Uncertainty still surrounds cause of crash

Right up until the moment Helios Airways Flight ZU522 from Larnaca crashed on a mountainside near Athens last Sunday, someone was trying to land the plane, according to the pilots of two Greek air force F-16s that scrambled when the plane failed to make contact with Athens airport control tower, Defense Ministry sources said yesterday. Yet it is still uncertain whether that person in the cockpit was one of the two pilots or a third person, perhaps another crew member or a passenger with a knowledge of flying. That person tried to communicate with one of the F-16 pilots using gestures, giving the impression he was trying to control the aircraft. It is not certain why the attempt failed. Perhaps the person was not a pilot and didn’t know what he was doing. However, Cypriot television last night reported that 25-year-old Andreas Prodromou, a trained pilot, was on the plane. According to his grandfather, Prodromou’s body was found in the cockpit. Whether or not he was not the person attempting to fly the plane, the attempt failed. Perhaps the aircraft was already out of control for technical reasons, or perhaps the instruments had frozen, if they had in fact been exposed to temperatures of -50C degrees at 35,000 feet, where the breakdown apparently occurred. Perhaps – and this seems the most likely explanation – the aircraft had simply run out of fuel and any further action was futile. No matter what the cause, just after 12 noon the plane crashed to earth, spreading debris over a 600-meter radius and killing all 121 people on board. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Admiral Panayiotis Hinofotis had given the order for the F-16s to take off at 10.55 a.m. At the same time, navy ships and helicopters were also ordered to the area to stand by for the worst. Hinofotis was in constant contact by code with Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos, who was on the island of Paros. The two F-16s made visual contact with the Cypriot aircraft at 11.15 a.m. and flew alongside it from 11.20 until the moment of impact. Only one of the planes actually flew right alongside the 737, while the other flew to the rear, therefore was not able to provide much valuable information. During the some 40 minutes the planes were flying in formation, the pilot flying alongside the passenger jet saw that the oxygen masks had dropped in the cabin. The cabin windows were clear, but he could detect no movement within the plane. In the cockpit, at first just the co-pilot could be seen slumped in his seat over the controls. A short while later a person in a black vest and blue shirt could be seen to remove him from his seat with the help of an air hostess. That person stayed in the cockpit until the end. From that moment on, although there was no communication using technical means, the person in the cockpit clearly gestured to the F-16 pilot that he would try to land the 737. He continued the attempt until the last moment. At Athens International Airport all emergency measures were in place. Perhaps the fact that the plane crashed in uninhabited countryside near Grammatiko was not a matter of luck but the result of actions by that person, who just may have had the presence of mind and the ability to limit the loss of life to those on board the plane. If that was the case, then it was a blessing not only for the unsuspecting inhabitants of Attica, but for the country’s defense leaders who, for about 40 minutes, were ready to carry out their most unpleasant duty – the prime minister, the defense minister and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the pilots of the F-16s who would have had to carry out an order to shoot down the aircraft if necessary. This tragedy has led to much grief and raised many questions, but it has also made one thing clear: that on the «quietest» day of the year, the country was not unprepared. Quite the contrary.