Crash 'brings back memories'

2009-06-02 08:35

Pretoria - “We’re looking for less than a needle in a haystack.”

This is how Charles Norval, head of the South African search-and-rescue organisation in Johannesburg, described the search for the missing Air France plane in the South Atlantic Ocean on Monday.

 “Nobody knows exactly how far the plane still flew after it sent an automatic emergency signal.

“Therefore there’s no specific area which can be searched - the ocean is huge, and even more so when you’re looking for remnants of a plane.

“But in terms of search-and-rescue, we never give up, and for the moment we and our colleagues in Brazil believe that there is real hope that some of the passengers will be alive when they’re found.

“The pilots could’ve made an emergency landing on the open water, and the passengers could’ve floated like that for several days.

“There might be ships in the area which could pick up survivors. We never give up until quite a reasonable amount of time has passed.”

Helderberg disaster

Norval said any airplane disaster involving the ocean is sure to elicit strong emotions - on Monday he experienced this yet again, just like in 1987 when he was on duty as an air traffic controller during the Helderberg disaster.

The Helderberg, a South African Airways Boeing 747, crashed into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mauritius in November 1987. All 159 passengers on board died.

“You’d have these families waiting in vain for their loved ones, and you’d realise how difficult it was going to be to get all the answers concerning what went wrong.

“The big difference between Monday’s situation and the Helderberg, is that the Helderberg’s pilots continuously communicated about the problems on board.

There was presumably a catastrophe on board the plane on Monday, which must have made communication impossible, save for the automatic emergency signal.”

SA looking for emergency signals

Airplanes and ships in the search-and-rescue area for which South Africa is responsible were asked early on Monday to be alert to any emergency signals which might originate from the Air France flight – even if the supposed accident happened outside this area.

The plane’s emergency beacons send out signals when the plane strikes something or comes into contact with seawater.

“We monitor the emergency frequencies anyway, but we’re more attentive to any signal in a situation such as this.”

Norval feels it would be irresponsible to speculate about the reasons for Monday’s disaster.

“What we do know is that there was a catastrophe on board due to strong turbulence. It was so bad that the crew were only able to send out an emergency signal. One suspects that there might have been structural problems on the plane due to the turbulence, but we simply don’t know how far the plane was able to fly.”

According to Norval, electronic and satellite resources are now being used to determine to plane’s position.