Cameroon Crash Probe Focuses on Pilot's Decisions

DOUALA, Cameroon -- Cameroon's investigation into what caused a Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 to nosedive into a swamp seconds after takeoff would initially focus on the pilot's decision to leave despite predictions a thunderstorm would last up to an hour more, an official familiar with the probe said Thursday.

"We want to know why did other planes wait for the storm to pass and not him. That's the question," said the Cameroonian official familiar with the investigation. He would not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The Kenya Airways pilot did wait an hour because of a storm. Douala airport's weather report had predicted the storm would last for another hour. The official said the pilot of a Royal Air Maroc jetliner that was next to take off from the Cameroonian airport waited another 45 minutes after the Kenya Airways flight took off and encountered no turbulence.

According to aviation regulations, cockpit crews are free to take off in bad weather unless the local flight control takes extraordinary measures such as temporarily closing down the airport.

All 114 people aboard Flight KQ507 died in the crash.

Jim Hall, a former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which sent seven experts to help with the Cameroonian investigation, said it was vital to determine exactly what went wrong because the accident involved the 737-800, the most modern version of Boeing's family of short- to medium-distance jets of which more than 5,000 are in use worldwide.

"The 737-800 is the latest version of the world's most popular airliner," he said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "Any malfunction could have very wide implications."

Two representatives from Boeing were due to join the investigators, said Lonnie Kelley, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon.

The flight data recorder has been recovered but still needs to be decoded. The cockpit voice recorder has not yet been found.

The Cameroonian official said preliminary investigations indicated the plane had just raised its landing gear after takeoff and may have partially retracted its wing flaps when the accident occurred.

"He may have leveled off at about 400 feet and then continued climbing out at 250 knots to 3,000 feet," said the official.

He said speculation centered on the possibility that the plane flew into a storm cloud and was maneuvering when a strong gust of wind caught the Boeing and flipped it over, especially if it was banking steeply to one side to avoid a storm cell.

Another possibility is that it experienced engine failure, possibly from massive water ingestion, the official said.

Dale Schultheis, a former pilot for Cameroon Airlines, said air traffic control and navigation standards in the area conformed to regional standards.

"Flight planning was done by Cameroon Airlines and was generally quite good, as was the weather reporting," said Schultheis, who now lives in Florida.

Douala airport is not equipped with weather radar, but virtually all civilian airliners carry it to avoid flying into thunderheads - the violent cumulonimbus clouds whose severe updrafts and downdrafts can cause structural damage.

The 737-800 crashed nose-first in a swamp less than a minute's flying time from the end of the runway. But the wreckage was not found until more than 40 hours after the crash.


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