Saturday 1 October 2016

“I now know the aircraft was separating”

[On this date in 1990 the Fatal Accident Inquiry into the 270 deaths that occurred in the Lockerbie disaster opened in Dumfries. What follows is a UPI news agency report:]

The last tragic seconds of Pan Am Flight 103 were recorded as a blip on a radar screen that split into 'four or five' pieces, then disappeared, an air-traffic controller said Monday.

'I remember that period extremely well in terms of emotion,' said Alan Topp. 'I was worried at the time. But I couldn't prove one thing or another.'

Topp testified on the first day of a Scottish judicial inquiry into the terrorist bombing nearly two years ago of the Boeing 747 en route from Frankfurt, West Germany, to New York after stopping in London.

The Fatal Accident Inquiry will not seek to determine criminal responsibility for the deaths of the 259 people who were aboard the plane and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland. That issue is being handled by police and various international agencies.

The panel will consider events leading up to the attack, including whether proper security precautions were carried out at London's Heathrow Airport.

The inquiry is being held at Easterbrook Hall on the grounds of Crichton Royal Hospital, Dumfries, 12 miles from where the plane fell to the ground in chunks of tangled metal.

Nine American attorneys, representing the relatives of some of the 188 U.S. citizens who were killed, were among the more than 45 lawyers present at the hearing.

Among the other attorneys were ones representing Pan American World Airways, the British Airport Authority, the Civil Aviation authority, the Department of Transport, Hull War Risks Insurance, which insured the aircraft, and George Esson, chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway, who is in charge of the separate criminal investigation.

Topp, a controller for 24 years, was on duty at the Scottish Air Traffic Control Center at Prestwick, on Dec 21, 1988.

Just before 7 pm, Topp said he knew Pan Am Flight 103 was coming into his air space -- he had been warned 15 to 20 minutes earlier. The plane climbed to 31,000 feet just north of Manchester, then was handed over to him by another controller.

Topp said it was normal for a New York-bound aircraft to fly over south Scotland to take advantage of favorable winds across the Atlantic Ocean.

'When I first saw the aircraft on radar it was at 31,000 feet. I asked the captain to identify himself. There was nothing amiss. I gave him his routing which had already been defined by Oceanic Control.'

Topp said he watched the aircraft intently as there was other traffic in the area.

'Suddenly, the response disappeared off the screen,' he said. 'Instead, there were four or five contacts.'

The air-traffic controller said he thought the disintegration -- at 7:03 pm -- was an effect that could occur on a radar screen when an aircraft was flying directly above a radar station.

Topp said he tried several times to make voice contact with the aircraft without success. He also tried to make contact though a KLM aircraft in the area, but there was no response.

Topp said he called Galloway Radar, in the same building, and spoke to a controller, asking him, 'You see my clipper 103 in all that melee?'

A transcript of the conversation, produced in evidence, ended with Topp saying, 'Oh dear!'

The last person to speak to the crew was Thomas Fraser, an air traffic services assistant. He called the aircraft to respond to a request for clearance. The flight's planning controller replied, ''Go ahead,' in a perfectly normal voice,' Fraser testified.

Fraser then provided the clearance.

'At that point he would normally have come back to acknowledge and, of course, he did not. It's not unusual for aircraft to have a radio blind spot. I tried three times and asked another aircraft to try. I then learned from another air traffic controller there was a problem.'

The court was shown a videotape of the flight's progress on the radar screen, appearing as a small square. A cross in the square disappeared, meaning the plane's transponder signal had stopped working. The original square then reappeared as four or five squares.

'The loss of the signal is a fairly common thing,' said Topp. 'And primary responses can appear on the screen when there is nothing wrong. I was aware something was not going quite right but I wasn't aware of the disaster at this stage.

'I can remember I was extremely worried about the status of 103. I had my eyes on the tube all the time. ... I had never seen anything like this before. I now know the aircraft was separating.'

[RB: The findings of the FAI can be read here.]

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