The pilot who died in the Cork air disaster was taking command of one of his first flights, it has emerged.
The family of Spaniard Jordi Sola Lopez said he was an experienced co-pilot but had only taken charge of an aircraft on a few occasions.
Last night, as air accident experts continued their investigation into the crash which killed six people, attention was turning to the two pilots.
As questions started to mount, the chairman of the Manx2 airline was forced to defend his crew, insisting they were fully qualified to operate the flight.
Noel Hayes was speaking as it emerged:
- Co-pilot Andrew Cantle had only started working for the airline two weeks ago.
- His family claimed he was not even supposed to have been on the doomed flight.
- Investigators focused on why three attempts were made to land in heavy fog.
Speaking at a Press conference at Cork Airport, Mr Hayes said the aircraft had no recent technical issues and had undergone a routine maintenance check last week.
When asked repeatedly about claims by Mr Cantle’s mother that her son should not have been on the flight, Mr Hayes said he was not aware of individual pilot rosters and could not comment because an investigation was ongoing.
Last night he visited Cork University Hospital where, accompanied by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, he met survivors and families.
Earlier Mr Hayes had denied the crew were under pressure not to return to Belfast after encountering dense fog as they came in to land at Runway 17.
The 19-seater turbo-prop aircraft was making its third attempt at landing when it slammed into the runway, burst into flames and catapulted into the air.
The airport remained shut for most of yesterday as the investigation into the crash continued.
The probe involving up to 20 experts from Ireland, Britain, Spain and the United States is being led by Leo Murray from the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU).
Initial indications into what went wrong are likely to emerge in a matter of weeks.
However, it is expected that a final report could take more than a year to complete, given the serious legal and financial implications of the accident.
The investigation is understood to be focusing on why the plane made three attempts to land.
Its first approach to Runway 17 was aborted due to heavy fog. A second attempt at Runway 35 was also thwarted, and the plane circled the airport for around 20 minutes.
Then, at 9.52am, the pilot made a third, catastrophic attempt to land the aircraft.
However, speaking on radio, Mr Hayes insisted the crew had followed standard procedures.
“It is sadly not unusual in terms of bad weather for aircraft to take three approaches it is the standard,” he said. “I am very confident of the standards and levels in which they operate.”
Later, at a packed Press conference, he extended his sympathies to those killed in the crash.
“The past 24 hours have been a very long and dark 24 hours, but they have been longer and darker for the families of the bereaved,” he said.
“My heart goes out to them and I offer them my sincere condolences.
“My best wishes also go to the injured who are in hospital.”
Mr Hayes said his airline was working with the Air Accident Investigation Bureau to piece together the final moments before the crash.
“My team have been down here since yesterday morning and have been involved in discussions with them,” he added. “I’ve got a meeting later with them, and obviously we’re giving them our fullest co-operation.”
Investigators removed the wreckage of the plane around 4.45pm yesterday, having spent more than 24 hours sifting through the debris for clues.
Paddy Judge from the AAIU confirmed two black boxes have been recovered from the aircraft.
Also crucial to the probe will be eyewitness accounts from the six survivors.
Investigators were at the hospital yesterday afternoon, however, it is not clear whether any detailed statements have been taken yet. Outgoing transport minister Pat Carey said a preliminary report would likely be available within weeks.