No trace of fire or failure on tragic Flight NM7100
Aviation experts to focus on why pilot attempted third landing in fog
PRELIMINARY inspections by aviation safety experts have revealed no trace of a fire or major structural failure on board the Manx2 plane before it crashed on landing at Cork Airport in dense fog, killing six passengers.
Six passengers were also injured when the 19-year-old Fairchild Metroliner ploughed into the concrete runway while attempting its third landing at 9.52am last Thursday.
Visibility was reported to have been low at 300 metres.
Those killed included Brendan McAleese, 42, a cousin of President Mary McAleese's husband Martin; Pat Cullinan, a partner in the Belfast office of the accountancy firm KPMG, who was from Omagh, Co Tyrone; Michael Evans, Deputy Harbour Commissioner in Belfast; pilot Jordi Sola Lopez, 31, from Spain; co-pilot Andrew Cantle, 27, from England; and Richard Noble, a businessman from Derbyshire in the UK, who was living Belfast.
All those killed were seated in the front of the plane, which was crushed in the impact -- the sole survivor at the front being Peter Cowley, 31, who was seated directly behind the pilot.
Mr Cowley from Glanmire, Co Cork, is being treated for multiple fractures in Cork University Hospital (CUH).
Another survivor, Donal Walsh, 22, of St John's Hill, Waterford, stunned rescue officials by walking out of the wreckage virtually unscathed.
Last summer, Mr Walsh -- who had been attending an Evangelical Christian event in Belfast -- survived a car crash in fog.
The bodies of the six victims were expected to be released to the families over the next 24 hours, with funerals expected to be staged early next week.
Ireland's Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) is leading the probe into the crash, which includes experts from Ireland, the UK, Spain and the US.
The US team includes experts from the National Transportation and Safety Board, including Dr Daniel Bower, who worked on both the space shuttle Columbia tragedy and the 9/11 Twin Towers investigation.
They will try to determine why the young Spanish pilot attempted his fateful third landing -- and what caused the right wing-tip of the Metroliner to clip the runway and flip the plane into a summersault at around 180kmh.
Normal procedures are for a pilot to divert to another airport if two landing attempts have to be aborted due to restricted visibility.
Manx2 has insisted that both pilots were fully qualified and experienced -- but Mr Lopez had only recently operated as captain, having worked for several years as a co-pilot.
His British co-pilot, Andrew Cantle, joined the leasing airline just last month.
Mr Lopez had been with the carrier for 10 months and had 1800 hours of flight time on that particular type of aircraft; Mr Cantle had 720 hours' flight time.
Up until 2008, Mr Cantle had worked for the RNLI in his native Sunderland.
His parents, John and Ann, said they didn't believe he was supposed to be operating on the Belfast-Cork flight that day.
Manx2 chairman, Noel Hayes -- who flew back to Belfast from Cork yesterday -- insisted that both men were fully qualified to handle the turboprop in the prevailing weather conditions.
One Spanish newspaper, Regio7, quoted relatives of Mr Lopez's as saying that while he had obtained the rank of captain some time ago, he had "only been exercising this rank for a few days and (Thursday's) flight was one of the first in which he had acted as captain".
Two senior AAIU inspectors, Paddy Judge and Graham Liddy, told the Sunday Independent that they were building up an outline of the tragic last moments of Flight NM7100.
Mr Judge said inspectors were working with "a blank sheet of paper" and were not focusing on any specific theories at this stage.
But the experienced former pilot acknowledged that it was "unusual" for a pilot to attempt a third landing in dense fog.
"It is unusual alright, but it is not, in fact, prohibited. Each company would have its own operating rules," Mr Judge said.
"There (are) a lot of tensions associated with operating an aircraft, especially in low visibility such as we had here on that day.
"There is a lot of stress that arises from that," he said.
"Most operators would say that if you shoot two approaches then in fact you should have a particular amount of improvement in the weather before you should shoot a third.
"But it is far too early for us to go speculating as to whether he should or whether he shouldn't or what a pilot did or what a pilot didn't," Mr Judge said.
The shattered Metroliner was lifted by crane off the runway and kept in secure warehouse storage at Cork Airport before being shipped to Gormanstown, Co Meath.
The wreckage will be reassembled and examined in minute detail to determine if any mechanical or structural issue may have contributed to the crash.
The cockpit voice recorder was recovered and shipped to Farnborough in the UK for decoding and analysis of its data.
The conversations between the pilot and co-pilot in the 10 minutes before the crash were expected to prove vital in unravelling the mystery.
The AAIU team has interviewed five of the six survivors at Cork University Hospital (CUH) and several were able to detail the tragic last moments of the flight.
One passenger remains in intensive care and won't be available for interview for at least a week.
Mr Liddy said there was no sign of a fire erupting before the plane crashed -- and a ruptured fuel tank means that it will take inspectors some time to calculate just how much fuel the pilot had left as he circled Cork Airport.
"We have a lot of the jigsaw but we don't have the full jigsaw at this point in time," he said.
"But we think we have a fairly clear picture of the final moments of the aircraft."
Cork Airport re-opened at 7.14pm on Friday with a total of 83 flights diverted, operating from Shannon or cancelled since the crash.
The airport returned to full operations yesterday evening but manager Pat Keohane said that everyone's thoughts remained with the victims and their families.
Manx2 resumed services on the Cork-Belfast route at 10.45am yesterday.
A special memorial Mass for those injured and killed in the tragedy will be held at Ballyphehane Church in Cork at noon today and will be led by the Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr John Buckley.
Meanwhile, Mr Lopez's grieving parents and girlfriend flew back to their home outside Barcelona from Ireland yesterday after identifying his remains.
They returned without his body, which has remained at a morgue in Cork.