Toulouse, France – An Air New Zealand Airbus A320 on a test flight crashed into the Mediterranean sea off France’s southwest coast on Thursday, killing at least two people with a further five still missing, authorities said.
France’s BEA civil aviation safety authority said the crash took place at 4:46 p.m. (1546 GMT) when the aircraft was approaching the airport at Perpignan, a city in southwestern France after a flight that had lasted about an hour.
A witness told French radio said he saw the Airbus dive abruptly and plunge into the sea.
“I could see it was an airliner because I saw two large engines. There was no fire, nothing,” the witness, a local policeman, told France Info radio.
“It was flying straight, then it turned brutally toward the ground. I said to myself it will never pull out and there was a big spray of water,” he said.
Local authorities said recovery teams with five boats, two diving teams and a helicopter were on site but conditions were difficult with bad weather and darkness.
A navy vessel had been dispatched to search for the aircraft’s flight recorder, they said.
Two bodies had been recovered but there was no hope that the others on board had survived and no official word on the reasons for the crash.
“At this stage we have no detail as to the likely cause of the accident,” Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe told a news conference in Auckland.
He said five New Zealanders and two Germans were aboard the aircraft which had been leased to German carrier XL Airways and was being tested after a refit prior to return to New Zealand next month.
The crash occurred exactly 29 years since New Zealand’s worst-ever air crash when an Air New Zealand plane on a sightseeing trip in Antarctica hit the side of Mount Erebus, killing all 257 people on board.
“To have this incident occur on the same day just adds to the sense of tragedy,” Fyfe said.
The A320, a twin-engine, single aisle aircraft that normally seats around 150 passengers, is manufactured by Airbus, a unit of European aerospace group EADS. Around 1,960 A320 aircraft are in service with 155 operators around the world.
Airbus said the aircraft, powered by IAE V2500 engines, was delivered in July 2005 and had accumulated approximately 7000 flight hours in some 2800 flight cycles.
It said it would assist authorities investigating the crash and had sent five specialists to the site but it added it would be inappropriate to speculate on the causes.
“At this stage no further factual information is available,” it said in a statement.
The Pyrenees-Orientales prefecture, the regional authority, said the plane was on a “technical flight” and was being serviced by a company based in Perpignan.