Large pieces of wreckage unlikely, says official

SilkAir plane believed to have crashed at high speed

AIRLINE investigators believe that the SilkAir jetliner that plunged into a river here crashed at such a high speed that there is little chance of finding any large pieces of wreckage.

“This is a very high-speed catastrophic break-up of the aircraft,” said National Transportation and Safety Bureau official Gregory Feith yesterday.

He told reporters that the MI 185 tragedy was similar to a crash he investigated in the United States 1 1/2 years ago, when a ValueJet aircraft crashed into the Florida Everglades.

He did not indicate the speed at which the Boeing 737-300 might have been travelling before it hit the water and tore apart, killing all 104 people on board.

Sources close to the investigation told The Straits Times that it could have been travelling at 600 miles per hour (960 kmh) with its throttle up, indicating that the pilots were trying their best to bring the plane up.

“That plane was a projectile out of control. There was no hope,” said one source.

Preliminary investigations revealed that it could have plunged from 35,000 feet and hurtled into the waters at an 80-degree angle.

One investigator said that the sudden fall would have caused many of the 97 passengers and seven crew to lose consciousness.

“Everyone, including the pilots, probably blanked out way before the plane hit the waters,” he said.

This, he added, could explain why there was no communication between the pilots and air traffic control in the last few critical minutes before the crash.

Mr Feith, who is assisting in investigations here, said that rescuers had so far recovered 10 per cent of the plane’s wreckage on land and in sea.

The debris found covered the aircraft’s front, middle and rear sections. The finds included parts of the engine and the fuselage. Larger pieces of the plane were found on land.

He said that search operations would speed up with the arrival of two dredges later this week.

“Some of the bigger and heavier pieces of the wreckage have settled down in the river bottom, making it difficult for divers to recover with their limited equipment,” he noted.

“Once the excavators are at the scene, I believe we will get an abundance of wreckage.”

He stressed that recovery of the plane’s debris was just as important as finding the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

“We need a combination of the three to understand what happened,” he said.

The flight data recorder, which was found by naval divers last Saturday, would give investigators an idea of the aircraft’s flight movements and also indicate whether any malfunction was “catastrophic or progressive”.

“The black box will tell us what was happening on flight. But we also need to look at the physical wreckage to determine why the plane crashed,” he said.

He said that while the search operations would end after complete recovery of the debris, investigations “can take months and possibly years depending on the information that is necessary to determine a probable cause”.

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