Questions about the Yemenia crash

Recriminations continue over the Yemenia Airbus that crashed off the Comoros islands at the end of June, and it’s becoming reminiscent of the row between Egypt and Boeing after Egyptair flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic in 1999. In that case, investigators claimed the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane after uttering an “Islamic prayer”, while Egyptair blamed the manufacturers for a technical fault. The issue was never resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Similarly, the investigation into the Yemenia crash has become embroiled in cultural differences and conflicting interests.

As viewed from Yemen and the Comoros, the French investigators are behaving in a high-handed, colonialist sort of way and seem in no great hurry to complete the search for clues – giving rise to suspicions that don’t really want the truth to emerge. The French, on the other hand, no doubt view their approach as painstaking and methodical (qualities that are not necessarily appreciated in Yemen or the Comoros) and don’t want half-trained amateurs (as they probably regard the locals) messing it up.

Besides that, there are the vested interests. The Europe/France/Airbus axis will obviously do their best to safeguard the reputation of their plane. Yemen, equally, is concerned about the reputation of its national airline and especially its ability tocontinue using European airspace. And the isolated Comoros islands are desperate for airlines to continue using their hazardous and under-equipped Moroni airport – otherwise they will be even more cut off from the rest of the world than they are at present.

As for the crash itself, very little hard information has seeped out so far. This would be unusual if it had occurred in the US or Europe but it’s probably explained by the remote location, together with the lack of well-resourced media and inquisitive journalists in the area, rather than a deliberate concealment of the facts.

To find out more from independent and (presumably) knowledgeable sources, I have been searching the internet for pilots’ discussions about what could have happened. With no evidence (at least yet) of mechanical failure the most probable explanation they can offer is that the pilot accidentally flew the Airbus into the sea.

According to one professional opinion, “Moroni is a notoriously difficult airfield to fly into, especially at night [see maps]. The airport is at sea-level on the west side of a skinny island, with a 7,700-ft mountain just to the southeast of it and a 3,600-ft one to the northeast.” In the opinion of another, “We have a tough airport, tough weather... stuff happens.”

Landing at Moroni by night (which some airlines refuse to do) is rather like flying into a black hole. With very few ground lights for guidance, pilots can become disorientated – a condition known in the trade as CFIT.

One question this raises – and one that Yemenia should answer – is why it was running night flights to Comoros at all. According to the timetable, flights from Sana’a usually take off at 8.0pm or 8.30pm, arriving (if they are non-stop) four hours later.

Night flights may have something to do with the fact that Sana’a airport is at an altitude of more than 7,000ft, which can complicate take-off because of the thinner air, especially during the heat of the day. I was once told by a Yemenia pilot that their aircraft engines have been adjusted for this but they nevertheless have to be careful about takeoff weight. This can result in planes leaving fully-booked but with empty seats to save weight, something that tends to annoy passengers. The question here is: did Yemenia opt for night flights to Moroni so they could be more heavily laden?

Another question concerns Bahia, the teenaged girl who 
survived the crash and was eventually plucked from the sea by fishermen. Was this really the “miracle” that newspapers have made it out to be? Did others survive the crash, only to drown before search-and-rescue teams got to them? In about 30% of cases when planes ditch in the sea, some people survive. 

Clearly, darkness hampered the initial search in this case but the Comoros isn’t geared-up for such an operation anyway. Considering that it’s still struggling to provide an electricity supply for all its citizens, that’s not very surprising. Even so, one air industry professional thinks there ought to be a legal obligation for coastal airports to have at least one search-and-rescue plane and some speedy lifeboats. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 July 2009