6 February 2000

Cote d'Ivoire: FBI agents fly to Abidjan as experts ask...Was it a bomb?

Nairobi — Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations are already in Abidjan following leads that the ill-fated Kenya Airways plane was either hit by a missile or blown apart by a bomb.

They arrived as it was revealed a Kenyan diver was reported missing as he searched for bodies in dangerous currents on the seabed.It is feared he had drowned.

The FBI team, which includes 10 agents who flew out from Nairobi, were scrutinising the angle at which the plane hit the sea, and the fact that both engines appeared to fail at the same time. They are convinced the Airbus jet was already in pieces before hitting the sea moments after taking off from the Cote d'Ivoire capital.

Preliminary investigations by the FBI shows security at the city's Houphet Boigny airport was lax and that a bomb could easily have been smuggled on board.

Pieces of debris from the stricken jet have been taken to Washington for analysis.

Evidence that the plane broke up before hitting the sea has already been given by at least two of the 10 survivors of the crash, reported exclusively in our sister newspaper the Daily Nation, on Wednesday.

One, Nigerian engineer Emmanuel Madu, said: "All I know is that the plane scattered while we were in the air; not before we hit the water."

Another witness said the plane lost power then started to wobble yawing in aviation jargon then oxygen masks came down and the lights went off.

Webuye MP Musikari Kombo who disembarked at Abidjan cannot relive this sequence of events. He can only give a second hand account. "Witnesses I talked to said they heard bang bang bang then saw pieces of the wreckage drop into the sea. One of them said he saw fire in the belly and at the rear."

At least 21 Kenyans, including the 11 crew members, were among the 169 people killed in the disaster.

The number of bodies recovered so far is 96 including nine of the estimated 30 lying on the seabed and 54 bodies are yet to be identified.

News of the Navy diver's disappearance came as Kenya Airways stepped up resources to recover the bodies.

A specialised helicopter, boat and scanning equipment have been ordered from different parts of the world.

A French Alouette helicopter will search beaches and the ocean surface 120 kilometres west from Abidjan towards the Ghana border. A boat large enough to accommodate the full diving team will also be taken to Abidjan.

In addition a boat is on its way from Ghana with specialised equipment for use in underwater searches.

"Hi-tech scanning equipment and underwater cameras, similar to the ones used in the Alaskan aircraft crash, are being brought from Dubai," Kenya Airways said.

A team of 12, including divers who specialise in difficult conditions and a support team of sonar operators and technicians, is also on the way to Abidjan.

Kenya Airways technical director, Steven Clarke said that the aim was to provide additional resources to help recover bodies and to provide further clues as to the cause of the disaster.

"Diving has been difficult to date because the seabed in the search area is very uneven and dives have been restricted in terms of depth and frequency," he added.

"At depths of 40 to 50 meters, the seabed suddenly plunges severely, causing additional hazards for the divers. They have been doing a magnificent job and we do not want to expose them to any unnecessary risks," he said.

The depth of the water in the area vary between 40 and 200 meters.

Mr. Clarke added that although the recovery of the flight data and voice recorders was the only way that the cause of the crash could be learnt, they were concentrating on the search for bodies.

Meanwhile, the bodies of Nellore Srinivasan and Karthikyan Srinivasan, destined for India, arrived in Nairobi yesterday morning and were received at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by senior Kenya Airways officials. They placed flowers on the coffins and held a minute's silence.

It was expected that a number of the bodies identified so far will arrive in Nairobi tomorrow morning.

As the grim process of putting names to the victims continues, fears are growing in Abidjan that the crash may indeed have been caused by a saboteur.

Proponents claim rivalry among aircraft manufacturers for the control of the global industry may have taken a new height.

"It is all politics. Here, people say it is all about rivalry between global aircraft manufacturers. The fear is potential loss of business," says Nation Investigative Editor Catherine Gicheru, now in Abidjan covering the disaster.

It is not a secret that KQ plans to replace its airbus fleet with Boeing 767s. Boeing's are made by an American firm, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, while the Airbus is the trademark of Airbus Industrie Europe, of France. The two are not only rivals, but the largest passenger aircraft manufacturers.

In this case, who would be sabotaging whom? Critics dismiss the theory. "It does not check out" says a KQ manager. But what is clear is that any manufacturer would want to place KQ, Africa's best airliner, under their fold. Kenya Airways is not only profit-making, it is among few in the world hardly tainted by accidents.

The manufacturers say an Airbus has an overall reliability of 99 per cent and is among the world's most reliable aircraft. Figures by Boeing in 1995 shows that the Airbus A320 and A321 record an average 1.73 accidents per million departures. Crashes involving the aircraft are attributed to human error rather than a fault with the aircraft.

Over the past decade, Airbus recorded ten major accidents an average of one accident a year. In every ten seconds, one of the world's 1,600 serviceable Airbuses lands or take-offs somewhere in the world. Airbus Industrie Europe has has sold more than 2,600 aircraft during its 25-year history.

But this record hardly washes with cynics. Aviation experts interviewed claim that although KA has no history of accidents within its fleet, questions have been raised over its ability to service its aircraft. Ill-fated Harambee Star was due to be replaced in two years.

Barely a fortnight ago, a KQ Boeing 737's flight to Kigali, Rwanda, aborted at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, when the aircraft's turbine cover ripped off in unexplained circumstances. The aircraft was later towed away to a hangar and passengers transferred to an Airbus.

Sources said the incident happened as the aircraft taxied on the runway ready for take off. "Before it lifted, we heard a loud bang and the pilot braked. We were later given another plane," said one of the passengers.

KA experts did not want to draw parallels between the accident and ill- maintenance of the fleet. First, they reasoned, the planes were of different makes.

Some KA hardliners want to focusing on the possibility that "a malfunctioning Houphet Boigny airport" precipitated events that led to the accident, according to a navigation officer at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

However, some experts refused to accept this theory on the basis that the plane plunged while taking off, not landing. "The lights on the runway were on," said a former KA pilot.

Currently, Houphet Boigny International Airport is being renovated. Breakdown in navigational tools are hardly rare, but aviation authorities in the country claim it is the "best airport on the shoreline." However, a Kenyan in the rescue team claims the facility lacks even the rudimentary facilities found in international airports.

The worry over the airport's performance is hardly surprising. A number of air accidents in West Africa have been linked to malfunctioning navigational tools. For instance, in February 1997, at least 23 people perished when an Air Senegal plane crashlanded immediately after take-off in Dakar. Three months before, a technical error at Lagos Airport caused the death of 142 people. And in September 1992, a Nigerian military plane crashes near Lagos Airport, 158 died.

Could the KA accident have occured due to structural failure? Proponents of this theory are convinced it broke up due to problems with either wings or thrust reversers, rudder, spoilers and the yaw damper. One or a combination of these vital structures either broke off or stopped operating as the plane picked height.

Experts contest this. According to a retired aeronautical engineer, the high waves made the plane bounce back.

"The waves were high and when the plane hit the sea, it must have bounced back and for those inside, it must have looked like the plane broke up in mid- air." He argues that the plane must have disintegrated on the second fall.

All aircraft have pre-flight checks. Ground engineers certify that all is fine before take off. "Before a plane takes off, tests are conducted on the engine, flaps and maximum power of the plane."

It is also not possible that it was caused by error on the part of the pilot.

"The pilots could not have been fatigues because regulations are clear that one should not do more than eight hours. To make matters worse the plane crashed a minute after take off, a time when pilots are alert and their concentration is high," says the expert.

Also contested is a theory that birds were the cause. A pilot who once flew the plane claims that birds do not move around in flocks after 7.30 pm. And since the crash happened after 9 pm local time, it is hardly likely that birds hit the wings or choked the turbines.

Britain's Aviation Safety Network has discounted speculation that the plane crash was caused by the fierce harmattan winds that had earlier forced it to overfly Lagos and land in Abidjan. At the time of the crash, ASN says, the temperature stood at 26 degrees centigrade while the winds were blowing at two miles an hour.

The network drew the attention of interested parties to the fact that the 14-year-old airbus had a good safety record. It had clocked 58,000 miles and had two engines. "The airbuses have only had five accidents since they went in to production in 1982," A spokesman told London-based Nation correspondent Mr. Paul Redfern.

The most plausible reason is that the plane had what a former pilot describes as "very serious malfunction".

"It is only the black box that is near the truth," says a pilot at Wilson Airport, Nairobi.

"I cannot speculate," says MP Kombo. "What I can tell you is that Flight 431 was okay throughout the trip, from Nairobi to Abidjan."

Suspended flights are, to Karachi, Pakistan, and Seychelles as it seeks temporary leases.

The twice weekly flights from Nairobi to Karachi and one of the three flights from Nairobi to the Seychelles will be affected until further notice.

Kenya Airways techical director Steve Clarke says the flight rescheduling would help free up capacity to enable the national carrier offer reliable services. "Temporary leases of additional aircraft continue to be sourced." he said.

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