By Constantinos Psillides
MEMORIALS will be held in both Cyprus and Greece today to mark nine years since the Helios plane crash just north of Athens killed 121 passengers and crew en route to Prague.
Around 100 relatives of those who died are already heading for Greece to attend the memorial service at Grammatiko, the hillside where the plane went down and where a small chapel has been built. In Cyprus, the memorial will be held at the church of Ayia Paraskevi in Mosfiloti in the Larnaca district
The Helios crash on August 14, 2005 was the worst air disaster in Cyprus’ history in which 107 of the victims including four crew members were Cypriots while 12 plus one crew member were Greek, and the captain, Hans-Jürgen Merten, 58, a German national. His first officer was Cypriot Pambos Charalambous, 51.
Helios Airways flight ZU522 took off from Larnaca Airport at 9.07am for a weekly scheduled flight to Prague, via Athens.
Also on board was stewardess Charis Charalambous, a 25-year old speech-therapist who had studied in the Czech Republic and found employment with Helios, and steward Andreas Prodromou, Charalambous’ boyfriend who had changed his schedule to spend some time with her. Prodromou was also training to be a pilot.
Unknown to the flight crew, the aircraft had undergone an inspection the night before because the previous flight crew reported a frozen door seal. The ground engineer who carried out the inspection had to perform a pressurisation leak check as per standard procedure; to complete the check he had to turn the pressurisation system from “AUTO” to “MANUAL” but neglected to reset it.
The mistake should have come up during the three flight checks, but according to the accident’s report findings “pilots failed to recognise that the cabin pressurisation mode selector was in the MAN (manual) position during the performance of the pre-flight procedure, the before-start and the after take-off checklists.”
As the plane climbed to cruising altitude, the cabin altitude warning siren sounded but the pilots mistook the warning sign as the one that signals that the plane was not ready for take off.
As per standard procedure, whenever a warning sign goes off in the cabin pilots are required to immediately stop the climb and bring the plane to a breathing altitude and then identify the problem. Having mistaken the pressure horn for a minor problem, the pilots continue ascending to cruising altitude while at the same time trying to figure out what the problem was. With the cabin not properly pressurising, it wasn’t long until hypoxia set in and the crew effectively lost control of the plane.
When oxygen masks in the cabin deployed and other warning signs begun flashing, the flight crew contacted Larnaca Air Traffic Control (ATC) to report the problem. Their speech was erratic, as they were experiencing the early onset of oxygen deprivation.
After a short talk the flight crew stopped responding despite repeated attempts by the Larnaca ATC.
The plane continued to climb to its cruising altitude and finally levelled at 34,000 feet. Larnaca ATC kept on trying to get in contact with the pilots but to no avail. When the plane entered Greek FIR Athens ATC also tried to established contact but likewise failed.
Faced with the very visible danger of a renegade plane heading towards a heavily populated area, the Greek Armed Forces scrambled two F-16 fighter jets from the Nea Anchialos Air Base to establish visual contact. The jets intercepted the plane at 1124am and reported the captain’s seat was empty, the first officer motionless over the controls and the oxygen masks deployed in the cabin.
While flying alongside the plane, the pilots saw a man entering the cockpit at 11.49am and sitting on the captain’s chair. The man, later identified as the steward Prodromou, reportedly tried to take over the plane but was lacking the necessary qualifications. The trainee pilot sent out two mayday signals at 11.54am which were received by the Larnaca ATC since the frequency wasn’t changed.
Jet pilots reported that Prodromou was using one of the portable oxygen cylinders found in the front of the plane to remain conscious. Since he was stationed in the back galley, investigators assumed that he used passenger oxygen masks to get there.
At 11.50am the left engine stopped working – investigators presumed fuel starvation- and was followed by the right engine at 12 noon. At 12.04pm the plane crashed. There were no survivors.
News of the crash stunned Cyprus. Relatives of the victims demanded that the airline owners were brought to justice, as they felt they were responsible for the accident since reports emerged claiming that Helios employees were overworked and fault reports were overlooked.
Subsequent investigations concluded that human error was the main cause of the accident as both pilots reportedly failed to carry out routine checks that would have identified the problem beforehand.
Not being satisfied with the investigations and acting under the weight of public outcry, the Attorney- general asked that four Helios officials – former chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov, chairman of the board Andreas Drakos, chief executive officer Demetris Pantazis, and operations manager Giorgos Kikidis- were brought up on 119 charges of manslaughter and death by negligence. The four were acquitted of all charges in December 2011, after the court concluded that there was no causal association between the four of them and the causes of the accident.
Shortly after the trial in Cyprus, a trial in Greece started since the plane crashed on Greek soil. Demetris Pantazis, Giorgos Kikkides, Ianko Stoimenov and chief engineer Alan Irwin were charged with manslaughter and were finally found guilty in April 2012, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. They appealed the verdict but lost the case before the Greek Supreme Court. Under Greek law, the defendants were given the option of buying out their sentences, which lead to each one of them paying €75,000 in August 2013 to be set free.