TransAsia Airways Flight GE235

Taiwan official confirms pilot’s ‘mayday’ call authentic as air crash death toll rises

Eight people still unaccounted for after TransAsia Airways plane crashed into a river

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 February, 2015, 10:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 2015, 2:32pm

Rescuers have found the bodies of four more victims of the Taipei air disaster as they widen their search for the eight people still missing.

The remains were discovered on Friday morning as the search area was extended along the Keelung River.

Thirty-five people are now known to have died in Wednesday’s crash after a TransAsia Airways plane clipped a bridge shortly after take-off from the city’s domestic airport and plunged into the river.

Details were not given of where the bodies were found this morning.

Three helicopters started patrolling further along the Keelung River on Friday amid fears that some of the missing may have been washed further downstream towards the larger Tamsui River.

A total of 300 rescuers, including 50 divers, are searching six different stretches of water in cases survivors may be trapped in mudflats in bends in the river, a fire brigade spokesman told local media.

The Coast Guard will also carry out search operations at the mouth of the Tamsui River where it meets the sea.

Relatives of victims of the crash from mainland China visited the scene of the disaster on Friday morning, Radio Taiwan International reported.

Many of the victims were from Xiamen in Fujian province and officials from the city have also arrived in Taipei.

Staff from Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council were due to meet representatives from TransAsia Airways and the Civil Aeronautics Administration this morning and may release details of their findings into the crash later on Friday.

An aviation official also confirmed on Thursday the authenticity of a recording of one of the pilots of the stricken aircraft saying “mayday, mayday, engine flameout” moments before it banked sharply and crashed.

The aircraft – carrying 53 passengers, including four children, and five crew members – was seen to lurch between buildings, then clip the bridge with one of its wings before crashing upside down in the shallow river at about 10.55am on Wednesday, shortly after taking off from Taipei’s Songshan International Airport.

The official at Taiwan's Civil Aeronautical Administration, who declined to be named, confirmed that the widely broadcast audio clip of the distress call, made during exchanges between the control tower of Taipei's Songshan International Airport and the pilot of doomed TransAsia Flight GE235, was genuine.

However, the official but did not say how it might relate to the cause of the crash. 

A transcript of excerpts of that exchange reads:

Control tower: “(inaudible) ... wind 100 degrees, 9.9 knots. Clear to take off”   

Pilot: “Clear to take off, runway 10, TransAsia 235”   

Pilot: “(inaudible) ... mayday, mayday, engine flameout”   

Control tower: “TransAsia 235, please try again. Contact Taipei, approach on 119.7”   

Control tower: “TransAsia 235. Control tower ... TransAsia 235. Control tower”

Video images of the plane’s final moments in the air captured on car dashboard cameras appear to show the left engine’s propeller at standstill as the aircraft turned sharply over Taipei, with its wings going vertical and clipping a highway bridge before plunging into the Keelung River.

Engine flameout refers to flames being extinguished in the combustion chamber of the engine, so that it shuts down and no longer drives the propeller.

Causes of a flameout could include a lack of fuel or being struck by a bird, volcanic ash or some other object. “Mayday” is an international emergency call.

Taiwan’s aviation regulator has also ordered operators of all 22 turboprop ATR planes on the island to carry out "special checks" on their aircraft.

The checks would focus on the engines, fuel control system, propeller systems, and spark plugs and ignition connectors in the turboprop aircraft, it said in a statement.

However, it has not ordered the grounding of the aircraft, despite the accident being the second fatal crash involving a TransAsia plane in seven months.

Both of the aircraft's engines were recovered from the crash site on Thursday afternoon and taken to shore for examination by air accident investigators, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported.

Taipei’s mayor hailed the dead pilot a hero after the aircraft narrowly avoided hitting buildings before crashing in a river.

"He really tried everything he could," Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je said, his voice breaking into sobs.

Heartbroken relatives of some of the mainland passengers on board the ill-fated TransAir aircraft arrived in Taiwan yesterday.

The first group of 15 relatives, and 11 employees of a Xiamen-based travel agency, took a Mandarin Airlines flight to Taoyuan International Airport, the agency said.

Tang Ke, the fiancée of mainland tourist guide Wang Qinghuo, who died in the crash, was also among the first group to arrive in Taiwan, the Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News reported.

The couple had planned to marry on Sunday, mainland media reported.

Some relatives fought to hold back tears, as they said they hoped to get to the crash scene and the funeral parlour where the bodies of their loved ones had been taken as soon as possible.

Many were openly weeping on their way from the airport to the bus arranged by TransAir.

TransAsia Flight GE235 was on its third flight of the day at the time of the crash and there had been no records of any malfunction during the previous two flights, the CAA statement said.

Macau’s Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that the plane’s engines had been replaced at Macau Airport on April 19 last year, during its delivery flight, “due to engine-related technical issues”.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications said it had banned TransAsia Airlines from applying for new aviation rights for one year while it carried out an investigation into the crash.

About 60 divers were involved in the search of the Keelung River yesterday, supported by at least 20 rescue boats.

Fifteen other people were injured in the crash.

Most survivors were seated in the rear of the aircraft.

Those who survived the crash were pulled from the open door of a relatively undamaged section of the fuselage, which remained jutting above the river’s surface after the crash.

Among the survivors was a family of three, including a two-year-old boy whose heart stopped beating after three minutes under water. The child, Lin Jih-yao, recovered after receiving CPR, his uncle, Lin Ming-yi, told reporters.

The bodies of the aircraft’s captain, Liao Chien-tsung, 42, and his two first officers – co-pilot Liu Tzu-chung and flight engineer Hung Ping-chung – were discovered in the Keelung River, the agency reported.

Police diver Cheng Ying-chih said yesterday the search and rescue efforts were being hampered by “zero visibility” in the turbid river and cold water temperatures that were forcing divers to work on one-hour shifts.

He said the front of the plane had broken into numerous pieces, making the job all the more difficult.

“We’re looking at a very tough search and rescue job,” Cheng told reporters gathered on the river bank, beside the wreckage where luggage had been removed and placed in neat rows.   

The mangled rear part of the fuselage lay upside down, its wings and tail assembly sheared off and multiple holes torn into its side.  

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou visited five injured passengers in hospital in Taipei yesterday. 

The five included the driver and female passenger of a taxi on the bridge that was struck by the wing of the aircraft as it crashed.

The United Daily News quoted him saying that aviation authorities needed to carry out an in-depth review and anyone found to be to blame for the accident must be penalised. 

Ma stayed at the hospital for about 30 minutes before leaving to go to a funeral parlour in Taipei, to pay his respects to victims of the crash.

Many of the mainlanders were from the southeastern city of Xiamen on a six-day tour to Taiwan by way of Quemoy, a former defence outpost of Taiwan.

The wreckage of Flight GE235 has been lifted from the river by a crane.

The force of the crash was seen to have pushed the aircraft's cockpit area down into the cargo hold. 

Another part of the aircraft still remains at the bottom of the river as rescuers continue to search the surface areas of the river for missing passengers.

Beijing will assist the investigation into the TransAsia air crash, the agency reported.

It is the first time a mainland agency will have participated in an air crash investigation in Taiwan.

An official at the Aviation Safety Council said that according to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the state of passengers on board the aircraft was permitted to participate in the investigation.

Several representatives of the Xiamen Tourism Bureau arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport at 10.25am yesterday.

China National Tourism Administration sent a team, led by Liu Kezhi, head of the Department of Affairs on Tourism of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, to Taiwan yesterday to assist the search efforts and also arrange for relatives of the mainland passengers to travel to the island.

Watch: The moment a TransAsia plane hits bridge and crashes in Taiwan

Officials from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board were also due to arrive in Taiwan on Thursday morning, while investigators from the BEA (Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile) were expected to arrive later the same day.

It was the second deadly crash in seven months for TransAsia, with the same plane model crashing into the offshore tourist island of Penghu in July, killing 48 people.

The latest crash has stirred up concerns over whether Songshan International Airport should be closed.

Taipei's original airport is located close to residential areas and its air safety level has long been a source of controversy.

It normally handles domestic routes within Taiwan and flights to China, South Korea and Japan, while Taipei's newer Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport deals with most of the flights abroad.

Only last year a Democratic Progressive Party legislator suggested closing the airport and changing the site into a park.

Following the crash, a legislator from the ruling Kuomintang Nationalist Party, has repeated this call and called on the government to act soon.

Lai Cheng-I, chairman of Taiwan’s General Chamber of Commerce, said that the newer airport was able to handle all of Taipei’s air traffic and that the land used by Songshan International Airport could be put to better use.

Zhang Zhijun, head of the mainland's Taiwan affairs office, postponed his official visit to Quemoy – originally scheduled on February 7 and 8 – to express his condolences to survivors and relatives of the victims of the crash, the spokesperson of the office said.

Zhang had been due to meet his Taiwanese counterpart, Wang Yu-chi, in Quemoy.

Quemoy officials said they respected Zhang’s decision.