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THE WORLD

Singapore, Taiwan Clash on Jet Crash

Asia: Reports by airline and airport involved in the 2000 disaster seem in ways mirror images.

April 27, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Investigators from Taiwan and Singapore issued different findings Friday about what probably caused the crash of a Los Angeles-bound jumbo jet in Taipei nearly 18 months ago.

Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council listed pilot error and poor weather conditions as the main probable causes of the crash of the Singapore Airlines 747-400 on Oct. 31, 2000, while Singapore's Transport Ministry cited substandard airport equipment as a key factor in the disaster.

The crash, which killed 83 people and injured more the 90, occurred when the jet hit construction equipment as it tried to take off from a closed runway shortly before midnight in poor visibility.

In some ways, the reports appeared to be mirror images.

The Taiwanese findings, for example, acknowledge that runway and taxiway lighting at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport was less than ideal on the night of the accident but do not list them among the probable causes. Instead, they are labeled simply "risks."

The report paints a picture of pilots ignoring crucial ground warnings as the experienced crew became increasingly distracted by an oncoming typhoon and rushed to take off before weather conditions deteriorated further.

"There are certainly some mistakes at the airport itself, but they didn't lead to the crash," said Kay Yong, managing director of the Aviation Safety Council. "The flight crew did not use all the resources available to them."

Conversely, the report released in Singapore later in the day acknowledges that the pilots made mistakes but states that the primary fault was "a failure of the aviation system, rather than a failure of a person or people."

"The Singapore team believes that the major deficiencies at [the airport] played a critical role in the accident," the country's Ministry of Transport concluded.

It cited a litany of shortcomings, including broken taxiway lights, insufficient taxiway center line striping, poorly located signs to guide pilots to correct runways, and the absence of closure markings at the head of the closed runway that the pilots mistakenly used as they attempted to take off.

Commenting on the discrepancies in the findings, Yong said of the Singaporeans, "They are certainly entitled to present their point of view."

Whether negligence rested with the pilots, airport authorities or both, it is clear from the transcript of the cockpit voice recording that neither pilot had an inkling of danger until the plane slammed into equipment parked partway down the closed runway, which was under reconstruction.

The results of the two reports, each clearly emphasizing its own government's interests, will almost certainly become fodder for lawyers in lawsuits launched on behalf of victims and their survivors.

Within days of the crash, Singapore Airlines offered $400,000 to the families of each of those who died, but it is unclear how many have accepted the sum.

The plane's chief pilot and two first officers all survived the crash and remain employed by the airline, but they have not flown since the accident.

The crash marked the first major disaster in nearly three decades of long-haul flying for Singapore Airlines, which has one of the youngest fleets of aircraft in the industry. A 737 operated by a Singapore Airlines subsidiary, SilkAir, crashed in 1997 after going into a nose dive over Indonesia, killing all 104 people aboard.

*

Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei contributed to this report.

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