W HILE it was the pilot's call to make the final approach of flight VN815 in bad weather,
he and 63 other people might have landed safely if looters had not made off with
Pochentong airport's navigation equipment.
The Tupolev 134B which crashed about 160 meters from the tarmac at Pochentong on
Sept 3 had the necessary avionics to utilize the ground equipment and fly by instruments
in poor weather, according to an aviation official who declined to be identified.
More than three weeks after the crash, civil aviation authorities prepared to send
the plane's black boxes to Russia for investigation. Two technicians from Tupolev
were due to arrive around Sept 27 to take the flight-recorders back to the factory.
"Two technicians are in Vietnam meeting with airline officials and should arrive
in Cambodia by the weekend," said acting airport director and investigation
committee chief Sok Sambour on Sept 23. He said the investigation would be impartial,
but added that he knew what the results would be. "We know what caused the plane
crash, but we do not want to say because it will upset the other side. The reality
is based on the black boxes when we analyze them."
Vietnamese officials have hinted that the problem was on the Cambodian side, saying
that weather conditions given at the time of take-off could have been inaccurate.
Pochentong employees stand by the validity of their reports and point out that none
of their meteorological equipment was looted in July. "We still can tell the
temperature, barometric pressure and wind direction," said a worker who declined
to be named.
In lieu of hard data, speculation among pilots continued over the cause of the crash.
Opinions were equally divided between pilot and tower error. Mechanical failure has
not been a major topic of conversation.
Sometime during or after the fighting, somebody took a one-cubic meter 50 kg box
from its location next to the runway. Where the Very-high frequency Omni-directional
Distance Measurement Equipment (VOR/DME) was carted off to is unknown.
An airport official said that nobody has turned up seeking a reward for the equipment
and that the government has looked into replacing it, but cannot afford to do so.
He said that the frequency of aborted landings has increased over the rainy season
last year and one occasion people in the tower feared for their lives when an incoming
jet dropped out of the clouds on top of them.
"A Kampuchea Air Lockheed Tri-Star circled for almost an hour on Sunday [Sept
21]. It flew very low right over the terminal on its last attempt," he said.
"Landing in the afternoon in the rainy season was never a problem when the system
was working," he said. "Last year we had no problems."
He said that there is still a Non-Directional Beacon located about five km west of
the airport that can help get a general fix on the area, but pilots have to keep
descending until they can make visual contact with the airstrip in bad weather.
The lights on the runway - which were also looted - were reportedly replaced and
illuminated at the time of the crash, according to independent observers and airport
Pochentong has had problems before holding onto sophisticated equipment, as a 1994
security report by the United Nations Development Programme and the International
Civil Aviation Organization pointed out.
The authors suggested that the navigation gear donated by UNTAC should be looked
after by the government. It concluded with "specific recommendations to the
[CAA] director general on securing the VOR/DME following the theft of all spares
and test equipment."