Page last updated at 18:50 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Making plane crashes less deadly

By Chris Yates

Wreckage of Turkish Airlines flight at Schiphol airport
The Turkish Airlines plane broke into three pieces but did not catch fire

The crash of Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 is the most recent in a spate of aircraft accidents in which the number of fatalities has been mercifully low, demonstrating in the clearest possible terms that air travel continues to be one of the safest forms of transport.

Pictures from the crash scene at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport show that the aircraft broke into three distinct sections, but crucially did not catch fire at the moment of impact.

This is the single biggest reason why so many survived the Amsterdam crash, and there is a multitude of reasons why it was not engulfed in flame.

Most notable of these reasons is that modern aircraft are well protected against the possibility of fire taking hold.

Following the loss of a British Airtours Boeing 737, which caught fire on the runway at Manchester Airport in the 1980s, accident investigators recommended the greater use of fireproof materials in airframe manufacture and the soft furnishings used aboard aircraft.

That call was heeded and the aviation industry has made great strides in improving survivability in the event of an air crash.

Class apart

Of course, many other factors have a role to play in whether or not an air crash is survivable or not.

Rescue workers examine the cockpit of the Turkish Airlines plane
The plane's data and voice recorders will give insights into the crash cause
Of this most recent spate of accidents, where many aboard have been able to walk away from the wreckage, it is worth noting that they occurred mostly in the landing phase, at relatively low altitude and speed and with the aircraft in question carrying only limited amounts of fuel.

This does not, however, detract from the fact that today's modern airliners are a class apart from earlier such aircraft.

The Turkish Airlines jet that crashed in Amsterdam was a Boeing 737-800, one of the newest variants of an aircraft type which is synonymous with short-haul air travel the world over.

The aircraft first flew in 2003 and is understood to have undergone a thorough maintenance check just last year.

Speculation remains rife over what may have caused it simply to fall out of the sky during what appears to have been a routine flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam.

Both the flight data and voice recorders will yield strong information as to the most likely cause of the crash, but so too will eyewitness reports from those on board the aircraft and in the vicinity of the crash site at the time.

Bird strike question

Dutch air accident investigators will have much to occupy them in the days to come and most certainly will examine the possibility the aircraft may have simply stalled in one of the most critical phases of flight.

Some eyewitness reports suggest the aircraft lost momentum shortly before the crash and a very large question in the mind of the investigators may well be whether this could be another example of a bird strike.

They will also examine whether the engines were starved of fuel or whether the jet simply ran out of fuel shortly before impact.

Many questions clearly remain and all operators of this aircraft type will be watching intently lest issues emerge that may impact them.

Chris Yates is an aviation analyst for Jane's Defence.

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