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Man called 'mayday' before Greek plane crash

An exhausted-sounding man sent last-minute Mayday calls from a Cypriot airliner that crashed earlier this month, Greek officials said Monday.
/ Source: Reuters

An exhausted-sounding man sent last-minute mayday calls from a Cypriot airliner that crashed earlier this month, Greek officials investigating one of civil aviation’s most baffling incidents said Monday.

The Helios Airways Boeing 737 crashed on Aug. 14 into mountains near Athens, plunging from around 35,000 feet up to kill all 115 passengers and six crew in Greece and Cyprus’ worst air disaster.

The cause of the crash is a mystery — the plane had flown for 2-1/2 hours without making radio contact, and F16 fighters scrambled to investigate had reported seeing no pilot present, and a seemingly unconscious co-pilot slumped in his seat.

As Helios started safety checks in Sweden on its remaining Boeings, the crash’s chief investigator said a steward who had some flight training was thought to have made the last cry for help from the plane’s cockpit.

In a letter to Greece’s transport ministry, Akrivos Tsolakis also said the Boeing crashed after the engines stopped, a possible signal the plane ran out of fuel after flying for nearly twice the scheduled 90-minute flight from Larnaca in Cyprus to Athens, a stop on the way to final destination Prague.

“There are signs there were problems with the compression system,” Tsolakis said in the letter, read out on state TV.

“There is proof that the engines stopped working, causing the plane to drop.”

Police have confirmed steward Andreas Prodromou, who was learning to fly small planes, was inside the cockpit and appeared to be trying to fly the plane for about 30 minutes before it crashed.

“The man who sent the mayday calls sounded tired and exhausted,” the letter said.

Greek media reported Athens control tower did not pick up the warnings because they were transmitted on a wrong frequency.

Carbon monoxide poisoning ruled out
Autopsies have found that those crew and passengers examined were alive on impact and did not suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly indicating that they suffered from a lack of oxygen to send them unconscious.

The plane took off from Larnaca in Cyprus and about 35 minutes later reported a problem with the air conditioning system, but was told to fly on to Athens.

Shortly afterwards Cypriot aviation officials failed to communicate with the plane’s cockpit and informed Athens control tower.

Almost an hour later, as the plane neared Athens but still failed to make any contact, two F16s took off to shadow the plane, which then crashed into the mountainside.

Helios, owned by Libra Holidays Group, a British holiday tour operator, has defended its record but revealed the crashed plane had a previous cabin pressure problem.

Last December the plane had to descend swiftly from 34,000 to 11,000 feet on a Warsaw-Larnaca flight, it said.

Helios flies to Athens, Greek islands, Dublin, Sofia, Warsaw, Prague, Strasbourg and British airports.