Cyprus airline rejects report that pilots were inadequate

NICOSIA – Cyprus’s Helios Airways denied a report yesterday that said below-par language skills and the inexperience of one pilot contributed to last month’s crash of an Athens-bound flight that killed all 121 people on board. The daily International Herald Tribune said crash investigators believe the pilots’ inability to respond to warning signals, inexperience and poor communication skills in technical English all contributed to the crash. But when AFP asked Helios spokesman Nikos Anastassiades whether he was confident the pilots were able to understand each other in English, he replied, «Absolutely.» «I’ve spoken to both pilots and their English was of a good standard,» Anastassiades said. «We employ pilots of the highest standards.» Citing sources close to the probe, the Paris-based newspaper, which is owned by the New York Times, said an air system knob, incorrectly set during maintenance, prevented the Helios Airways Boeing 737 from pressurizing properly and the crew failed to notice the problem during preflight checks. Then, as the aircraft ascended through 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), cockpit voice recordings showed that an alarm sounded that confused the pilots because of its dual purpose. Before takeoff, the alarm warns of improper pre-flight settings. Afterward, it means that the cabin is not pressurizing, and the pilots did not realize that, the report said. As the oxygen masks deployed while the plane continued to climb on autopilot another alarm sounded, further confusing the pilots, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. It was at this point that the pilots realized they did not possess any shared language well enough to discuss complex technical problems, according to the report, which described Cypriot co-pilot Pambos Charalambous as young and inexperienced. For normal flight operations, both had adequate command of English – the accepted default language for pilots – but they had difficulty working together to solve the unexpected technical problems they faced, the sources said. Anastassiades also defended German pilot Hans Juergen Mertens, 58, saying he was «up to scratch.» «The German pilot was very capable,» he said. «He possessed all the relevant certificates. He was in his second season with us and had over 17,500 hours’ flying time.» The spokesman said Helios did not want to speculate on the causes of the crash. «We want to know the causes as much as anybody, but we don’t like to comment on speculation,» Anastassiades said. According to the IHT report, Mertens left his seat to try to fix the alarm problem at a time when oxygen was already becoming thin. At some point after that he passed out, as did Charalambous. The report also said the crash of the plane – after a long period in an automatic holding pattern – came when one of its two engines cut out because fuel was running low.