

According to the US Federation of American Scientists, China imported S-300 missiles from Russia in the early 1990s and they are deployed around Beijing. But there is one battery of fixed, long-range S-300s in Zhangzhou in Fujian Province, the source said.

"When an airplane flying at 9,100m collides with any outside force -- say a 1,600kg S-300 missile with a dummy warhead -- the loss of pressure inside the cabin could cause the situation to spin out of control," the source said.

Sudden depressurization inside the cabin would have knocked out the pilots, preventing them from sending a Mayday.

Other signs suggesting an accidental Chinese missile strike were Beijing's unusual friendliness in expressing concern over the tragedy and its offer to help search for survivors just hours after the accident; reports from pro-China media that were quick to downplay any connection between China's military exercises and the accident; and Premier Yu Shyi-kun taking command of search-and-rescue efforts in Penghu. Never before has the premier been placed in charge of an air crash accident, sources said.

TWA FLIGHT 800

One veteran pilot who contacted the Taipei Times yesterday said Saturday's crash bore striking similarities to the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York in 1996.

The pilot sought to keep his identity private for fear of reprisals from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA).

"Talking to several other pilots after we heard about the crash, we all agreed it suffered the same fate as TWA Flight 800 -- a center fuel-tank explosion," the pilot said.

After nearly four years of investigation, US inspectors said an explosion of vapors inside a fuel tank caused TWA Flight 800 to plunge into the ocean -- in a safety problem that may involve thousands of commercial aircraft built by a number of different manufacturers.

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