Libyan Airbus may have been attempting go-around in poor visibility after problems on approach

By Slobodan Lekic, AP
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Libyan Airbus may have been attempting go-around

BRUSSELS — The Afriqiyah Airways jet that crashed just before touchdown in Libya may have been attempting a go-around in poor visibility caused by sunlit haze, safety officials and pilots familiar with the airport said Thursday.

The Airbus 330-200 was carrying 103 people from South Africa to the Libyan capital, and a 9-year-old boy from the Netherlands appeared to be the lone survivor.

Both black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, were immediately recovered at the crash site in the capital, Tripoli. Investigators from the United States, France, South Africa, the Netherlands are reportedly helping Libya with the probe into the causes of the accident.

“I am assured that there will be a very thorough investigation, since (the French accident investigation authority) will be party to it and they are one of best accident investigators in the world,” said William Voss, president of the U.S.-based Flight Safety Foundation.

He cautioned that “it’s important to realize that early assumptions about an accident are often wrong.”

Investigators will likely consider technical reasons for the crash, such as catastrophic engine or structural failure just before touchdown. They will also look into whether the pilots were fatigued after a long overnight flight.

Still, safety officials interviewed by The Associated Press say questions have already been raised about the crash because of the condition of the plane’s wreckage.

Images and footage from the scene showed a wide debris field, with the aircraft having completely disintegrated, indicating a high-energy impact. But the images did not show any significant evidence of fire, which often accompanies accidents in which the plane’s fuel tanks are destroyed.

“I would first look into this, the lack of fire, when searching for a cause. Could it indicate fuel starvation?” said an aviation official who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

A safety expert who declined to be identified because of possible involvement in the investigation also noted that the lack of a fire may indicate that the plane was low on fuel after the long flight from South Africa.

Pieces of the fuselage appeared to have ended up facing backward — away from the direction of flight — raising the possibility that the Airbus had cartwheeled on impact.

That, in turn, would mean that the plane likely slammed into the ground with one wing tip first, instead of coming down with its wings level — indicating that the pilot may have been banking during the flight’s final moments, possibly attempting a go-around after problems on approach.

A frequent cause of aviation disasters during the approach and landing phase is known as “controlled flight into terrain,” in which an otherwise airworthy plane is accidentally flown into the ground or water, usually because of the pilots’ spatial disorientation.

Tripoli International Airport’s navigational systems are considered austere by international standards. On Wednesday, pilots were notified that a key navigational aide was showing false readings due to interference from a construction project — though interference is not uncommon at airports.

The main runway is positioned in an east-west direction, with most arriving aircraft flying in from the east because navigational aides are at that end of the runway and the prevailing wind is from the west. Airliners normally land and take off against the wind because it makes the process easier.

Still, the Afriqiyah Airbus approached the runway from the west, although the airport weather report showed the wind was blowing in the same direction. The pilots were thus looking directly into the sunrise while searching for the runway and also had to contend with an early morning layer of haze that reduced visibility at lower altitude.

A European pilot who has flown to Tripoli numerous times said the standard approach was from the east. He described as “strange” the decision to come in from the opposite direction, particularly in light of the wind direction.


Associated Press correspondent Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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