Taiwan plane crash: Engine shut off by pilots

Divers and other rescuers walk along the Keelung River searching for missing passengers. Picture: Getty
Divers and other rescuers walk along the Keelung River searching for missing passengers. Picture: Getty
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ONE of the engines on ill-fated Trans-Asia Airways Flight 235 went idle 37 seconds after take-off, and the pilots apparently shut off the other before making a futile attempt to restart it, Taiwan’s top aviation safety official said yesterday.

The preliminary findings from the flight data recorder were presented at a news conference by Aviation Safety Council executive director Thomas Wang.

Wednesday’s crash into a river in Taipei minutes after take-off killed at least 35 people and left eight missing. Fifteen people were rescued after the accident, which was captured on a dramatic dashboard camera video that showed the ATR 72 turbo-prop banking steeply and scraping a highway overpass before it hurtled into the Keelung River.

Mr Wang said the plane’s right engine had triggered an alarm. However, he said the data showed it had not shut down, or “flamed out” as the pilot told the control tower, but rather moved into idle mode, with no change in the oil pressure.

Then, 46 seconds later, the left engine was shut down, apparently by one of the pilots, so that neither engine was producing any power. A restart was attempted, but the plane crashed 72 seconds later.

It’s unclear why the second engine was shut down, since the plane was capable of flying with only one. Several internet aviation sites have queried whether the pilots may have turned off the wrong engine in an attempt to restart the idled one.

Mr Wang said it was too early to draw firm conclusions about the reasons why the first engine had ceased producing power. “It’s only the third day so we can’t say too much,” Mr Wang said. “We haven’t ruled anything out.”

Taiwanese vice-president Wu Den-yih, mindful of the island’s reputation as a tourist destination and its tense relations with China, where most of the flight’s passengers were from, went to a Taipei funeral home where bodies are being stored for prayer sessions to pay respects.

He expressed his condolences and praised pilot Liao Chien-chung, who died in the crash. The pilots may have deliberately steered the plane away from buildings and into the river in the final moments.

“When it came to when it was clear his life would end, [the pilot] meticulously grasped the flight operating system and in the final moments he still wanted to control the plane to avoid harming residents in the housing communities,” Mr Wu said.

“To the plane’s crew, the victims … I here express condolences.”

Divers with a local fire agency found one female and three male bodies yesterday along the muddy Keelung River bottom, about 50 metres from the crash site, a Taipei city fire department official said.

The agency suspects the eight bodies that are still missing may be in equally murky waters and has sent 190 divers to look for them.

Taiwan’s ministry of national defence dispatched three S-70C rescue helicopters to search along a river system that runs into the ocean off Taiwan’s north-west coast.

More than 30 relatives of victims cried, prayed or were comforted by Buddhist volunteers at the riverside crash site as divers in black wetsuits brought back the four bodies. Some divers came ashore with their hands joined in prayer for the people they brought back. The pilot’s and co-pilot’s bodies were found earlier with their hands still on the controls, Taiwan’s ETToday online news service said.

Mr Wang said the cockpit flight recorder was being analysed and a transcript would be provided as soon as possible.