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Taiwan pilot may have shut wrong engine on plane

Rescue teams work to free passengers from the TransAsia Airways ATR 72-600 turboprop airplane that crashed into the Keelung River, Taipei.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images
Rescue teams work to free passengers from the TransAsia Airways ATR 72-600 turboprop airplane that crashed into the Keelung River, Taipei.

A finding by safety investigators suggested on Friday that pilots of the twin-propeller plane that crashed in Taiwan's capital, killing at least 35 people, might have reacted to a stalled-engine alarm by shutting down the wrong engine.

With both engines stopped, the suddenly powerless plane, TransAsia Airways Flight 235, which had just departed the Taipei airport a few minutes before 11 a.m. Wednesday, dived, clipped an elevated roadway and plunged into the Keelung River.

The finding by Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, based on cockpit voice and flight data recorders, was preliminary and did not assign blame. It showed that the pilots had been discussing shutting down the plane's No. 1 engine after the cockpit alarm sounded.

The plane's No. 2 engine stopped just as power to the No. 1 engine was shut down, the Aviation Safety Council said.

Thirty-five of the 58 people on the flight, bound for the outlying island of Kinmen, are confirmed to have died, including both pilots. Eight people were unaccounted for as of Friday afternoon

The safety council said it would continue to investigate the cause of the loss of power to both engines. But aviation experts said the engine data suggested the pilots had misidentified which engine had malfunctioned.

"They had a misconception about which engine failed, and they shut down the good one," said David Learmount, the operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, an online publication that covers the aviation industry.

The pilot, Liao Chien-tsung, 42, has been widely praised for avoiding buildings in Taipei's dense urban center as the plane, an ATR 72, plummeted. He had nearly 5,000 hours of flying time, including 3,400 on ATR 72s, and the co-pilot Liu Tse-chung, 45, had nearly 7,000 hours of flight time, including 6,500 on ATR 72s, according to Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration.

At 10:53 a.m., one of the pilots broadcast an emergency communication to the control tower. "Mayday, mayday. Engine flameout," the pilot said, signaling a loss of power.

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The black box recordings end a minute later, the agency said.

Dashboard camera videos from vehicles that were traveling along the elevated roadway show the ATR 72-600 narrowly avoiding buildings as it descends, then banking violently before crashing. The twin turboprop is capable of flying on a single engine, which has led analysts to conclude that it probably suffered problems with both engines.

The Aviation Safety Council's announcement on Friday was a preliminary disclosure of the findings from the cockpit voice and flight data recorders. It could be a year or longer before the investigation's final conclusions are released.

The accident on Wednesday was the second deadly crash in less than seven months for TransAsia Airways, Taiwan's third-largest airline. An ATR 72-500 hit a building while landing in stormy weather on an outlying island in July, killing 48 people.