Search resumes for missing Kiwis

Last updated 06:39 28/11/2008
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ON BOARD: Air New Zealand engineer Noel Marsh (left), captain Brian Horrell (centre) and engineer Michael Gyles, all believed to have been killed in the crash.
AFP
RECOVERY: Rescuers recover the body of the one crew member recovered from the sea.
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THE AVIATION HERALD
AIRLINER DOWN: The approximate position of the crashed Air New Zealand Airbus A320 jet.
AFP
Rescuers at work in the recovery of the victims of the Airbus A320 crash off the coast of France.
HORROR SMASH: An Air New Zealand A320 - seen here in a file pic - has crashed in Southern France.

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A huge team is now looking for the missing crew members of an Air New Zealand airbus that crashed off the coast of France.

More than 150 people are involved in the wider search and rescue group and a minesweeper has been deployed to search the ocean floor for the aircraft's black box.

An aeroplane and a helicopter will also assist in the search.

Air New Zealand group general manager international Ed Sims said from Auckland tonight that five boats were on the water at daylight local time and as many as 60 divers entered the water.

Unfortunately the weather in France has deteriorated, with the wind gusting 50km/h and a heavy swell off the coast, according to the head of Civil Security at the Prefecture in Perpignan, Jean Dunyach.

The priority was to locate the five remaining bodies and the “black box” trapped in the wrecked aircraft, still submerged 40 meters under water, he told Stuff.co.nz by telephone.

Rescue staff were feeling very emotional, as it was a serious accident but they were all working together, he said.

Earlier today officials released the names of the Kiwis presumed dead after the crash.

They are: Noel Marsh, a 35-year-old engineer based in Christchurch; Captain Brian Horrell, 52, of Auckland; Murray White, 37, engineer, of Auckland; Michael Gyles, 49, engineer, of Christchurch; and Jeremy Cook, a Civil Aviation Authority inspector on the flight.

Seven people - including two German pilots - were onboard the Air New Zealand Airbus A320 when it crashed into the Mediterranean, just off Perpignan in southeast France, about 4.45am (NZ time) today. It had been on a test flight - involving several manoeuvres - ahead of a return to New Zealand.

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An aviation enthusiast said on a website that the Airbus didn't send out a mayday before the crash, but that a nearby airplane reported the plane crashing as it plunged into the ocean.

French daily Le Monde reported three bodies had been found. All seven crew were presumed dead.

In a statement released this evening, the acting Director of Civil Aviation, Graeme Harris, said all authority staff members were shocked and saddened by the accident.

"The CAA will continue to provide Jeremy's wife, family and friends with support now and in the future.  The CAA extends its deepest sympathy to the family and friends to all those missing in this accident.

"Jeremy is a popular engineer, respected and liked by all in the aviation industry. An aviation enthusiast, he has had a long career dedicated to enhancing aviation safety standards, and this accident has affected all within the CAA and the aviation industry."

Mr Cook joined the Civil Aviation Authority as an Airworthiness Inspector in April 2005.  A Licensed Maintenance Engineer with an extensive background in aircraft maintenance, his career included time with Air Niugini in Papua New Guinea, Ansett New Zealand, and with the Christchurch Engine Centre.

Earlier in the day, a choked up Air New Zealand Chief Executive Officer Rob Fyfe told a press conference this afternoon that he had spoken to the partners of each of the missing men.

"This is an unbelievably difficult time for the families of those who are missing. I conveyed to them my deepest sympathies and those of all Air New Zealanders as we await further information on their loved ones.

"I was also able to reassure them that Air New Zealand is receiving the full support of the New Zealand Government and the Search and Rescue authorities in France and we are confident that everything is being done to locate those still missing."

While Air New Zealand still held out hope for survivors, rescuers had told them they had grave concerns for those on board, he said.

"It's very difficult for them as they wait for information on their loved ones. My heart goes out to them. They're dealing with the situation with amazing dignity and strength," Mr Fyfe said.

He said Air New Zealand would spare no expense in supporting the families.

Fyfe, who said today was the toughest of his career, will travel to France later today with the family of at least one of the Kiwi victims. Other families are considering their options.

The deputy chief investigator of the Transport Air Investigation Commission, Ken Mathews, will head to the crash site to support the French investigation. Two officials from the NZ Embassy in Paris are also en route.

The airline has asked the media to respect the families' privacy and a security guard has been placed outside the Gyles' home in the Christchurch hill suburb of Cashmere. 

CRASH WITNESS

The plane was seen flying low over the French Mediterranean shortly before the crash. It had taken off from Perpignan Airport and had reportedly carried out a touch-and-go landing before heading for Frankfurt, Germany, when it plunged into the sea. 

Lydie Benedicte, who works on the information desk at Perpignan Airport, told ABC radio that the plane had dipped down into the sea very quickly.

"The aircraft crashed direct,'' she told the station. "It's not far from the airport. That's why the aircraft was not very high in the sky … that's why a lot of people saw the crash near the coast of Cannes.''

Better weather is forecast for Friday (French time), and although some searchers were quite shocked by what had happened they were only too happy to lend assistance, Dunyach said.

"There was no explosion, it was flying (at) 300m and suddenly fell down into the sea, but no explosion."

There were many witnesses, and emergency services were quickly at the scene.

Some wreckage was floating on the surface, but the pieces were "very difficult to find because of the big waves and the dark".

SOMBRE MOOD

The mood at Air New Zealand and CAA headquarters in Wellington was sombre today, as staff waited for news from France.

The aircraft was owned by Air New Zealand and had been on lease to German charter company XL Airways for the past two years. It was four years old when delivered and had flown for Freedom Air for about a year before being leased.

Fyfe said it was being flown to Frankfurt, where it was due to be handed back for a ferry flight to New Zealand this week.

"Naturally, this is an extremely difficult time for us all and the full resources of the airline are being put into investigating what may have happened and providing support to our people and their families," he said.

Fyfe said Air New Zealand was drawing on the experiences of other airlines that had been in similar situations before.

The Air New Zealand pilot on the flight was a very experienced captain, "which is typically what we want when we are going through one of these acceptance processes. We have our most experienced people ensuring the aircraft is up to Air New Zealand standards".

Several staff were waiting in Frankfurt, Germany, to take over the aircraft on its flight back to New Zealand.

The crash comes 29 years to the day that an Air New Zealand DC10 crashed into Mt Erebus, killing all 257 passengers and crew.

Mr Fyfe said that today was already very poignant for Air New Zealand because of the Erebus tragedy, and the anniversary added a new dimension to the tragedy.

AIRBUS

The jet had been undergoing servicing at EAS Industries in Perpignan and flying circuits for 90 minutes before it crashed, an emergency services spokesman said.

Six French aviation accident investigators and two from Germany were being sent to help an inquiry with experts from the French civil aviation authority (DGAC) and Airbus.

Airbus said it delivered the jet in July 2005 and it had carried out 2800 flights with about 7000 hours of use since then. The constructor gave no details of the accident.

There are about 3700 A320 jets in service with almost 3000 more to be delivered. Air New Zealand own two Airbus aircraft, and lease 10.

Their average age is four years, and they seat about 150 passengers.

- With staff reporters, NZPA and agencies

- Stuff

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