Engine loss may have led to jet crash

Expert reveals suspicions about the cause of last week's fatal accident in Sharjah as the investigation gathers pace.

SHARJAH . 22nd October. 2009. SHARJAH AIR CRASH.  A crash investigator inspects the burnt out tail section of the aircraft  yesterday(thurs) Stephen Lock   /   The National    *** Local Caption ***  SL-tail-001.jpg
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SHARJAH // An aviation expert said yesterday it was possible that last week's fatal plane crash was caused by an engine falling off the Boeing 707 shortly after take-off. Kieran Daly, editor of the highly respected Air Transport Intelligence, an online news service for aviation industry professionals, said the four-engined 707, which Boeing stopped building in 1970, was prone to such accidents.

"The point being that the 707 over the years has something of a history of losing an engine," said Mr Daly. "So when something like this happens, that becomes the obvious suspicion." Although capable of taking off with only two engines functioning, Mr Daly said a 707 would struggle to do so if one had come off altogether. "That," he said, "has the potential to do tremendous damage to the structure of the aircraft. On the 707, what has several times happened, is that you lose one engine and the damage to that effectively destroys the adjacent engine as well, so you lose two engines."

Such a situation could also result in damage to other parts of the plane, such as its ailerons, which are vital during take-off, said Mr Daly. "And if that does damage to the flaps when you've already lost an engine, then, at that point, I think the game's up: there's going to be little chance of recovering in that situation." In an initial response to the crash last Wednesday, which claimed the lives of all six Sudanese crewmen on board, the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) also suggested a problem with the engines could explain why the 40-year-old Sudanese Azza Air transport plane came down just outside the Sharjah airport.

It said moments after the jet took off from Sharjah International Airport, "a part of the airframe located around the engine separated from the airframe and fell on the runway". However, Phil Smith, the chairman of the Flight Operations Group of the Aerospace International Royal Aeronautical Society in Britain, said detached engine panels, which were the "most likely" part of the engine housing to fail, were not likely to have caused the crash alone.

"Losing a panel from anywhere on the aircraft shouldn't be catastrophic," he said. "There's a possibility that the panel struck some other part of the aircraft, and that could cause a problem, but I would regard that as pretty unlikely." Meanwhile, GCAA investigators probing the crash have turned to experts in Britain to help determine the cause. The flight data recorders, or so-called black boxes, were retrieved from the wreckage and were due to be sent to the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) for analysis, said Saif al Suwaidi, the general director of the GCAA.

"We're just waiting for the green light from the lab in the UK." AAIB is a branch of the British government's Department of Transport and conducts investigations into accidents involving civilian aircraft in the UK. "AAIB can confirm that our counterparts in the UAE have declared their intention to bring the flight recorders of the Boeing 707 accident to our facilities," said an AAIB spokesman, who declined to be named.

Mr Suwaidi said UAE investigators were also anticipating the arrival of experts from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the agency that conducts air crash investigations in the US, and from Boeing, which has been asked to help with the probe. "We haven't decided what our role will be at this point in time, as far as sending members. But we have received the invitation [from the UAE] and we will be assisting in the investigation. Whether that entails us actually travelling, that has not been determined yet," said Keith Holloway, an official at the NTSAB.

"The GCAA is in co-ordination with authorities of other states to secure all the necessary records that might contain valuable information," the GCAA said. It has also assigned five of its own experts from its regulation and investigation section to lead the investigation. The accident, which happened about two minutes after the aircraft took off at 3.29pm, was captured on video and footage shows the stricken jet narrowly miss residential areas and a busy highway before coming down among rocks and sand dunes and exploding.

In the wake of the crash, the GCAA has banned Azza Air from operating in UAE airspace. A spokesman for Azza Transport yesterday named the four crewmen who died alongside Capt Hayder Ahmed Mohammed Ali and his co-pilot, Aladdin Abdelrahman Mahra. They were: Flight Engineer Mohammed Mohieddin, Operations Officer El Sawi Mustafa El Sawi, and two technicians, Maki Aziz and Abu Bakr Hassa. "The crew members of this flight had a long experience, their combined length of service is over 40 years," said Hisham Nizar, the spokesman for Azza Air.

The plane was en route to Khartoum, Sudan's capital, and the GCAA said it was carrying "air conditioning units, auto parts, computers, personal effects, some tools, etc". hnaylor@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Yasin Kakande and Awad Mustafa