Pilot Autopsy May Shed Light On Cyprus Crash

August 16, 2005

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The co-pilot and two flight attendants on the Helios Airways airliner were alive when the plane crashed in Greece at the weekend killing all 121 aboard, the chief coroner of the investigation said on Tuesday.

The exact cause of Sunday's crash is still unclear, although initial reports had suggested many on board were already dead or unconscious at the time of impact because of an apparent loss of oxygen and cabin pressure in freezing temperatures at 35,000 feet -- nearly 10 km (six miles) up.

Giving results of autopsies on 26 victims, Philippos Koutsaftis told reporters: "All the (26) individuals, including the co-pilot and two stewardesses, died from multiple injuries to the body. They were alive when the plane crashed."

The Helios Airways Boeing 737 crashed into mountains near Athens, killing all 115 passengers and six crew on a flight from Larnaca to Prague with a stop in the Greek capital.

Autopsies have not yet been carried out on the three other crew members, including the German chief pilot whose body is yet to be confirmed as found.

In Cyprus, Kyriacos Pougrouris, a cousin of co-pilot Pambos Charalambous, said his relative had been called in at two hours' notice to help fly the plane when the scheduled co-pilot was unavailable. Pougrouris said his cousin had complained before the flight of "problems" with the aircraft.

"Pambos told his mother twice in the last week that there was a problem with the plane, not the same kind of problem as you have with a car that you can pinpoint easily," Pougrouris said in an interview with Cyprus State Radio on Tuesday.

In London, Helios Airways said in a statement the plane had suffered a loss of cabin pressure once before.

Police in Cyprus ended a search of Helios' offices for evidence in case of a criminal investigation into the disaster.

The pilot had reported a fault with the plane's air conditioning early in the flight. But some analysts believe the plane may have suffered a slow decompression, lowering oxygen levels in the cabin and cockpit and causing people to lose consciousness.

Coroner Koutsaftis said the co-pilot and a stewardess were found about a metre apart under the plane's cockpit. The Ethnos newspaper had reported earlier on Tuesday that the pilots of two F-16 jets sent to investigate the Helios flight had captured video footage of a female flight attendant trying to take control of the plane, while the co-pilot was slumped in his seat and the pilot out of sight.

The doomed flight was declared "renegade" when it entered Greek airspace and failed to make radio contact. The two F-16s reported seeing oxygen masks dangling before the plane crashed 40 kms (25 miles) north of Athens.

The two black boxes have been recovered, but a Greek official said the cockpit voice recorder was badly damaged and might be of little use.

To help unravel the mystery, Robert Benzon, who headed a US probe into what appears to have been a similar crash in 1999, has joined the Cyprus investigation.

In that incident golfer Payne Stewart's Learjet flew halfway across the United Sates on autopilot before crashing. Investigators found the crew were incapacitated because they did not get oxygen when the cabin lost pressure.

Experts said it was extremely rare for a plane, particularly a large passenger airliner, to lose oxygen and emergency systems should have kicked in enabling the pilots to take the plane down to a safe altitude.

Helios was Cyprus's first private carrier, established in 1999, and is owned by Libra Holidays Group, a British independent tour operator.

(Reuters)