Cause of Jet Crash Remains Elusive

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

As the hulking passenger jet approached London's busiest airport after a long flight from China, the inexplicable happened: Both of the plane's engines sputtered and essentially died.

There was little the British Airways pilots could do to keep the Boeing 777 in the air. Within seconds, the twin-engine jet pancaked spectacularly to the ground. The plane was wrecked beyond repair.

Although no one was killed in the Jan. 17 crash, investigators are facing extreme pressure to determine what brought down the 777 in an accident that has quickly become one of aviation's modern mysteries.

The wide-body 777 is one of the world's most popular long-haul jets, ferrying tens of thousands of passengers a day across the globe. The crash has also raised questions about how airlines operate an increasing number of long flights over remote and harsh areas of the world.

British authorities have not said much publicly about the accident. They released a report yesterday saying they suspected that the plane's fuel flow became restricted somewhere between the engines and the fuel tanks. They did not indicate what they thought caused the blockage. Ice collecting in or near an engine component has emerged as the prime suspect, according to sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the probe.

It is ironic, outside experts said, that investigators have not figured out what caused the jet to crash about 1,000 feet short of a runway at Heathrow Airport. Investigators expected a quick resolution because they have obtained more data and information about the accident than any they can recall in aviation history, according to sources and outside experts.

They have interviewed passengers and crew members. They recovered every key part of the plane, allowing them to test the jet's components. They retrieved the plane's flight data recorder, cockpit voice recorder and a separate data recorder installed by British Airways.

"This is a great mystery, and I never expected this accident to be this difficult to solve, given the state-of-art tools on the plane and the fact that the aircraft was largely intact," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an organization that advocates for improving aviation safety. "This has potentially broad implications that go beyond this one airplane, depending on what they find."

A spokesman for Rolls-Royce, which made the plane's engines, declined to comment.

"We suggest people avoid speculation and wait for the formal publication of findings at the conclusion of the inquiry," the spokesman, Martin Johnson, wrote in an e-mail.

Spokesmen for Boeing and British Airways also declined to comment, citing company policies against making public statements before investigators have concluded their work.

British Airways Flight 38 began like any other for its 16 crew members and 136 passengers when it took off from Beijing about 10 a.m. Jan. 17.

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