Page last updated at 04:10 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 05:10 UK

Long wait for Spain crash answers

After the death of 153 people in Spain's worst aviation disaster for 25 years, Chris Yates, aviation analyst for Jane's Information Group, says it could be some time before definitive answers can be found.

A helicopter dumps water on the wreckage
Helicopters were called in to dump water on the plane, which was ablaze
Air accident investigators determining the cause of Wednesday's crash of a Spanair jet at Madrid's Barajas airport are faced with a conundrum that could take a significant time to unravel.

Their role is that of assembling the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle as they attempt to determine beyond doubt what caused the accident.

While some initial findings may be forthcoming in a matter of days, it is almost always the case that a definitive determination of cause will take many months.

From official and anecdotal reports it appears clear that a fire in the left-side engine of the McDonnell Douglas MD 82 took hold as the aircraft made its take-off roll.

Such engine fires are extremely rare, but when they do occur they are, invariably, the result of some form of mechanical failure.

The precursor to such a mechanical failure is what accident investigators must now attempt to discover.

Air accidents generate headlines and much speculation follows as we seek context to the horror that unfolds before our eyes.

Questions are asked as to the safety record of the aircraft type in question, if there have been accidents in the past and if there is a possible link.

Inevitably, questions are also posed of the airline, its safety history and its ability to maintain aircraft within the fleet.

Exemplary record

A Spanair MD82 plane (file image)
The MD 82 plane type has a very low rate of accidents and incidents
Spanair began operations in 1988. It is a subsidiary of Scandinavian Airline Systems and a member of the Star Alliance group of airlines.

Operating short, medium and, in the past, long haul flights, it has a current fleet of 61 aircraft and reportedly carried 11 million passengers in 2007.

Spanair has had what many in the aviation industry would consider an exemplary safety record throughout its history.

Seven of the MD 82 type now remain in the fleet, primarily utilised for short and medium flights within the European region.

The MD 82 itself is a derivative of the McDonnell Douglas DC9 and capable of carrying between 130 and 170 passengers, depending on seating configuration.

Prior to the Madrid Barajas airport crash, only five other incidents and accidents had been recorded for the type, representing a very low attrition rate.

Earlier this year the US Federal Aviation Administration took the drastic step of grounding MD 80 type aircraft operated by American Airlines.

Other US air carriers operating the types in question followed suit pending safety checks.

It is important to remember that FAA action was prompted by the discovery of anomalies in the maintenance schedule of American Airlines MD 80s and related to an issue more than likely removed from that which occurred onboard Spanair flight JK5022.

Of course, nothing can be ruled out as the air accident investigators get to work to discover the sequence of events that lead to this horrific accident.

Only detailed and painstaking analysis over the passage of time will yield the answers.

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