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The ATR 72 turboprop that crashed into a shallow river in Taiwan Wednesday is the second of its type to crash in little over six months – but experts said the aircraft’s safety record appeared unlikely to be a common factor in the accidents.
The TransAsia ATR 72-600 was less than one year old and had two experienced pilots at the controls when it banked to the left, clipped an elevated highway and plunged into murky waters moments after taking off from the capital, Taipei. At least 26 people were killed.
The same airline was involved in another deadly crash in July, when an ATR 72-500 crashed while trying to land in a storm at Penghu Island, killing 48 of the 58 passengers and crew on board.
In total, the Franco-Italian ATR 72 – one of the world’s most popular and reliable turboprops - has been involved in 10 deadly crashes since entering service in the early 1990s, according to the Aviation Safety online database.
However, U.K.-based aviation safety consultant Chris Yates said the plane’s safety record was “relatively favorable.”
“The weather appears to be the most likely factor in the July accident, whereas this one seems to have involved engine failure,” he said. “I think it’s unlikely the aircraft itself is the common cause.”
ATR, a consortium based in Toulouse, France, said it was sending a team to Taiwan to help in the investigation.
“At this time, the circumstances of the accident are still under investigation,” it said in a statement. “ATR expresses its deepest sympathy to the families, friends and to those affected.”
Investigators are likely to focus on why Flight GE235 was unable to safely return for a landing despite being designed to fly on only one engine in emergencies.
“It should have been able to climb out above the height of any obstacles, even if one of the engines was not working,” said air crash investigator David Gleave.
One theory is that the pilots were either unable, or failed, to secure the plane’s malfunctioning left engine, Gleave said.
“The roll to the left that we can see in the dashcam video is so rapid that it does not look like a deliberate maneuver,” he said. “It is possible that the malfunctioning engine was creating drag that made the plane impossible to control at that speed.”
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He added that the pilots “had a fair bit of experience” and that TransAsia’s training regime might come under scrutiny.
“There could factors specific to the airline that investigators might look at,” he said.
Yates said another possible theory was that the engines themselves did not malfunction but were starved of fuel.
FlightGlobal magazine reported that the pilot flying the plane had accumulated 4,914 flight hours and his co-pilot, 6,922 flight hours. A third pilot, with over 16,000 flight hours of experience, was also sitting in the cockpit, it said.
The joint deadliest crash involving an ATR 72 occurred on American soil, when American Eagle Flight 4184 slammed into an Indiana soy bean field in October 1994 after its wings iced up while waiting in a holding pattern. Sixty-eight people were killed in the crash, whose impact forces were so high that the victims and the wreckage disintegrated.