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The day after: Survivor Robert Borland in hospital

Air Crash Questions Go Unanswered

Friday, January 18, 2008
THE CRASH of a One-Two-Go holiday flight on Phuket in September 2007 is receding into memory now. Forty fortunate survivors escaped with their lives. Ninety passengers and crew died.

The information stored on the black boxes that record data and conversations with the pilots seems to indicate that abnormal weather caused the crash, the authorities say.

Everybody who has been through a wild Phuket squall knows the power of swirling winds and rain on and around the island. Get caught in the wrong place on a boat in a Phuket squall and you'll come to know fear.

Ferries are capable of being overturned and especially vulnerable in such a squall. And so, it seems, are ageing aircraft.

In the September 16 airport tragedy, so-called wind shear has been blamed.

This seems to be the old, familiar Phuket squall in a particularly violent form, strong enough to push an aircraft down into the ground at the precise moment it was flying over the landing zone.

Plenty of people connected with the tourist industry would like the plane crash to be quietly forgotten now.

While uninformed speculation is not necessarily a good thing, there are still some remaining questions that deserve answers.

As many as three elements are usually involved to one degree or another in any aviation disaster: the weather, human error and mechanical failure.

Some crashes involve just one element. Others involve two or even all three, to varying degrees.

What we do not know in the case of One-Two-Go Flight 269 from Bangkok is whether human error and mechanical failure played any part.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, was 24 years old. While aircraft now have a long life expectancy, their physical ability to cope with maximum stress of this kind must inevitably diminish with time, even if they are perfectly maintained.

In many post-crash situations, the wreckage is carefully reassembled in a hangar while experts examine every centimetre of the aircraft, looking for flaws and faults.

This process does not appear to have been an option for Thai authorities because of one key practical consideration.

With flights cancelled and hundreds of passengers waiting to go home, there was the need to get aircraft flying in and out of Phuket again, and fast.

So would a younger aircraft or one of a different type have withstood and survived the buffering taken by Flight 269? We will probably never know.

The other unanswered question concerns the state of mind of the pilot. He was an experienced professional. Others have questioned whether he should have attempted the landing in those conditions.

We still do not know whether his attempt to land then apparent attempt to lift up and go around again was the right decision in those circumstances.

Was he hungry? As an Indonesian and a Muslim, could his lack of food that day have affected his judgement, even slightly?

It was, remember, the early days of Ramadan, when good Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. No-one is suggesting that, as an experienced pilot, he would not usually be able to fly a plane and practice his faith.

But in a crisis like this one, arising unexpectedly, every split-second counts. Dusk was not far off and hunger or thirst can certainly impair reaction time and distort judgement, as fasters of all faiths can attest.

Was he also aware of the crowded airspace on flights to and from Phuket? Lose your place in the queue and you might be in the air, circling, for some time.

Regrettably, these questions are never likely to be properly answered. We will all simply put them to the back of our minds and resume flying.

REPORT LATEST

The Bangkok Post on January 19 reported that One-Two-Go is on the watchlist of aviation authorities after a near-collision with another commercial aircraft on December 15.

''The budget carrier faces fresh image problems related to the competence of its foreign cockpit staff and reliability of its ageing MD-80 jetliners,'' the newspaper reported.

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Wednesday February 21, 2024
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