ROME - Exhausted and perhaps aware he was about to die, a flight attendant seized control of the doomed Cypriot airliner that crashed near Athens, Greece, this month and repeatedly radioed a final mayday that was never heard, according to a new report released yesterday.
Minutes later, the jetliner with 121 people aboard slammed into a wooded hillside near Athens. A loss of cabin pressure had incapacitated the pilots. The plane wobbled in the air for nearly two hours Aug. 14 before running out of fuel and diving to the ground, the report said.
Helios Airways Flight 522 had flown over Greece, failing to make radio contact, as much of its crew and probably most of its passengers apparently fell unconscious from lack of oxygen.
Late in the flight, Greek F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to determine what was going on. The fighter pilots reported back that they could see a co-pilot slumped in his seat, with no pilot in sight, and two flight attendants apparently attempting to save the aircraft.
The first preliminary report into the crash, released yesterday by Transport Ministry chief investigator Akrivos Tsolakis, said a sudden loss of cabin pressure and consequent oxygen starvation appeared to have rendered the pilots incapable of flying the Boeing 737. Sudden decompression leaves only seconds for pilots and others to reach oxygen supplies before falling unconscious.
It remains unknown why warning signals failed to alert the pilots of the oxygen loss and how at least two flight attendants remained on their feet.
One of them is reported to have been Andreas Prodromou, 25, a flight attendant who had been taking flying lessons. His blood is reported to have been found in the cockpit wreckage.
The report said he seized control of the plane and twice tried to send a distress call, about 10 minutes before the crash and then again two seconds before impact. But, the report said, the radio was apparently set to an incorrect frequency.
According to Greek media, citing Defense Ministry sources, Prodromou desperately attempted to regain control of the jet, which was on autopilot at 35,000 feet. He managed to bank the plane away from Athens, lower it to 2,000 feet and then allow it to climb back to 7,000 feet. The aircraft apparently ran out of fuel soon after that.
"We still don't know completely what happened," Defense Ministry official Anastasios Gouriotis said by telephone from Athens. "We don't know exactly what he was trying to do."
Gouriotis said it was clear that the plane had run out of fuel about two hours and 40 minutes into the flight from Lanarca, Cyprus, to Athens.
Gouriotis reiterated the government's belief that there was no terrorist involvement.
"There were 15 minutes with no pilots over Athens," he said. "You must understand, if there were terrorists, that's when they could have done damage. Our God was good."
Autopsy reports say the passengers were still alive, although not necessarily conscious, when the plane crashed.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.