St. Barths Online

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Aug 17, 2001

March 24 plane crash

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The Accident Investigation Bureau publishes its preliminary report.
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If the preliminary report concerning the March 24 plane crash in St. Barth contains no revelations as to the causes of the catastrophe, still undetermined, it can nevertheless be credited with providing specific and fairly elaborate details. Assigned by the government's Transportation minister to investigate the worst plane accident in St. Barth's history, the four investigators from the Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA) working on the case have been delegated one very important task: public safety. Unlike their judicial counterparts who will are handling the legal aspects of the accident, the BEA's mission statement is to prepare recommendations that will allow the civil aviation authorities to modify or create legislature and take other measures to prevent this kind of accident from happening again.
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The first and only recommendation to be made at this point concerns itself with flight information and how it is gathered. The Air Caraibe Twin Otter plane that crashed into a house in Public on its approach into the St. Jean airport on that Saturday afternoon was not equipped with a black box, nor was it required to, according to current regulations. What happened in those crucial, fatal moments preceding the flight that killed 20 people will not be known before the facts that could have been accurately registered and immediately accessed by an onboard flight recorder are painstakingly gathered and pieced together by investigators working on the case. The BEA is pushing the civil aviation authorities to shift existing legislation so that commercial carriers with a passenger seating capacity of nine and a maximum pre-takeoff ground weight of 5,700 kilos (12,540 pounds) are required to have at least one black box (flight recorder) on board.
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Lacking crucial information about those last moments in flight, the investigators have not yet been able to identify the cause of the accident. The BEA report deals extensively with the findings of the investigation, none of which point to mechanical failure, at least not at this preliminary stage. The Twin Otter's maintenance schedule conformed to civil aviation board standards. An investigation of the plane's twin engines revealed that they were damaged in a similar manner, allowing investigators to conclude that both were functioning properly when the plane crashed. Though some eyewitnesses reported to have seen luggage being flung from the plane a few moments before it crashed, the hatch to the plane's baggage compartment was found in the wreckage. There had, in fact, been a problem with the hatch, but the report states that it was corrected in St. Martin prior to the flight's departure.
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Was human error to blame for the accident or events leading up to the crash? At this point, BEA investigators give no credence to the most popular hypothesis in circulation -that human error proved fatal- and limit their comments to state that no pathological or medical anomalies have been discovered that could be traced to the crash. As for experience, the pilot, Jean-Paul Jerpan, had approximately 10,000 professional flying hours to his credit, 5,000 of them logged on Twin Otter plane. On the day of the accident, he, like his co-pilot, had already executed four previous landings in St. Barth. The fatal flight's co-pilot was far less seasoned. He had a total of 670 flying hours to his credit, only 15 of which were flown on the Twin Otter. Hired by Air Caraibes just four months prior, the co-pilot had made plans to leave his employer a few days after the day of the crash to work with another carrier.
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Currently, investigative efforts are focusing on a video that was found in the wreckage. Filmed by one of the passengers who perished in the flight (all 17 passengers died, as did the two-member flight crew and the resident of the home into which the plane crashed), the video has permitted investigators to identify three different 'sequences' of flight TX 1501. The first was filmed just after take-off, the second during the flight, and the third as the plane was making its approach into St. Barth. The images, being analyzed in a laboratory, may yield some explanations as to why the Twin Otter, after making an approach that eyewitnesses claim seemed lower than usual, veered to the left before nose diving and crashing just seconds later.
Yves Bourel


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