Cause of crash remains unclear

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Cause of crash remains unclear

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The group memorial altar for the five firefighters who died in a helicopter crash on Thursday was set up yesterday at a funeral hall in Chuncheon, Gangwon. The men were returning to the Chuncheon branch of the Gangwon Fire Headquarters after attempting to aid in recovery efforts at the Sewol ferry accident site. [NEWSIS]

A fatal crash involving a fire department helicopter in Gwangju on Thursday that left all five servicemen on board dead has raised suspicions that the control tower may have given the pilot inaccurate information during the four-minute flight.

So far the Air Force has refused to disclose the communication records between the two, citing internal regulations. It added that the helicopter “went up to [an altitude of] 3,600 feet after it was told by a controller to reach 7,000 feet,” but soon plummeted, an Air Force officer told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

The military said the doomed chopper was operating on instrument flight mode, in which a pilot relies on instruments in the cockpit and commands from the control tower to fly because visibility was hampered by the rain that day. At the time of the accident, it was raining and wind speed was 12 meters per second (26 miles per hour).

“The helicopter was on instrument flight mode, which mandates it fly at an altitude of 7,000 feet,” the official said.

The fact that the pilot flew the helicopter below 700 feet at 10:52 a.m., just a minute before it crashed, has raised questions over whether the control tower sufficiently warned the pilot to increase his altitude. “When on instrument flight mode, a pilot significantly relies on a control tower for guidance and communicates with it throughout the flight. This may not have been the case this time,” a helicopter pilot who requested anonymity told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

“We can’t say how many times communication was made,” an Air Force official said. “But the control tower repeatedly told the pilot to remain at 7,000 feet. A controller asked the pilot if he could hear him, but there was no reply.”

The last communication known so far was between firefighter Shin Young-ryong and the Gangwon Fire Headquarters made at 10:25 a.m. on Thursday. “Due to poor visibility because of the rain, we can’t approach the site [of the sunken Sewol ferry],” Shin said. “We are now heading back [to Gangwon].”

The helicopter took off at 10:49 a.m. Thursday and crashed four minutes later. The fatalities in the crash were identified as chief pilot Jeong Seong-choel, 52; deputy pilot Park In-don, 52; repair engineer Ahn Byung-gook, 38; and two firefighters: Shin, and Lee Eun-gyo, 31. The five were on their way back to the fire department’s Chuncheon branch after participating in recovery efforts at the Sewol ferry disaster site.

Meanwhile, an investigative body under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said yesterday that they had retrieved a burnt black box from the crash site but due to the extent of damage, the contents could not be analyzed by local experts. The box will be sent to France, where the doomed helicopter was manufactured, to retrieve the information.

In the aftermath of the fatal crash, public attention has again been drawn to the need for a shift in the employment status of firefighters nationwide.

There have been calls among firefighters that their current employment status be changed to ensure they are sufficiently funded. Under the current system, nearly 40,000 fire fighters are employed by local governments, so the budget for fire departments is usually earmarked by provincial or metropolitan city government offices. Of the total number of firefighters, only 322 are hired as central government employees. Support and working conditions for firefighters can vary significantly depending on a local government’s financial state.

However, the government maintains that fire departments should belong to local governments so that they can respond more efficiently in moments of crisis. It also argues it is realizing the autonomy of local governments in that fire-fighting services are sponsored and maintained by local authorities.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, CHOI KYUNG-HO [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]




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