Fall of the Helderberg: The crash of South African Airways flight 295
On the 28th of November 1987, a South African Airways Boeing 747 with 159 people on board disappeared over the Indian Ocean in the middle of the night. Only one thing was certain: there was a fire on board the plane before it vanished. With only a few bodies, a small amount of wreckage, and 100 seconds of badly damaged cockpit tapes, investigators were faced with an almost impossible task. What started the fire? What happened to the passengers and crew? Why didn’t the plane make it to land? Many of these questions could not be fully answered. But the mysterious crash, shrouded in the intrigue of apartheid South Africa, has not been forgotten. This is the story of what we think happened on board South African Airways flight 295, and the story of the gaps in the evidence that have spawned decades of theorizing from amateurs and experts alike.
In 1987, South Africa was ruled by an extreme racist government that maintained an oppressive, segregated society in which black Africans were deprived of rights. This made South Africa an international pariah, especially among other African countries, with which it maintained highly hostile relationships. As a result, many countries banned South African Airways, the state-run airline, from flying over their territory. This forced South African Airways to fly sometimes circuitous routes to and from the limited number of countries where it was allowed to operate. One such route was flight 295, a regularly scheduled service between Taipei, Taiwan and Johannesburg, South Africa, with a refueling stop on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. This unusual flight path took it far out over a part of the Indian Ocean infrequently visited by commercial airliners.
Operating the overnight flight on the 26th and 27th of November 1987 was a Boeing 747 combi nicknamed the “Helderberg.” Unlike a regular 747, the Helderberg had a modified “combination” design allowing it to carry both cargo and passengers on the main deck. The cabin was partitioned into a passenger seating area in the forward two thirds of the plane, and a cargo compartment in the rearmost third.
In command of the flight were Captain Dawie Uys, First Officer David Atwell, and Flight Engineer Giuseppe Bellagarda; also on board were a relief first officer, Geoffrey Birchall, and a relief flight engineer, Alan Daniel. Fourteen flight attendants and 140 passengers made for a total of 159 people on board. In Taipei, ground crew personnel loaded six pallets of cargo into the main deck cargo hold, purportedly consisting of computer parts and other electronics, paper, textiles, medicine, and sports equipment. The crew signed off on the cargo manifest, and the flight took off from Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek International Airport at 2:23 p.m. UTC.
Some nine hours into the flight, as flight 295 cruised high above a remote stretch of ocean, air traffic controllers at Plaisance Airport in Mauritius received a distress call from the Helderberg. It was 3:49 a.m. local time.
“Mauritius, Mauritius, Springbok two-niner-five!”
The controller responded, “Springbok two-niner-five, Mauritius, go ahead.”
“Good morning, we have a smoke, uh, problem and we’re doing emergency descent to level one five, uh, one four zero.” Flight level one four zero refers to 14,000 feet.
“Confirm you wish to descend to flight level one four zero?”
“Ya, we have already commenced, due to a smoke problem on the aeroplane,” said flight 295.
“Uh, roger, you are clear to descend immediately to flight level one four zero,” said the controller.
“Roger,” flight 295 replied. “We will appreciate if [you] can alert, uh, fire…”
“Do you wish to, uh, do you request a full emergency?”
Someone accidentally keyed the wrong microphone, broadcasting to Plaisance a snippet of intra-cockpit conversation in Afrikaans. “Okay Joe, can you do… [unintelligible] for us?”
The controller tried again to contact the plane. “Springbok two-niner-five, Plaisance.”
“Sorry, go ahead,” said flight 295.
“Do you request a full emergency, please, a full emergency?”
“Affirmative,” the Helderberg replied.
Some 35 seconds later, the controller called again. “Springbok two-nine-five, Plaisance.”
“Request your actual position and your DME distance.” DME stands for Distance Measuring Equipment and is here used to refer to the aircraft’s distance from the airport’s locator beacon.
“Uh, we haven’t got DME yet,” said flight 295. They were still too far away to pick up the signal.
“Roger,” said the controller. “And your actual position please?”
“Now we’ve lost a lot of electrics,” said flight 295. “We haven’t got anything on the aircraft now!”
“Roger, I declare a full emergency immediately,” the controller replied. Some seconds later, he added, “Springbok two-nine five, Plaisance?”
“Do you have an ETA, Plaisance, please?” The controller asked.
“Ya, uh, zero zero three zero,” said flight 295, reporting its estimated arrival time as 00:30 UTC, or 4:30 a.m. local time. That put the Helderberg 38 minutes out from Plaisance — a long time with a fire on board.
Someone on flight 295 accidentally transmitted a snippet of cockpit conversation again. “Hey Joe, shut down the oxygen left…”
“Sorry, say again please,” said the controller.
“Plaisance, Springbok two-nine-five, we’ve opened the door to see if we can… we should be okay.” The pilot’s voice sounded calmer now. Someone else shouted “Look there!” during the final second of this transmission, followed by more inadvertent broadcasts.
“Close the bloody door,” someone shouted in Afrikaans.
“Joe, switch up quickly, then close the hole on your side,” someone said in English.
“Pressure… twelve thousand!”
“…is enough… otherwise our flight could be in trouble,” said another voice, switching back to Afrikaans.
Finally turning their attention back to the controller, flight 295 asked, “Plaisance, Springbok two-nine-five, did you copy?”
“Negative, two-nine-five, say again please.”
“We’re now sixty-five miles,” said the Helderberg.
“Confirm sixty-five miles?”
“Roger, Springbok two-nine-five, you’re re-cleared flight level five zero.”
Flight 295 acknowledged, and the controller passed on the weather information. The Helderberg acknowledged this as well, and the controller said, “Both runways available if you wish. And, two-nine-five, I request pilot’s intention.”
“Uh, we’d like to track in, uh, on one three.”
The controller confirmed the request, then said, “Affirmative and you’re cleared direct to Foxtrot Foxtrot. You report approaching five zero.”
Flight 295 responded, “’Kay.” This was the last transmission received from the Helderberg. Over the next several minutes, the controller in Plaisance tried repeatedly to contact the plane, but it was never heard from again.
When word of the missing 747 reached South Africa, officials scrambled to mount a search and rescue operation. Planes and boats from Mauritius, South Africa, and the United States began scouring the sea at the first light of dawn, searching for floating wreckage or possible survivors. For twelve hours, nothing was found. As it turned out, the transmission from the Helderberg regarding its location was inaccurate; the figure of 65 miles (105km) provided by the crew was a measurement to the next waypoint, not to the airport, and flight 295 had actually been flying much farther out to sea when it crashed than searchers initially believed.
On the afternoon of the 28th of November, a volunteer search plane spotted an oil slick and light floating debris. Ships arrived at the scene nine hours later, but found only scattered pieces of luggage, an inflatable escape slide, and a few mangled bodies. Over the next several hours, search crews recovered numerous human remains, but only eight bodies were found intact. It was clear that none of the 159 people on board could have survived.
Investigators already knew based on the air traffic control transcript that there had been a fire on board the Helderberg before it crashed. Slowly but surely, other clues began to trickle in. Some of the pieces found floating in the Indian Ocean had been exposed to fire. A watch in a passenger’s luggage had stopped at 4:07 a.m. local time, revealing the time of the crash — just three minutes after the Helderberg’s last transmission. An autopsy of the eight intact victims found that all had inhaled smoke prior to death, and at least two had died from carbon monoxide poisoning rather than impact forces. Combined with the assigned seating positions of these passengers, it could be deduced that toxic smoke was present in most of the passenger cabin before the crash.
Perhaps the most compelling discovery was a fire extinguisher, found floating on the ocean surface with its supply of halon unused. The fire extinguisher had been mounted in the passenger cabin, but it was splattered with melted nylon netting from the pallets in the cargo compartment. Someone had taken it from the cabin into the main deck cargo area, where it was exposed to fire, but they never discharged its contents.
The only other clue available to investigators was a series of radio conversations between the Helderberg and the South African Airways’ operational base at Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg. All of these transmissions were routine updates on the plane’s position, but the tape containing the conversations that occurred after the first two hours of the flight went missing and could not be found. The radio operators on duty at the time stated that they had not spoken to the plane after 16:34 UTC and that there were no conversations with the Helderberg on the missing tape.
Further answers would have to wait until investigators could see the wreckage, and more importantly, the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. In order to find the plane on the ocean floor, the South African government launched Operation Resolve, a massive international effort to recover the plane at the cost of millions of dollars. While an air and sea search continued to retrieve floating debris, specially equipped ships scoured the region searching for the signal from the locator beacons on the two black boxes. Unfortunately, the 30-day battery life on the beacons passed with no sign of the signal.
In January 1988, sonar scans revealed the presence of two distinct debris fields lying on the ocean floor some 225km northeast of Mauritius. This wreckage, believed to be that of the Helderberg, lay at a depth of over 4,400 meters — deeper than the Titanic. Sending a submersible down to it would require a cable longer than any that had ever existed before. Preparations for the recovery effort, including the construction of a record-breaking 6,000-meter-long cable, spanned many months. Finally, more than a year after the crash, all the expense paid off: the submersible reached the wreckage field and was able to transmit live video of the remains of the Helderberg back to the surface.
An examination of the debris that was hauled back to the surface revealed more about the sequence of events aboard the 747 on that fateful night. The distribution of burned and melted aircraft components showed conclusively that the fire was located in the main deck cargo hold, behind the passenger cabin, and had probably started in the right forward pallet. Furthermore, the nature of the damage to the engines revealed that they were not generating power on impact, and that the plane had probably struck the water while banked 90 degrees to the left. Investigators hoped that the black boxes might shed some light on these curious findings.
Finally, some 14 months after the crash, the remote submersible came across the cockpit voice recorder lying on the sea floor. Salvage crews brought it to the surface and rushed it to Washington D.C., where South African investigators listened to the recording alongside representatives of the US National Transportation Safety Board. Further searching failed to turn up any sign of the flight data recorder, so investigators were forced to pin their hopes on the CVR. But the condition of the black box was poor: after spending more than a year at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, the first 28 minutes of the tape had been rendered unintelligible. However, in an unbelievable stroke of luck, not only did the final 100 seconds come through loud and clear, they also happened to capture the exact moment that the emergency began.
First, a fire alarm sounded in the cockpit, prompting the crew to take immediate action. After silencing the warning, a chime informed the pilots that someone in the cabin wanted to talk to them over the intercom, but they ignored it as they rushed to find the source of the problem. They quickly identified the main deck cargo area as the source of the fire, and Captain Uys ordered First Officer Atwell to begin the checklist for a cargo fire. As he did so, Flight Engineer Giuseppe Bellagarda — who they referred to as “Joe” — observed that numerous circuit breakers were popping at his control station, presumably as the fire ate through the wiring of various systems.
Several sounds of movement followed, then Captain Uys could be heard saying, in Afrikaans, “Fuck, it’s the fact that both came on, it’s disturbing.”
A loud electronic sound pierced through the recording. Beneath this sound, Uys said, “Aagh, shit,” and then, “What the hell is going on now?” Then there was a loud noise, and the recording came to an abrupt end.
The failure of the CVR could only mean that the fire had already destroyed the wiring connecting it to the cockpit microphones. Painstaking audio-recovery efforts eventually revealed about 60% of the conversations in the first 28 minutes, but they only included discussion of personal topics irrelevant to the emergency that followed. Citing the privacy of the pilots, investigators did not release a transcript of this period. The recording also had no built-in time stamp, and since it didn’t include any of the flight’s known radio calls, it wasn’t possible to pinpoint its position on the timeline of events with any accuracy.
Combining the evidence obtained from the CVR with the evidence from the ATC tapes and the wreckage, investigators were able to paint a bare-bones outline of what happened aboard the Helderberg. First, a fire broke out in the front right pallet, which contained computers. The fire soon spread to the cardboard and polystyrene packaging, creating smoke that set off the main deck cargo fire alarm. By the time a crew member went back to put out the fire, it was either already burning out of control, or the smoke was too dense to approach. The crew member either fled or became incapacitated without ever discharging the extinguisher. Meanwhile, the pilots ran through the fire and smoke checklists, which involved shutting off the recirculating fans to prevent the spread of toxic smoke.
Investigators noted that the recirculating fans were on at the time of the crash. In combination with the transmission to Plaisance about opening a door, they concluded that when smoke began to seep into the passenger cabin, the pilots started running through the “smoke in the cabin” checklist, which included steps to turn on recirc and to open a door in flight if the smoke did not dissipate. However, this checklist was based on the assumption that the fire had been put out, and could actually make the situation worse if it was still burning. By following the checklist and turning the recirculating fans back on, they helped draw more smoke out of the cargo hold and into the passenger cabin. Opening a door to clear the air also would have proven useless if the fire continued to produce smoke. In light of the finding that some victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning, investigators theorized that the smoke might have killed many of the passengers well before the Helderberg crashed.
There remained a major disconnect between the last known events on board the flight and the crash itself. In the last three minutes of the flight after the final radio transmission, flight 295 rapidly fell thousands of feet and impacted the water in an uncontrolled manner. Investigators could not determine how this happened, but they did float several theories. Although they could find no evidence of it, they could not rule out the possibility that the fire simply burned through the plane’s control cables, causing the pilots to lose control. Alternatively, if the pilots had taken off their oxygen masks for even a short period, they could have become incapacitated, also causing a loss of control. Investigators even considered the possibility that Captain Uys had momentarily removed his mask due to discomfort from a chronic skin condition that caused him to suffer from constant itching. And there was also the possibility that electrical failures and smoke in the cockpit made it impossible to see the instruments, causing the pilots to suffer from spatial disorientation.
The more pressing question was what started the fire. Here too, investigators could not find any answers. Although the computers in the right front pallet contained lithium batteries, they were very small and were not of a type known to spontaneously combust. The other contents of the cargo hold — textiles, paper, and sports equipment — might have burned reasonably well but didn’t present any obvious source of ignition. In the end, investigators concluded only that something started a fire in the right front pallet that spread to the polystyrene packaging material, causing a buildup of combustible gases in the cargo hold that eventually led to a flash fire and the destruction of aircraft systems. By the time the smoke alarm went off and the crew went back to fight the fire, it was already too late. The Helderberg was doomed.
The story of South African Airways flight 295 didn’t end with the release of the final report, however. In the absence of any firm conclusions, conspiracy theories rapidly went mainstream. The common thread through all the popular explanations was the assertion that the real source of the fire was something not on the cargo manifest. This is in fact entirely possible.
After the fall of South Africa’s apartheid government in 1994, a truth and reconciliation commission was set up to investigate its crimes. Among the topics re-examined by the TRC was the crash of South African Airways flight 295. In a series of hearings, it was revealed that Armscor, the corporation supplying the South African military with much of its equipment, had sometimes smuggled weaponry on commercial passenger flights. This was because South Africa had been placed under an arms embargo, forcing the military to import weapons covertly in order to sustain its ongoing war in Angola. At one point, a ground handler in Tel Aviv reported seeing rockets being loaded onto a South African Airways flight. And Captain Uys’ widow alleged that he had previously complained about being forced to sign off on shipments of dangerous goods. Could illegally smuggled weaponry have caused the fire on the Helderberg? The TRC determined that it almost certainly did.
Others took the conspiracy theory even further. David Klatzow, who had been contracted by Boeing to work on the investigation into the crash, first presented what is now one of the most popular alternative theories. His interpretation of events originally stemmed from a snippet of conversation allegedly captured on the cockpit voice recording before the fire alarm, in which the pilots appeared to be discussing dinner. But dinner had been served only a couple hours after leaving Taipei. With no time stamp and no radio calls that could be used to place the recording, Klatzow believed that this discussion located it not near the end of the flight, but near the beginning. He argued that chemicals in the cargo hold, perhaps ammonium perchlorate rocket fuel, started a small fire within the first few hours after leaving Taipei. Crew members were able to quickly extinguish it. The crew then contacted the South African Airways base in Johannesburg to report the fire, and were told to continue on to Mauritius so as not to reveal the illegal arms aboard the aircraft. Before the Helderberg reached Mauritius, the fire reignited, burned out of control, and brought down the plane. The disappearance of the relevant radio tapes from Jan Smuts International Airport was therefore no coincidence — the tapes were deliberately hidden or destroyed as part of a coverup. In fact, several witnesses at the South African Airways base reported that the recording was removed and handed up the chain of command, somewhere above their pay grade. None of them claimed to know what was on it, and it has never been found.
Despite its popularity, there are several problems with this so-called “first fire” theory. For one, every pilot’s first reaction upon learning of a fire should be to declare an emergency and begin a diversion to the nearest suitable airport — not to call the airline’s base of operations. And yet there is no evidence that the crew did this in the first few hours out of Taipei. Klatzow argued that the pilots knew the illegal arms were the source of the fire and did not want this to be discovered, because they risked losing their jobs. But even if this was so, this cannot explain why they did not hesitate to declare an emergency to air traffic control when the main fire erupted 45 minutes out from Mauritius. It makes much more sense to believe that there was only one fire, that the discussion of dinner is either misheard or not taking place at dinner time, and that the recording disappeared for other reasons. This certainly does not exclude the possibility that illegally smuggled ammonium perchlorate caused the blaze.
Additional proposals exist beyond what is laid out here, but almost all of them are based on speculation and hearsay. While some conspiracy theories are more likely than others, the truth is that we will probably never know exactly what brought down South African Airways flight 295.
Although much about the crash remains unknown, investigators were still able to make several important recommendations based on their findings. Most significantly, they called into question the safety of the very design of the Boeing 747 combi. While normal cargo compartments generally had firewalls and built-in extinguishers, the main deck cargo area on the 747 combi relied on crew intervention to put out fires and prevent them from spreading. But by the time fire alarms alerted crewmembers to the presence of the fire, it might already be too big to put out. This problem was exacerbated by the difficulty in moving around the cargo area when pallets were stacked wall-to-wall. Investigators challenged the assumption that crewmembers could effectively fight a fire in these conditions, recommending that 747 combis be banned from flying until a solution to this problem could be found. The US Federal Aviation Administration agreed, issuing an airworthiness directive mandating major design changes, effectively grounding the 747 combi worldwide. Most operators simply gave up on the type rather than retrofitting their planes to meet the new guidelines.
Investigators also recommended that cockpit voice recorders retain one hour of conversations rather than 30 minutes (today two hours is standard), and that they should have microphones at the flight engineer’s station; that the wiring to the black boxes be fire-protected; and that checklists should make clear what to do when there is an uncontrolled fire in the cargo area concurrent with smoke in the cabin. By making these prudent changes, investigators managed to salvage some benefit from an accident that otherwise left many of the most basic questions unanswered.
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