Sat, Feb 05, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Reports blame Hong Kong plane crash on pilot error

BAD JUDGMENT Reports concluded that the pilot's poor performance was the chief cause of the deadly crash, but the airline said wind shear was to blame

DPA AND CNA , Hong Kong and Taipei

Pilot error caused a China Airlines crash at Hong Kong airport in 1999 which killed three people and injured 200 others, according to official reports released yesterday, but the airline challenged the conclusions.

Italian pilot Gerrardo Lettich failed to control the rate of descent of the MD-11 as it made its final approach to Chek Lap Kok airport during a typhoon, the reports found.

The plane, on a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong, clipped the runway and flipped over as it came in to land in August 1999. Two people died at the scene and a third in hospital later.

The accident happened when the plane lurched out of control in its final descent as it approached the runway at speed, while being buffeted by strong crosswinds.

A three-member Board of Review concluded that because of the weather conditions it was "ill-advised" for Lettich and his co-pilot to continue their approach to Hong Kong.

A number of other planes either did fly-arounds or diverted to other airports as the typhoon made conditions difficult for pilots, the board's hearing in November 2003 was told.

"It may have been more prudent to abandon the approach and execute a go-around in such conditions," their report concluded.

China Airlines challenged the report, saying the pilot was being made a scapegoat for the crash, and the report was kept confidential until the Board of Review report's release.

China Airlines argued that wind shear, rather than human error, was behind the accident.

Evidence collected from the plane's flight data recorder showed that swift wind changes, triggered by a tropical storm sweeping through Hong Kong at that time, made the pilot unable to control the aircraft's sudden descent, China Airlines' public relations director Liang Han-chung (韓梁中) said, pointing out that wind, not the pilot, caused the accident.

The Board of Review report was released Friday simultaneously with an earlier accident report by Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department which also blamed Lettich for the accident.

The earlier report concluded: "The cause of the accident was the commander's inability to arrest the high rate of descent."

The board largely backed the Civil Aviation Department's findings, saying Lettich's "performance before touchdown was a significant factor contributing to the accident."

However, it added: "We take the view that as in most accidents, no single factor or person could or should be isolated and held solely responsible for their occurrences.

"This tragic accident was caused by a number of factors including meteorological phenomenon and human judgment errors which had accumulated and multiplied during the flight and, more particularly during the latter portion of the descent."

Nevertheless, the report said that whatever the external difficulties caused by the weather conditions and other factors, the pilot and co-pilot could have avoided the accident.

"It was the responsibility of the commander and co-pilot to take the appropriate preventative and corrective measures before reaching such a critical point," it said.

The report dismissed criticisms that there had been no windshear warnings given by air traffic controllers, saying while the weather conditions were severe they did not technically constitute windshear.

There was no immediate response to the Board of Review report from Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department or China Airlines, which is based in Taipei.

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