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Guyana had been installing instrument landing system at time of crash; cause still unknown
GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) ' The airport where a Caribbean Airlines jet skidded off a rain-slicked runway and broke apart is upgrading the landing system that helps pilots to land in low-visibility conditions, but the new system wasn't yet operating at the time of the crash, Guyana's top aviation official said Sunday.
Officials and aviation experts cautioned it was far too early to say if the lack of such a system was a factor in the crash that injured about 30 people but miraculously caused no deaths. The Boeing 737-800, with 162 people on board, slid off the end of the runway just short of a deep ravine near the South American country's capital.
Canadian company Intelcan is installing an instrument landing system at Cheddi Jagan International Airport as part of a $3.5 million upgrade. Civil Aviation Director Zulfikar Mohamed said the system should be operational soon.
"Things will be better with a new ILS system that we are testing," Mohamed told The Associated Press.
An ILS helps pilots land by giving them a more precise reading of their angle of descent and the position of the aircraft down to 200 feet. It is especially helpful when there is low visibility, as was apparently the case when the pilots were landing the Caribbean Airlines flight early Saturday.
"That's when you want to have the best navigation capabilities," said Doug Moss, a commercial airline pilot who runs AeroPacific Consulting in Torrance, Calif. "ILS, even though it's about 50 years old, is still the best thing they have."
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced it has dispatched a team to Guyana to assist with the investigation. It includes experts in operations, meteorology, airworthiness, survival factors, and aircraft performance.
Aviation experts say mishaps such as these are typically a result of a combination of factors and conditions. Possibilities during Saturday's rainy pre-dawn darkness include a sudden microburst, a malfunction or a misjudgment of the approach and landing by the pilots.
Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who has flown into Guyana, said that in addition to the lack of the ILS, which is in place at most large and busy airports, the runway can be challenging because it is relatively short. But he said the runway is in good shape, the air traffic controllers are experienced and it's not an unsafe place to fly.
"Importantly, all these things together do not make the airport unsafe by any stretch," said Smith, who runs a website on aviation at www.askthepilot.com, in a phone interview from Boston, Massachusetts. "They do make it more challenging, less forgiving."
Mohamed said he would like to see the runway lengthened by about 2,500 feet, though the country does not have the money for the extension.
The relatively basic conditions were also evident in the response to the crash.
For more than an hour after the aircraft ran off the runway, rescue teams were groping in darkness, using flashlights and beams from fire engines and other vehicles to illuminate the area where the aircraft came to rest after splitting in two.
Transport Minister Robeson Benn said the government is "looking at all those issues like lighting and other stuff, but it is not completed as yet."
Bill Voss, president of the U.S.-based Flight Safety Foundation, noted that despite the dramatic crack in the jet after the crash, the incident follows in the path of similar recent overshoots and crashes with no or few fatalities, evidence of design improvements throughout the aircraft.
"It is really impressive. The engineers have gotten some things right," said Voss, whose industry-supported group promotes aviation safety worldwide, speaking from Alexandria, Virginia.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.