28 Nov 2008

Witness describes plane's last moments

9:43 pm on 28 November 2008

A witness to the crash of an Air New Zealand Airbus A320 on a test flight off France's southwest coast on Thursday says the plane dived abruptly before plunging into the Mediterranean.

A witness told French radio he saw the plane dive abruptly and plunge into the Mediterranean.

"I could see it was an airliner because I saw two large engines," the witness told French radio.

"There was no fire, nothing. It was flying straight, then it turned brutally towards the ground. I said to myself it will never pull out and there was a big spray of water," he said.

France's BEA civil aviation safety authority said the crash took place at 4.46 pm (1546 GMT) on Thursday when the aircraft was approaching the airport at Perpignan after a flight that had lasted about an hour.

A search team of five French navy ships will continue to scour the area through the night, although weather conditions remained poor.

Three bodies have been recovered but the chances of finding survivors were slim, given the length of time since the crash and bad weather in the area.

"We won't give up hope, but the search and rescue authorities are not optimistic, given the conditions, of finding any survivors," said Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe.

But French officials say there was no chance of survival for the crew.

Specialist divers were to swim down to the wreck of the plane at first light to try to retrieve the flight recorder and any bodies trapped in the wreckage.

The aircraft was sitting in shallow water, with the tail of the plane visible from the surface, about 2.5 kilometres from shore.

An Air New Zealand captain and three engineers were on the Airbus A320 airliner, along with a Civil Aviation Authority official, and two pilots from German charter airline XL Airways.

XL had been leasing the aircraft since 2006, but was about to hand it back to Air New Zealand and it was due in New Zealand by the end of the week.

Air New Zealand has named its four staff members. They are Brian Horrell, 52, a pilot, of Auckland; Murray White, 37, an engineer, also of Auckland; Michael Gyles, 49, an engineer, of Christchurch; and Noel Marsh, an engineer, also of Christchurch

The Civil Aviation Authority official was engineer Jeremy Cook, of Wellington

The family of Mr Marsh expressed their thanks to friends and Air New Zealand for their support, and to the French search and rescue authorities for their determined efforts to find survivors.

They say Mr Marsh relished the opportunity to travel to Europe to be involved in the acceptance process for the A320.

Mr Fyfe says those on board did not express any concerns about the aircraft before it plunged into the sea.

He says the aircraft had taken off from the local airport and there was nothing to indicate anything was wrong.

He was scheduled to leave for France on Friday evening, along with at least one family of a missing New Zealander.

Active involvement in probe

New Zealand will be actively involved in the investigation into the crash, says the Government.

Prime Minister John Key said on Friday afternoon that the crash was a "tragic loss" for the families of the crew and the airline.

Mr Key said the Government was in touch with Air New Zealand and was continuing to monitor the situation.

Mr Key said he doubted that the crash would damage the airline's reputation.

Ken Mathews, a deputy chief investigator for the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, was due to leave for France on Friday evening.

Mr Mathews says he hopes to view the wreckage and be privy to the contents of the black box when it is recovered.

However, he says his role in the investigation will mainly be to represent New Zealand's interests.

Two police officers specialiasing in disaster victim identification will also travel to France.

Transport Minister Stephen Joyce says the investigation will be led by French officials, but New Zealand will have recognised status within that investigation, and the Government intends that its officials will work alongside French authorities.

Mr Joyce says there is a clear process when accidents cross international jurisdiction. It allows New Zealand to have the status of either observer or accredited representation, as laid out in international civil aviation regulations.

He says the government's thoughts are with the families and colleagues of those on board the plane.

Sad day - Goff

Labour Party leader Phil Goff has expressed his sadness at the loss of lives, saying it is a sad day for Air New Zealand, the Civil Aviation Authority and the country.

He says he has spoken to the airline and expressed support for all those involved in the tragedy.

Erebus anniversary

The crash occurred on the 29th anniversary of Air New Zealand's biggest disaster.

Flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus while on a scenic trip over Antarctica in 1979. All 257 people on board died.

Mr Fyfe said on Friday morning that the anniversary added to the Airbus tragedy.

Plane four years old

Air New Zealand says the Airbus A320 was less than four years old and was bought new for its now-defunct discount operation Freedom Air.

Mr Fyfe says Freedom flew the plane for about a year before leasing it to XL Airways.

He describes the Airbus as being operated by XL Airways at the time of the crash.

The A320, a twin-engine, single-aisle aircraft that normally seats about 150 passengers, is manufactured by Airbus, a unit of European aerospace group, EADS.

About 1,960 A320 aircraft are in service with 155 operators around the world.

Airbus said the aircraft, powered by IAE V2500 engines, was delivered in July 2005 and had accumulated approximately 7,000 flight hours in the course of 2,800 flight cycles.