Thai crash and mobile phones (II)

Fri Feb 26, 1999 7:06 am

From a Thai newspaper:

FLIGHT TG 261 crash investigators plan to seek help from Airbus Industrie to determine if mobile phone signals could have caused an electronic malfunction that doomed the plane, a source from the fact-finding committee said on Sunday.

Investigators pursuing the cellular phone theory as well as local telecom and computer engineering experts have admitted that there was no way to arrive at a conclusion without indepth information on computer hardware and software components of the aircraft. Airbus Industrie specialists have been ''in and out'' of the country since the Dec 11 tragedy, but the Thai investigators have only paid attention to the possible role of mobile phones recently, according to the source.

Meanwhile, a senior investigator insisted that none of the earlier theories have been ruled out. But AVM Thawan Mahadthai, director of Air Inspection, in his capacity as deputy chairman of the crash investigation committee, confirmed that the mobile phone issue had come up among investigators. ''Many investigators are interested in this question, but we have not ruled out other possible causes,'' he said. The committee has sought information from foreign aviation organisations regarding possible effects on an aircraft's operations from interfering cellular phone signals. He added that investigators had asked for Flight 261 passengers' phone records from the telephone and communications authorities as well as private mobile phone operators.

The passengers list has been cross-checked with mobile phone operators to determine who were carrying which model. The next step will be to check if calls were being made from the plane when it was landing in poor weather on the evening of Dec 11.

According to sources, investigators appear convinced that the plane went into an unusually steep climb after the third unsuccessful landing attempt, before stalling and crashing.Whether pilot error caused that, or whether it was a malfunction or assengers' ignorant use of mobile phones were to blame are to be proven. It is a contentious issue with possibly wide-ranging insurance implications.

Several factors have been linked to the tragedy -- the absence of an instrument landing system (ILS), equipment which could guide aircraft to land safely in bad weather; poor visibility; inadequate runway lights; and the pilot's decision to land repeatedly in poor conditions despite rules against it. It was only recently that electronic problems were mentioned as a possible cause.

The fact-finding committee has investigated the background of the pilot, who also died in the incident, and found him to have a clean record, sources said. However, previous records could be irrelevant to what happened during the fateful flight, it was admitted.

The pilot told his passengers during the second landing attempt that he might have to divert to another airport. This, it was suspected, could have triggered a flurry of phone calls to waiting relatives or friends.

The panel has postponed its Friday deadline to complete the probe, said Thawan. He did not elaborate on how much more time the committee needed. Committee members will meet on Monday to hear the latest reports from field investigators. Committee sources said it was possible the panel would not be able to come to a clear-cut conclusion on the cause of the crash which killed 101 people. But they insisted that any inconclusive point would be based on incomplete information, not the fear of lawsuits. The committee said it was immune to any lawsuit by international law.

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