Aircraft cabin lost pressure before crash

The Cypriot airliner which crashed north of Athens, killing all 121 passengers and crew, suffered a loss of cabin pressure which rendered virtually everybody on board unconscious before the plane ran out of fuel and slammed into a mountainside in Grammatiko, the head of the accident investigation team said yesterday. Eight days after the worst air crash on Greek soil, Akrivos Tsolakis made public the initial findings of the probe into the accident. «There are indications that there was a technical problem with the plane’s pressurization system,» the report said. Tsolakis indicated that the decompression, which implies a loss of oxygen within the aircraft, would have incapacitated the crew and passengers. At least one person aboard the plane, however, seems to have either regained or maintained his senses and made his way into the cockpit, from where he issued two emergency «Mayday» calls and tried to gain control of the plane. According to Tsolakis, the black box voice recorder, which was found last Friday, picked up the sound of an exhausted-sounding man wearing an oxygen mask and sitting in the captain’s seat for the last 10 minutes of the flight – just as the engines began shutting down due to lack of fuel. Tsolakis did not speculate on claims that the man in question was Andreas Prodromou, a steward who was trained to fly small aircraft. The two Greek air force F-16 pilots who shadowed the plane during its final moments said they noticed someone make his way into the cockpit after seeing the co-pilot slumped over his controls and the pilot missing from his seat. This third person almost certainly disengaged the automatic pilot. The desperate calls for help, which may have come just seconds before the Helios Airways Boeing 747 crashed, were not heard by anyone because the aircraft’s radio system was operating on the wrong frequency – possibly the same one it had been using to communicate with the control tower in Larnaca, from where it had departed. After its final communication with Larnaca, the plane flew for over two hours without contact. However, the theory that the communications system had malfunctioned was quashed by Tsolakis, who said the cockpit voice recorder had picked up the sound of radio contact from other aircraft in the background. Meanwhile, the government played down suggestions that heads would roll at the Greek Civil Aviation Authority because controllers may have not attempted to make contact with the plane for over an hour after it entered Greek air space but insisted there would be a thorough investigation. «My judgment is that everybody worked professionally. If there has been any delay or omission, you can be sure that the government will not cover it up but will help find it and impose punishment,» said Government Spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos.