Saturday, September 5, 1998

Pilot's calmness raising more questions

British crew's report could back claims situation misjudged

Crew aboard a British Airways plane who monitored the last moments of Swissair Flight 111 said its pilot sounded calm as he struggled to maintain control in a smoky cockpit.

The crew's initial response to Swiss pilot Urs Zimmermann's declaration of an emergency was to "monitor the conversation with casual interest," a British Airways crewmember told Transportation Safety Board investigators.

"There was no panic or urgency in the pilot's voice," the unidentified crewmember said in a statement read at a news conference yesterday. "It was apparent the communicating pilot was wearing an oxygen mask."

Significant portions of the conversation between Zimmermann and an air-traffic controller at the regional flight centre in Moncton were missing from the transcript released Saturday.

Vic Gerden, chief investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said the tape was sent to Ottawa for processing as authorities try to account for the loss of 229 lives.

But the statement by the British Airways crew appears to back claims by some critics that Zimmermann might not have appreciated the gravity of his predicament. The veteran pilot and instructor had logged 9,300 hours in the air, 900 of them in Boeing MD-11s like the one in which he died.

Yet when confronted with smoke in the cockpit, a situation many pilots consider more serious than engine fires or failures, Zimmermann did not declare a Mayday, a distress call indicating a need to land immediately.

He instead chose the lesser declaration "Pan," an early stage of emergency in which a pilot determines he needs to turn back. The call came at 10:14 p.m., 70 nautical miles southwest of Halifax International Airport.

It wasn't until Zimmermann reached landfall after crossing open ocean he informed the controller he needed more than the 30 nautical miles he had left before landing.

Zimmermann then flew about 20 nautical miles northwest, away from the airport, before declaring he had to dump fuel. The controller replied "OK" and cleared him to turn away. A short time later, Zimmermann declared an emergency, although he never used the word "Mayday."

"We have to land immediately," he said.

They were apparently the last words the tower heard before Flight 111 plunged into the sea, killing all aboard.

Alan Wolk, a U.S. pilot and aviation lawyer, said in a statement Zimmermann's initial lack of urgency "consumed precious minutes which could have avoided the crash."

Wolk and other experts say when confronted with smoke in the cockpit Zimmermann should have begun an emergency descent and headed directly for the runway.

Wolk said the crash was especially preventable because the MD-11's specific ability to descend swiftly and land overweight without risk.

"We'll never know if the pilots were concerned with how they would be viewed," Wolk said. "If they had declared an emergency right away and landed overweight and the smoke was found to be inconsequential. Eliminating their choice in the matter may avoid such concerns in the future."

Swissair officials told a news conference in Zurich yesterday computer simulations showed landing from 33,000 feet at 30 nautical miles in an MD-11 that was 30 tonnes over recommended landing weight could not have been done.

Gerden suggested such computer simulations can be suspect. - CP

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