29 Nov 2008

Search for bodies after Airbus crash

8:12 am on 29 November 2008

Navy divers returned to the scene of the crash of an Air New Zealand Airbus A320 at dawn on Friday in France.

Officials say the wreckage is lying on a sandy bank at a depth of 35 metres, about 7km off the coast of Perpignan.

Two bodies have been found. Five others are still missing.

Air New Zealand says two black box flight recorders have been located, but bad weather has hampered efforts to recover them.

The crash occurred at 4.46pm (1546 GMT) on Thursday when the aircraft was approaching the airport at Perpignan after a test flight that had lasted about an hour.

An Air New Zealand captain and three engineers were aboard, as well as a Civil Aviation Authority official and two pilots from a German charter airline, XL Airways.

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

Air New Zealand has named its four employees as: 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.

Crash scene

A rescue plane and a helicopter were at the crash area on Friday as well as several navy and coastguard boats.

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau flew over the site where the plane went down about 7km off the coast.

He said the plane went to France for tests and to be repainted in the colours of Air New Zealand before heading to Frankfurt in Germany from where it was scheduled to leave for New Zealand on Friday.

Built in 2005, it had been leased to German charter firm XL Airways since 2006. Airline spokesman Asger Schubert said the two pilots in the jet were German and worked for XL Airways Germany.

The jet had been undergoing servicing at EAS Industries in Perpignan and had been flying circuits for 90 minutes before it crashed.

Air New Zealand personnel gathered at the company's headquarters in Auckland have been told it was unlikely any of those on board have survived.

Erebus anniversary

Friday was on the 29th anniversary of Air New Zealand's biggest disaster.

Flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus while on a scenic trip over Antarctica on 28 November, 1979. All 257 people on board died.

Air New Zealand chief executive Rob 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.