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CRASH INVESTIGATORS STILL LOOKING AT PILOT ERROR, TECHNICAL PROBLEMS AS POSSIBLE CAUSES

Crew of An-24 was on visual approach

WITH THE investigation into the January 19 air crash still a long way from completion, several theories have emerged as to what caused the Ukraine-built Antonov 24 to slam into a hill in north-eastern Hungary, killing 42 of 43 on board.

WITH THE investigation into the January 19 air crash still a long way from completion, several theories have emerged as to what caused the Ukraine-built Antonov 24 to slam into a hill in north-eastern Hungary, killing 42 of 43 on board.

In particular, the fact that the crew was on visual approach to Košice Airport, having rejected radar assistance, would indicate they were not in mechanical trouble.

The Slovak authorities have refused to comment on the crash before the results of the inquest are known, but information released so far has not doubted the technical fitness of the 36-year-old aircraft.

"So far, from what we know and what we have documented, we haven't found any anomalies," said chief military prosecutor Mikuláš Gardecký. "But the prosecutor won't be able to make a definitive statement until he has received the results from the black box".

A commission has been set up to investigate the accident consisting of military experts, lawyers, doctors and pilots, but the Defence Ministry has refused to release their names.

One of the members of the commission said he had been "seriously warned by the prosecutor" not to answer media questions, the daily SME reported.

The sole survivor of the crash, First Lieutenant Martin Farkaš, was interviewed by the supervising prosecutor on January 23, but neither side revealed the details of his testimony.

At a press conference on January 25, Farkaš again said he would not answer questions about the flight "for professional and personal reasons," but later said that "nothing unusual" had happened before the accident.

"We were all in a good mood," he said.

Two An-24 planes crashed last year, one in Russia and one in Equatorial Guinea, and the Defence Ministry has grounded all of Slovakia's An-24 and An-26 carriers until the conclusion of the inquiry.

While no evidence has been yet found of technical failure, several facts suggest the crew was not aware of any technical problem shortly before the crash.

First, the pilot had told the control tower at Košice Airport that he would take the airplane in on visual approach, meaning without the assistance of radar - something he would be unlikely to do if the plane were in trouble.

"It's difficult to say whether landing under radar approach is safer than landing by visual approach," said Peter Bruna, a former air navigator with the Malacky Air Force base, who had trained with the crew on the An-24 and had known the pilot since 1989.

"The advantage of visual is that the pilot doesn't have to strictly observe the altitude and speed restrictions the airport sets... but if he asks for it and goes without radar assistance, he is completely responsible for the flight."

"I think what happened is that the pilots saw Košice in the distance and asked for visual approach, and made a mistake," said Jozef Pivarči, an ex-pilot and former deputy defence minister, as reported by the Nový Čas daily.

According to the Hungarian authorities, the Slovak flight was also off course at the time it hit the mountain, something the Slovak side has denied.

"The plane was three kilometers off course after it had been handed over to Slovak air control, disappeared off the radar screen at 19:38, and crashed from an altitude of about 3,500 metres into a hill and immediately caught fire," said Tibor Dobson, head of the Hungarian Interior Ministry's disaster prevention unit.

The investigation continues.

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