Airliner crashes in Greece
August 14, 2005 3:41 AM   Subscribe

A Helios Airways Boeing 737 crashed into a mountain in Greece this morning. It is reported that there were 115 passengers and 6 crew aboard. According to the folks on, shortly after take-off, the pilots reported some sort of problem with the cockpit air conditioning. Radio contact was then lost. The Greek air force scrambled two F-16s; the pilots reported that when they looked through the cockpit window they could see the co-pilot slumped forward across the controls, and no sign of the captain. The airliner subsequently flew into a mountaintop near Athens.
posted by cstross (45 comments total)
Stupid, uninformed speculation: I wonder if maybe the A/C system was rigged with some kind of toxic substance? I realize this is a very obvious thought, but since there are no comments yet....

What a tragedy for the families. :(
posted by Malor at 3:52 AM on August 14, 2005

this is incredibly bizarre. wow.
posted by blacklite at 3:56 AM on August 14, 2005

posted by Espoo2 at 4:05 AM on August 14, 2005

More from; apparently a relative of one of the passengers on the plane received a text (SMS) message saying it was "absolutely freezing on the plane". Also that the people on the plane including the pilot had "blue faces" because of the cold.

At the altitude at which a Boeing 737 (or any other jet airliner) flies, the outside temperature is around -70 degrees fahrenheit (-30 celsius). Air is compressed and heated before being fed into the cabin. It takes several minutes to descend from cruise altitude under normal circumstances. While the crew have oxygen cylinders, that wouldn't help them much if they suddenly found themselves sitting inside an antarctic grade deep freeze.

There is no need to speculate about terrorism here. Greece isn't a target for groups who go after airliners.
posted by cstross at 4:20 AM on August 14, 2005

Cyprus would be though. It has a large area of the counry set aside for British/US forces, there is also the division with Turkey.

However, I am inclined to believe this is an error rather than terrorism.
posted by Navek Rednam at 4:29 AM on August 14, 2005

Sounds like a horrible malfunction to me. The first link isn't working, can someone link to something with details?
posted by Acey at 4:39 AM on August 14, 2005

First link works for me, here's a BBC story though.
posted by Navek Rednam at 4:42 AM on August 14, 2005

-70F = -56C

Pedantic man!
posted by parki at 4:43 AM on August 14, 2005

Acey... details are few. The BBC article I linked to before has more details. There's also a Wikipedia stump entry that might develop, but given the nature of the incident it'll probably be quite some time before anyone knows anything more.

In what way does it sound like a malfunction? The pilot was missing and the co-pilot slumped over the controls.
posted by nthdegx at 4:43 AM on August 14, 2005

cstross, to my best knowledge, five minutes in -70 won't knock you unconscious, as long as you have oxygen. It's not gonna be COMFORTABLE, and you might possibly get frostbite on your ears, but you won't die. There's plenty of time for a plane to get down to survivable altitudes, as long as the emergency oxygen is working.

I don't think temperature suffices as an explanation.
posted by Malor at 4:46 AM on August 14, 2005

-30 C isn't enough on its own to make you completely useless. There are procedures in place -- you'd descend and it'd get warmer. I think maybe it might have been an explosive failure of some really integral part of the air conditioning? Which perhaps also totalled some of their emergency oxygen tanks?
Apparently 80 of the 110 passengers were children (?), which I can imagine would have made things a hell of a lot more difficult.
Nothing really makes sense except for sudden loss of air, though. Perhaps it was just fast enough for them to lose their senses of reason at just this wrong rate for everything to happen like this.
The airliners forum has a report from a Greek planespotting site that indicates this aircraft had some issues with the air conditioning previously on a flight to Luton airport (UK).
All the failsafes and backups, and stuff like this still happens. Scary and totally bizarre.
posted by blacklite at 4:47 AM on August 14, 2005

Oh, -56 C sounds ... definitely more chilly. But I'm pretty sure Malor is still right.
posted by blacklite at 4:48 AM on August 14, 2005


I don't know what happened, but I'm impressed they got the jets to observe the airliner, considering the timeline. Sounds like decompression to me. Oxygen is a big factor, though, in that your ability to think clearly is impaired almost immediately.
posted by Busithoth at 5:31 AM on August 14, 2005

obligatory comment from a manitoban: you can survive in -30 to -40 w/o adequate protection as many people have mentioned for at least 10 to 20 minutes. Any more than that, and there will be problems.
posted by sleslie at 5:33 AM on August 14, 2005

The reason it was so cold was because the plane depressurized, which == unconcsciousness in a few minutes == flying plane into ground.

Highly doubtful that it was terrorism-related.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:00 AM on August 14, 2005

blacklite : you probably saw that number of 80 children on the wiki page. I believe that was an error and last time I checked it was already corrected.
posted by Narnia at 6:10 AM on August 14, 2005

The reason they have emergency oxygen in a plane is because, amazingly enough, they knew that already, Civil.
posted by Malor at 6:15 AM on August 14, 2005

"I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not. Our top news story for today. . ."
posted by spock at 6:24 AM on August 14, 2005

At the altitude at which a Boeing 737 (or any other jet airliner) flies, the outside temperature is around -70 degrees fahrenheit (-30 celsius).

If it was really -70F in the cabin, they were almost certainly at least partially (if not fully) decompressed. More proof of hypoxia: "Also that the people on the plane including the pilot had "blue faces" because of the cold." Blue skin due to lack of oxygen is a classic sign.

The kicker is that just being really cold isn't going to instantly, or even quickly, incapacitate the flight crew. They'd just descend to warmer air. Deep cold hurts, and it will kill you, but -70F doesn't stop you in less than a minute. One of the overwinter rituals in Antarctica is the -100F club -- where you run outside, around the south pole and back, naked except for boots, when the air temp is -100F or below.

This isn't cold. This is slow hypoxia, and the masks may well have dropped, too late, or the crew too affected by lack of oxygen to use them.

But that doesn't sound quite right either. More info is needed, but I seriously doubt this is just "cold," unless it is a combination of "cold and really fucking stupid."

Remember Payne Stewart and company? Slowly bled O2 out of the plane at altitude. Everybody on board passes out, the autopilot keeps the plane at thirty-some thousand feet, and they fly across the US, until the plane crashes for lack of fuel.

Cold, I don't buy -- even a sudden onslaught of -100F isn't likely to instantly disable the crew.

Note, however, that I'm willing to bet that there were signs of something wrong with cabin air, and the flight crew brushed them off. This "hint of problem, ignored" is a very common thread in many of the "fell out of the sky" style incidents.

(and, hey, I found the spellcheck button. Thanks, matt!)
posted by eriko at 6:30 AM on August 14, 2005

Greece isn't a target for groups who go after airliners

Flight 847 was hijacked out of Athens just over 20 years ago. But those were Shiite Lebanese, not the current bad guys.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:54 AM on August 14, 2005

I'm with eriko -- Payne Stewart's crash was the first thing I thought about when I read this story. We'll have to wait to see what the investigation shows, but it doesn't seem like there's any reason to think terrorism at this point.
posted by Zonker at 7:05 AM on August 14, 2005

from Yahoo news: Greek state television quoted Cyprus Transport Minister Haris Thrasou as saying the plane had decompression problems in the past.

(/grain of salt, considering the source)

if it does turn out to be true, oi.

posted by killy willy at 7:11 AM on August 14, 2005

Maybe the pilot left the cockpit to calm the passengers or do something else related to the emergency, and while he was away, the copilot passed out, and the plane crashed then.
posted by bingo at 7:31 AM on August 14, 2005

posted by amberglow at 8:02 AM on August 14, 2005

Poor everyone. But if I have to die on an airplane, some version where I pass out before the hurty part has great appeal.
posted by dame at 8:05 AM on August 14, 2005

Except, dame, before reading this thread, I'd never stopped to think about how cold the atmosphere is at that height. One more thing to add to my Why Man Was Not Meant to Fly list.

And like bingo, I thought of non-terrorist reasons the pilot was not seen in the cockpit. (Perhaps even that a body had slumped onto the floor and could not easily be seen from a fighter jet zooming alongside?)

Shudder. Stories like this and the Payne Stewart one are creepy.
posted by NorthernLite at 8:31 AM on August 14, 2005

posted by VulcanMike at 8:31 AM on August 14, 2005

Well, NothernLight, I suppose the question is how long are you both cold and conscious?
posted by dame at 8:44 AM on August 14, 2005

Hmm. Resembles the plane crash that killed Payne Stewart a couple years ago. The plane flew halfway across the United States with everyone on it dead. It still creeps me out. And I guess this will now, too.

On every flight, I now think to myself: "Doesn't the air feel kind of *thin* in here?"
posted by washburn at 8:54 AM on August 14, 2005

Whoops; missed Eriko's earlier post. Now I am redundant.
posted by washburn at 8:58 AM on August 14, 2005

There have certainly been quite a few accidents involving jstliners lately haven't there?
posted by N8k99 at 9:11 AM on August 14, 2005

It concerns me a little that people think 'terrorism' so quickly. Did people always act this way at the sign of disaster, or have we been conditioned to respond like this?

Like I said, with more details we might know the truth, and I hope it wasn't anything malicious.

NorthernLite: before reading this thread, I'd never stopped to think about how cold the atmosphere is at that height. One more thing to add to my Why Man Was Not Meant to Fly list.

Do you feel the same about cars? How about medicine?
posted by Acey at 9:30 AM on August 14, 2005

There should be some automatic mechanism for masks to deploy once the partial pressure of oxygen dips below a set limit.
posted by mert at 10:02 AM on August 14, 2005

mert, there is an automatic system. However the oxygen in there is only for 30 minutes, during which time the crew has to bring the airplane down to about 3000 meters where the air is breathable. However something else obviously went very wrong.
posted by sebas at 10:07 AM on August 14, 2005

The pilots have an emergency oxygen system (no walkaround bottles evident in the 737 systems sites I've found so far except for a Draeger smoke hood...) and if it was empty and the airco quit pressurizing the cabin there's a warning horn that goes off at the 10,000 ft level.

There's also a warning horn cutoff, btw.

They'd have to ignore one or two pressure gauges to fly with an empty oxygen system. If there was a cutoff valve downstream from the pressure indicator, that could be the point of failure. Pressure alarm went off at 10k cabin altitude, they put on the masks and set them to normal (not emergency 100% oxygen) and don't notice there's no oxygen flowing since the regulators mix air and oxygen proportionally until above about 20-25k feet cabin altitude. They turn off the horn, start working on the problem.

Hypoxia sets in slowly, and they focus on the problem... then lose focus and pass out before they realize they need to descend, even though it'd throw them off schedule. (Get-home-itis and Keepus-Schedulis has killed hundreds of pilots.)

Could be the pilot realized what happened and went for the Draeger smoke hood and the oxygen supply in that, but waited a few seconds too long and passed out trying to get to it. From there, with the plane on autopilot, it's just a matter of time till something really hard gets in the way of the plane.

That's the most likely failure, I think. Time will tell what the actual cause was. Damn bad thing, no matter what the cause.

posted by JB71 at 10:45 AM on August 14, 2005

They've found the flight recorders, but as I understand it they only record the last 20 minutes.

If this thing was cruising along and took a while before it hit the ground, it's going to be pretty hard to understand this one...
posted by marvin at 11:38 AM on August 14, 2005

N8k99: "There have certainly been quite a few accidents involving jstliners lately haven't there?"

It makes you wonder, doesn't it? I can't help thinking that profit pressures might make some airlines cut corners on maintenance and safety. That quote from the Cyrian minister is just the sort of thing I worry about.
posted by tommasz at 1:14 PM on August 14, 2005

Yeah, marvin, they missed their ATC at 10:37, almost 90 minutes prior to the actual ground impact. It's going to be pretty hard to figure this out mechanically, too, as "controlled flight into ground" often pulverizes components.

I'm guessing the pilot violated procedures and went in back (or below?) to try to fix things manually. Which is about as dumb as that guy who left his boat in Lake Michigan to rescue his girlfriend and her sons, and drowned himself.

Latest reports are that the pax included 48 Cypriot children on their way to Prague, but there could have been more children than that on board.
posted by dhartung at 1:26 PM on August 14, 2005

I can't help thinking that profit pressures might make some airlines cut corners on maintenance and safety.

That reminds me of a couple months ago when a Canjet plane took off without cabin pressure from Toronto to Halifax, because it was still "safe enough" if they flew really low.
posted by bobo123 at 1:39 PM on August 14, 2005

There have certainly been quite a few accidents involving jstliners lately haven't there?"

There have been three in August, but most of 2005 was pretty quiet. Overall, absolute deaths from commercial aviation accidents have declined considerably.
posted by dhartung at 1:40 PM on August 14, 2005

I can't help thinking that profit pressures might make some airlines cut corners on maintenance and safety.

Nothing new, alas.

See N110AA, the DC-10-10 that crashed at Chicago O'Hare in 1979.

The proximate cause? The airline had changed the wing-mounted engine removal procedure. The approved procedure by the manufacture (Douglas-Curtis Aircraft, then McDonnell-Douglas, now owned by Boeing) was to remove the engine, then the pylon. The change was to remove the engine and pylon as one unit, which damaged the bolts holding the pylon onto the wing. As a result, the mount failed, tearing the engine off the wing, and incidentally damaging some hydraulics. (The engine was designed to flip over the wing in case of separation, but the damaged mounts prevented this from occurring cleanly.) This lead to an asymmetrical lift condition (the slats retracted on the damaged wing, but not the undamaged one,) and the pilot, following procedure, slowed the aircraft to make an emergency landing. The damaged wing, having much less lift, stalled, and the plane fell out of the sky.

Aside: The nasty kicker. To quote from the report. "Contributing to the cause of the accident... and the intolerance of prescribed operational procedures to this unique emergency." If the pilots had kept the speed of the aircraft up, they could have saved the plane. But pilots are drilled to follow the book in emergency, the book said in case of engine loss with airframe damage, to reduce airspeed to 10kts above stall and return to the airport. If they'd held the airspeed at 30kts above stall, the aircraft could have been landed. Procedures industry-wide have been modified since then, and at least two recovered incidents (one an AE regional jet, also at ORD) result from the lesson of "keep airspeed up if you aren't certain of the state of the wings.") There's a reason the NTSB tries to find every contributing cause to a crash -- if we can fix even the one percent chance, there's that much more hope that the next accident won't happen.

Another. JAL 123. The problem: the aft bulkhead had been damaged in a taxi accident. Boeing's procedure's called for a single doubler plate, with two rows of rivets, to reinforce the repaired area. Boeing instead used two doubler plates, and a single row of rivets. The extra doubler increased the mass that vibrated in flight, the single row of rivets wasn't enough to hold it firm, and metal fatigue set in. On 12-Aug-1985, just after takeoff, the repair failed, and in failing, tore off the rudder of the 747-SR -- a high capacity, short range version of the 747-100. 520 of the 524 onboard, including the entire crew, died.

I would be saddened, but not surprised, to find another maintenance shortcut resulting in a crash.

There have been three in August, but most of 2005 was pretty quiet.

And note that while the Airbus A340 has now lost two frames in service (both with Air France, the first, F-GNIA, was a fire during servicing, the second, F-GLZQ, was lost at Toronto,) it hasn't lost the more important record of "no passenger fatalities." We learn a bit from every crash, and planes are getting more and more safe as time goes on.

(This doesn't count the A340 and 2 A330s that were destroyed in Sri Lanka in a military raid on the airport -- they were basically parked targets. So far, Boeing's 777, in all of its variations, is perfect -- no hull losses, no loss of life, with over 600 in service and almost 100 more on order. But I'd fly either one in a heartbeat, though the A340-500 is infamous for being markedly slower than her sisters or the 777.)
posted by eriko at 7:35 PM on August 14, 2005

posted by anagrama at 2:01 AM on August 15, 2005

also: eriko: I challenge you to provide us with some aluminium overcast large-plane goodness in an FPP to counterweight this grim tale. You clearly have some familiarity with the subject: share!
posted by mwhybark at 10:46 PM on August 15, 2005

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