Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Swissair Crash: Blemish on Good Safety Record Officials See No Sign of Terrorism but Have Not Pinpointed Cause of the Air Tragedy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Swissair Crash: Blemish on Good Safety Record Officials See No Sign of Terrorism but Have Not Pinpointed Cause of the Air Tragedy

Article excerpt

As international investigators scour the cold waters off the coast of Nova Scotia, airline experts say the crash of Swissair Flight 111 late Wednesday was a tragic punctuation to what overall has been a good year for airline safety.

"In the United States, 1997 was a pretty good year, and this year seems to be equally good," says Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, in suburban Washington. "But the actual number of accidents on a worldwide level are around the same as we would anticipate - between 30 and 40."

The Swissair MD-11 took off from Kennedy International Airport Wednesday night bound for Geneva with no signs of trouble.

When the plane was about 42 miles from Halifax International Airport, the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. He dumped fuel and attempted an emergency landing. The plane then disappeared from the radar screens and crashed into the Atlantic about six or seven miles off shore.

US officials say so far there is no indication that terrorism was involved. Ground crews at Kennedy have been on heightened alert since recent US airstrikes on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and the Sudan. Still, investigators yesterday began quizzing everyone who had contact with the jet before it took off.

If air-safety experts retrieve the Swissair's "black box," it may reveal clues about what happened to Flight 111. The small electronic device records crucial data while the plane is in flight, including the communications of the crew. Investigators are particularly interested in the reports of smoke in the cockpit.

"Much of the time that emanates from the cargo spaces, but that's not necessarily the case here," says Aaron Gellman of the transportation center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The most notable example of fire in the cargo hold was the May 1996 ValueJet crash, in which canisters of oxygen were improperly packaged and labeled.

And Mr. Gellman also cautions against jumping to any conclusions until more information is available. …

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