The captain of the passenger plane that plunged into the Mekong River in Laos on Wednesday, killing all 49 people on board including five crew members, was a veteran Cambodian pilot nearing the end of his contract in Laos, Cambodia’s civil aviation authority said yesterday.
State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) safety and security director Mak Sam Ol said Young San, 56, was in charge of the Lao Airlines plane that crashed in extreme weather on a journey from the capital Vientiane to the southern town of Pakse.
“He had a contract with Laos’s aviation [authority] for three years and had been there almost all that time,” he said.
San, a pilot with the now-defunct state carrier Royal Air Cambodge during the 1990s, trained in Russia and later in France, Sam Ol continued.
The aviation authority in Laos had informed its Cambodian counterparts that extreme weather had caused the crash, he added.
“During strong winds, the air controller told [San] to change course. He followed instructions, but the plane faced strong storms it couldn’t get through.”
San’s family, including his wife, who had been spending time with her husband in Laos before the crash, could not be reached for comment.
Rescuers continued searching for bodies yesterday, recovering some, after the Lao Airlines plane disappeared into the river.
Of the 44 passengers, more than half were foreigners, authorities said. Seven were believed to be French citizens, six Australian and five Thai.
Thai media reported that citizens of the US, Vietnam, Canada and Malaysia were also aboard.
Lao Airlines said the aircraft, a turboprop ATR-72, had hit “extreme bad weather”.
One of the passengers, Australian Michael Creighton, 42, spent two years in Cambodia in 2009 and 2010 helping demine the country.
Then an employee of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, Creighton worked closely with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), to which he provided technical advice.
Heng Ratana, CMAC director-general, yesterday described Creighton as a “good friend”.
“This is a real shock to me,” he said. “Mike was a very good man who had a good relationship with Cambodians. He was very good – a really good expert. It’s such a loss.”
Creighton was travelling with his father, Gordon, 71, who also died in the crash.
European aircraft manufacturer ATR said the aircraft was new and had been delivered from “the production line in March 2013”.
“The Lao authorities will lead the investigation and will remain the official source of information,” ATR said in a statement.
Long Chheng, the SSCA’s chief of cabinet, said Cambodian officials were preparing to leave for Laos to help investigate the crash.
“We will know the details of the incident after that,”he said.
Thomas Jaeger, managing director of the ch-aviation website, a major aviation database and industry portal, said it was too early to definitively say what caused the crash.
“They [Lao Airlines] are not blacklisted by the European Union or anyone else,” he wrote in an email. “Their MA-60 aircraft – not related to the crash – are not certified in Europe, the US etc. and are generally not well regarded by the international aviation community, but the aircraft involved in the crash was a brand new, state of the art ATR72-600, so that is not related.”
Weather conditions “could be a contributing factor, but if weather is bad, generally pilots should not try to land”, he added. “So the question is, why they did if weather really was the cause.”
Laos has had 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP