A number of mysteries surround the crash yesterday of HeliosAirways Flight 522, bound from Cyprus to Prague via Athens.The plane lost contact with ground controllers and Greekfighters were dispatched to observe it and escort it to theground. Two Greek Air Force F-16s intercepted the 737 at34,000 feet.

The Greek jets observed one pilot sitting crumpled in hisseat. The other seat was empty. In the passenger cabin,oxygen masks had been deployed and there was, in addition,no sign of life. A passenger had sent a text message, “thepilot has turned blue…we are freezing.” Pilots hadcomplained of the plane’s air conditioning system early inthe flight, and some Helios employees had reportedly refusedto fly on the plane because of earlier problems of excessiveheating and cooling. The airline claimed that the plane hadbeen serviced the week before, and was in normal operatingcondition.

Astonishingly, two individuals entered the cabin andattempted to gain control of the plane as the Greek fighterpilots watched. It takes 10 to 30 seconds for people whohave experienced loss of air pressure at an altitude of34,000 feet to lose consciousness, and, at the point thatthey were seen actively moving about in the plane, it hadbeen decompressed for 20 minutes at least. Passenger oxygensystems last for about 15 minutes. They are designed toprovide passenger oxygen only during a plane’s decent afterdecompression.

Crew oxygen systems and warnings aboard a 737 are robust,with multiple backups, including oxygen tanks that can bemanually utilized by the crew if the cockpit emergencyoxygen fails, and sensors in the emergency oxygen system tolet them know whether or not they are receiving adequate oxygen.

Kieran Daly, editor of Air Transport Intelligence, wasquoted on CNN as saying that what happened aboard the Helios flight was “extremely strange,” in view of the robustness of the crew’s oxygen safety equipment.

115 people lost their lives in the crash, and many bodieswere found virtually frozen solid.

Terrorism was not immediately suspected, but, in view of thenumber of systems that failed aboard the plane at the sametime, nothing has yet been ruled out.

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