Reconstructing the Last Moments of Downed Kenya Airways Flight 507

Capt. Francis Mbatia Wamwea of Kenya Airways Flight 507 judged the weather had improved sufficiently to permit departure for Nairobi, Kenya.

The co-pilot, Andrew Kiuru was only 23. He joined the airline a year ago after completing flight school in South Africa.

The cockpit voice recorder has not yet been found, so no details of the final exchanges between Wamwea and Kiuru are available. It remains unclear which man was flying the plane at the time, but Wamwea would have been the ultimate authority.

The flight data recorder has been recovered.

Two minutes after Flight 507 would have been expected to reach 5,000 feet, the point at which it had been instructed to check in, Douala Area Control Center issued a distress message. This is normal practice by air traffic control when unable to immediately establish contact with an aircraft, a fairly frequent occurrence. But controllers, who had lost sight of the plane fairly quickly because of the storm, were not unduly worried because the plane had fuel for six hours flying time.

A search was launched at 2:44 a.m. when a French radar station sent in a message that an airplane distress signal had been picked up. A Cameroonian air force plane and two helicopters first flew over a region far to the south, basing their search on the distress signal which was in fact hundreds of kilometers (miles) away from the actual crash.

It is unclear why the signal was so far off the mark, but it appears the plane's emergency locator beacon's final signal was garbled - indicating a false position.

And although the crash site is virtually directly beneath the flight path for planes taking off from Douala, nobody saw it because of the jungle canopy that covers the area.

The wreckage was found 40 hours after takeoff by a local hunter who chanced upon it in a mangrove swamp and reported it to the air force. It was located just 5.4 kilometers (3.4 miles) from Runway 12. Using speed calculations, experts estimate the plane had been in the air for just 30 seconds and had never climbed over 3,000 feet (914.4 meters).

Commercial jets regularly fly over the area, one of several standard departure routes from Runway 12. Villagers living near the swamp said they heard planes passing overhead during the night, and a particularly loud boom which sounded like a thunderbolt.

Since there were no witnesses to the crash itself, investigators have pieced together the known facts and formulated several theories on what could have happened.

The wreckage in the thick jungle indicated the plane flew nose-first into the ground at a nearly 90 degree angle. It was found buried deep in a crater of reddish-brown muck with only tiny bits of the rear fuselage and wings left above ground. Trees nearby were smashed, but otherwise the jungle canopy remains intact, making the site almost invisible from the air.

Investigators said the nose-dive indicated that a violent gust of wind within a thundercloud may have flipped the airliner over, throwing it into a fatal dive. Although modern jets can usually fly through storm clouds, storms in Africa are particularly violent at this time of the year, investigators said.

The location of the wreckage also indicates the pilot was maneuvering at the time, banking sharply to the right. This would have exposed the raised left wing to the gust, investigators said.

The low altitude, would have made it impossible to recover from the resulting dive.

Investigators said they cannot yet discount other factors, including mechanical failure, pilot disorientation or even sabotage. But no sign of a blast or fire has been found so far by the search teams, which include seven experts from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and two Boeing representatives.

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