The President’s Plane Is Missing: The story of the 1986 Mozambican Tu-134 crash and the death of Samora Machel
On the 19th of October 1986, a Tupolev Tu-134 jet carrying Mozambican president Samora Machel crashed into a hill in what was then apartheid South Africa, killing Machel and 34 others in a disaster that rocked the continent. Mozambique, already fighting a brutal civil war, reeled from the sudden loss of its founding father. Accusations over the crash flew in every direction. The basic problem was that the president’s plane never should have been in South Africa at all: the two countries were mortal enemies, and the flight path was not supposed to leave Mozambique. Although the crash site was only 150 meters inside South African territory, South Africa had legal jurisdiction over the investigation and quickly moved to launch an inquiry. It was not long before rumors of a coverup began to swirl. Had the plane been brought down by South Africa to destabilize Mozambique? Or had the jet’s Soviet crew made a fatal navigational error? It’s hard to decide who was less trustworthy, apartheid South Africa or the Soviet Union. But looking back at the crash today, long after the collapse of all the regimes involved, only one answer makes sense.
The story of the crash that killed President Samora Machel can only be told as part of a sweeping historical narrative, a particularly poignant moment in the geopolitical drama that gripped southern Africa throughout the second half of the 20th century. It is a story rooted in the struggles of decolonization, apartheid, and the Cold War. It is also a tragedy that forever changed the trajectory of Mozambique, for better or for worse.
By the start of the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa was in full swing as waning European powers pulled out of one country after another. Some were faster than others: in Mozambique, a stretch of coastal southeast Africa that had been a Portuguese colony for over 400 years, the Europeans were in no hurry to leave. Portugal at that time was ruled by an authoritarian regime known as the Estado Novo, under the iron fist of dictator Antonio Salazar (and later Marcelo Caetano), who wanted to turn Portugal’s African colonies into extensions of the metropole. Despite the winds of history blowing against him, Salazar insisted on trying to preserve what was left of the Portuguese Empire at any cost.
Not all in Mozambique were happy with this proposition. In 1962, a collection of anti-colonial groups came together in exile in Tanzania to form a new body called the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, known by its Portuguese acronym, FRELIMO. The group, inspired by Marxist principles, intended to win independence for Mozambique through armed revolution. In 1964, having assembled a sizeable guerilla army, it proceeded to do exactly that, launching an invasion of Mozambique that led to one of the bloodiest chapters in what became known as the Portuguese Colonial War.
FRELIMO turned out to be fairly well-organized with a cohesive Marxist worldview, unlike many of the fractured and incoherent political movements in Africa at the time. As FRELIMO forces captured more and more of the Mozambican countryside, they attempted to bring education and healthcare to the local peasantry, with some modest success. They beat back Portuguese forces by sending women ahead to villages to educate the population on the principles of communism, creating willing bands of rebels who would attack the Portuguese from behind. The group eschewed racial politics, accepting anyone, white or black, as long as they opposed capitalism. In each village that fell under FRELIMO control, traditional tribal power structures, especially around gender and land ownership, were swiftly dismantled.
In the late 1960s, with FRELIMO growing in strength thanks to material support from the USSR, China, and several Scandinavian countries, Portugal entered into a makeshift alliance with the white minority governments of South Africa and Rhodesia in an attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all. The counterattack, known as “Operation Gordiаn Knot,” slowly pushed the rebels back. But by the mid-1970s, Portugal itself was in freefall; the colonial wars had become financially and militarily unsustainable. In 1974, the Estado Novo regime was overthrown in a nearly bloodless coup known as the Carnation Revolution, which led to the establishment of a multiparty democracy the following year. One of the first things the new government did was grant independence to all of Portugal’s African colonies. After talks with FRELIMO led to the group’s recognition as the legitimate government, the People’s Republic of Mozambique became independent on the 25th of June, 1975.
Under the independence agreement, the presidency of Mozambique was handed to Samora Machel, who had been co-leader of FRELIMO since 1969. Machel was a nurse by profession; as a result, he was one of an elite few in Mozambique who received a full education. It was this education and his nursing career which led him to radicalization. Upon getting his first job at a hospital, he discovered that white nurses were paid more than black nurses, an event which became the straw that broke the camel’s back: after that, Machel fled to Tanzania and joined the resistance.
Now, at the age of 42, Machel took control of a nation in the most desperate condition. Most of the country’s approximately 250,000 white Portuguese had fled after FRELIMO asked that they either become citizens of Mozambique or leave within 24 hours. Аs in many other newly independent African countries, the fleeing colonizers destroyed as much infrastructure as they could on the way out, driving bulldozers into the sea, plundering factories, and filling the sewers with concrete. To make matters worse, there was no one in Mozambique who could rebuild it: 95% of the population was illiterate, and virtually no one had a college education.
Upon his accession to power, Samora Machel immediately began working to build a Soviet-style communist state. There were no elections, and FRELIMO was declared to be the only legitimate political party. Machel quickly nationalized key industries, ousted tribal chiefs, cracked down on dissidents, sent opponents to prison camps, and began collectivizing agriculture (an effort which was met with abject failure). Any effort to bring services to the people was hampered by a complete lack of capital, exacerbated by the country’s almost non-existent infrastructure. Nevertheless, the measures that Machel did successfully implement, such as free primary school for all, brought him a decent measure of popularity.
Meanwhile, the neighboring apartheid governments of South Africa and Rhodesia looked on with concern as Mozambique and Angola both became independent socialist states. Mozambique immediately began harboring black nationalist groups who were fighting to overthrow the brutal white-minority regimes in both countries, putting Rhodesia in particular in a precarious position. Within two years of Mozambique’s independence, a Rhodesian-backed nationalist group called the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) declared war on the government, triggering a civil war. Countries around the world began taking sides. And yet somehow, the conflict managed to transcend Cold War politics: only South Africa and Rhodesia openly backed RENAMO, while the FRELIMO government was supported by the USSR, China, the United Kingdom and the United States (at least in public), East Germany, and North Korea. Truly, the Mozambican Civil War created strange bedfellows.
From 1977 onwards, the civil war put Mozambique in a state of low-level conflict with both Rhodesia and South Africa. Rhodesian forces entered Mozambique multiple times, at one point actively bombing the city of Beira. In addition to providing material support to RENAMO, South Africa also performed targeted strikes in Mozambique to kill members of the African National Congress (or ANC, the anti-apartheid group led by Nelson Mandela); most notable was a 1983 airstrike against the Mozambican capital of Maputo, in which South African forces missed their target entirely and instead killed workers at a jam factory.
In 1984, unable to end the civil war and with the country’s economy in shambles, Samora Machel was forced to go to the negotiating table. In an agreement known as the Nkomati Accord, Machel promised to expel all ANC members in the country in exchange for South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha promising to end his country’s support for RENAMO. Machel swiftly followed through on his end of the deal, but instead of honoring its side of the agreement, South Africa actually increased its support for RENAMO. It was an ugly and bitter betrayal, one which taught the FRELIMO government that South Africa could not be trusted under any circumstances.
By the mid-1980s, regional dynamics were changing. Rhodesia’s apartheid government had collapsed, and the country, now called Zimbabwe, established friendly relations with Mozambique. At the same time, the landlocked nations of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Malawi wanted to sanction South Africa for its human rights abuses, but could not do so because 68% of their imported goods came through South African ports. To get around this, the three countries reached an agreement to help build a railroad through Mozambique to the port of Beira, with the goal of eventually eliminating their dependence on South Africa. South Africa, meanwhile, saw this effort as a threat to its geopolitical sphere of influence.
It was in the midst of the railroad controversy that President Samora Machel flew to Mbala, Zambia on the 19th of October, 1986 for talks with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seko. Several years earlier the government of Mozambique had custom ordered a modified version of the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-134, a twin rear-engine jet analogous to the DC-9, specifically for use as the presidential plane. As a result, it was equipped with a number of features that did not come standard on the civilian version, such as a ground proximity warning system.
As Mozambique lacked any qualified Tu-134 pilots, the government hired a crew on charter from the Soviet state aviation division, Aeroflot. The five-man cockpit crew consisted of Captain Yuri Novodran, First Officer Igor Kartamyshev, Flight Engineer Vladimir Novoselov, Navigator Oleg Kudryashov, and Radio Operator Anatoly Shulipov.
After picking up the president and his entourage in Maputo on the morning of the 19th, the plane headed north to Lusaka, Zambia, where it picked up more fuel before continuing to Mbala. President Machel departed for his meeting with Kaunda, dos Santos, and Mobutu; in the meantime, the crew of the plane went to a restaurant in town with the pilots of the other presidents’ aircraft.
By the time the talks concluded, some seven hours had passed and night was falling. As the crew prepared the plane for departure, President Machel, several cabinet ministers, and other support staff boarded the aircraft and took their seats (although the exact identities of those on board, besides Machel, are not clear). In total there were 44 people on board, including nine crewmembers and 35 passengers.
At 18:38 local time, the presidential plane departed Mbala, headed back to Maputo. The crew didn’t file a flight plan, and although the navigator Kudryashov specified Beira as the designated alternate airport in his navigation log, the plane didn’t actually have enough fuel to divert to Beira following a failed approach to Maputo. Most probably the crew took less fuel than was needed because taking more would put them over the maximum takeoff weight for Mbala Airport, but this left them without any possibility of making a diversion late in the flight, as Beira was the only other airport in Mozambique capable of handling a Tu-134.
As the plane proceeded south into Mozambique at its cruise altitude of 35,000 feet, Captain Novodran carried on a long, one-sided conversation about arguments he had had with other Aeroflot pilots over how much fuel to take on various journeys. Nobody appeared to be paying any attention, least of all First Officer Kartamyshev, who was listening to a Moscow-based news and music station on HF radio.
By 21:10, the crew had already begun their descent from 35,000 feet, heading for runway 23 at Maputo International Airport. Their plan was to navigate to the approach course by tracking the Maputo VOR radio beacon, located northeast of the airport along the extended centerline of runway 23. The VOR receivers on board the airplane could track the signal from the VOR to determine its azimuth: the angle between the plane and the VOR with reference to magnetic north, thus providing the heading from the VOR to the plane. The plan was to fly south until the instruments showed they were crossing the 45-degree radial of the Maputo VOR, which corresponded roughly to the extended runway centerline, and then turn right to track along this radial and line up with the runway (see diagram below). They would then intercept the signal from the instrument landing system (ILS) and use that to land.
Besides the VOR and the ILS, the navigational infrastructure in Mozambique was very poor. Of the two waypoints in Mozambique listed on the navigator’s log for the flight, one only existed on paper, and the other, a non-directional beacon (NDB), had been inoperative for years. Two more NDBs near Maputo were known to be weak, unreliable, and sometimes completely inoperative. Maputo International Airport lacked radar or any other means of accurately tracking the positions of incoming planes. And to make matters worse, the systems that did exist periodically went offline due to sabotage by insurgents, a situation with which the crew were all too familiar.
At some point during this period, a series of events occurred which is disputed by the various countries involved. The official investigation carried out by South Africa is the basis for the following section.
At 19:10, navigator Kudryashev announced that they were 100km from Maputo, based on the signal from the distance measuring equipment co-located with the VOR. Although this distance was correct, he had unknowingly made an error just a few moments earlier. When entering the frequency for the Maputo VOR — 112.7 — into the №1 (captain’s side) VOR receiver, he accidentally entered a frequency of 112.3 instead. The VOR frequency selector was lit only by the overhead lights in the cockpit; it was located far forward of the navigator, who was seated behind the first officer; and on the Soviet instrumentation, the numbers 3 and 7 looked rather similar. All these factors combined to prevent Kudryashev from realizing his error.
It just so happened that 112.3 was the actual frequency for a different nearby VOR, which had recently been installed at an airport in Matsapa, Swaziland, some 200 kilometers to the southwest. Without realizing it, Kudryashev was using the wrong VOR to decide where to turn onto the 45˚ radial.
At 21:11, he noticed that the plane was passing the 45-degree radial of the VOR, and he began using the autopilot’s heading select function to turn towards the radial.
Noticing that the navigator had begun a turn to the right, Captain Novodran uttered a pair of expletives, then asked, “Making some turns? Couldn’t it be straight?”
Kudryashev simply replied, “VOR indicates that way.”
Despite the fact that they began the turn much farther from the airport than they were supposed to, nobody cross-checked their position, and nobody questioned the navigator. First Officer Kartamyshev’s (№2) VOR receiver had been correctly set to track Maputo on 112.7, but apparently nobody paid any attention to it. The №1 VOR receiver indicated “that way,” so “that way” they went.
At this point Kudryashev should have engaged the autopilot in VOR mode, allowing it to track the VOR automatically. But in fact he continued to control the plane using the heading knob, and he never quite turned far enough to the right to intercept the 45-degree radial of the Matsapa VOR, which would have required a heading of 225 degrees. Instead, the plane continued on a heading of roughly 221 degrees, slowly diverging to the left of the VOR. Why he did this is unclear. In any case, the pilots were quite distracted: immediately following the brief discussion of the turn, Captain Novodran began asking various crewmembers for a pen, then started working out their drinks order with Flight Engineer Novoselov.
“Three beers and one coke, here,” Novoselov said.
“Three beers yes, Vova?” Novodran asked, addressing the flight engineer.
“Yes, and one coke each,” Novoselov replied.
At the same time, First Officer Kartamyshev mused openly about whether the lights indicating the status of the VOR were working properly, roping Captain Novodran into another conversation. This was followed by an extensive discussion of when they expected to land, before the conversation again returned to drinks.
“Two for each, or what?” Flight Engineer Novoselov asked.
“No, three beers and one coke each, they brought equally for each,” said Captain Novodran.
“Three beers and one coke each,” Novodran confirmed. Why the crewmembers were ordering beer while still in flight was not clear.
Before they began their descent, the controller had requested that they report upon reaching 3,000 feet or upon catching sight of the runway lights, whichever happened first. Up until this point the plane had been descending rather sedately toward 3,000 feet, although in parallel to the Maputo approach path, not in line with it. The terrain beneath the plane was rising as they headed into the highlands surrounding the triple point of Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland, but the pilots had no idea — they assumed they were northeast of Maputo, over the coast, tracking inbound to runway 23.
By this point the signal from the Matsapa VOR was obscured by mountains — but they were no longer trying to follow it anyway. The №1 (captain’s side) VOR receiver, which had been erroneously set to track Matsapa, had been reset (probably by Captain Novodran) to follow the signal from the Maputo instrument landing system. First Officer Kartamyshev’s VOR receiver had been correctly tuned to Maputo the entire time, but the navigator’s instruments were set to take their VOR information from the captain’s receiver, and in any case Kartamyshev was still listening to the music station instead of paying attention to his instruments.
At 21:17, Captain Novodran noticed that the radio altimeter had come to life and begun displaying their height above the ground. Believing that the ground below the plane lay at sea level, this struck him as much too early, considering that they were still at over 4,000 feet and the radio altimeter should activate at no more than about 2,000 feet above terrain. Turning to Flight Engineer Novoselov, he said, “Volodya, it is necessary to tell them [maintenance] about RV [the radio altimeter].”
“Say it, say, it’s not the first time,” Radio Operator Shulipov chimed in. They had seen problems with the radio altimeter before, and they figured it was just acting up again.
Seconds later, Captain Novodran looked down at his instruments to see how close they were to intercepting the ILS for runway 23, but to his surprise there was no sign of the signal at all. “There is no Maputo?” he exclaimed, enhancing his remark with a well-placed expletive.
“What?” First Officer Kartamyshev asked.
“There is no Maputo,” Captain Novodran repeated. “Electrical power is off, chaps!”
Unable to see the ILS signal (in fact it was out of range), Captain Novodran concluded that this was just one of the frequent electrical blackouts that plagued the capital. Sure that the power would come back on soon, he made no move to halt the descent.
“There to the right, it is lit,” said First Officer Kartamyshev. By this point the plane was approaching the South African border, and they were seeing the lights of South African towns. But Kartamyshev probably thought the lights were evidence that the power was still on in Maputo.
“There is something I don’t understand…” said navigator Kudryashev.
“No, there is something…” Captain Novodran started to say.
“ILS switched off, and DME!” said Kudryashev. It’s not clear what he meant, as the flight data recorder showed that the DME — Distance Measuring Equipment — was working just fine, and was tuned to the correct source in Maputo.
“Everything switched off, look chaps!” said Novodran.
“And NDBs do not work!” Kudryashev added. Like the ILS, the signals from the NDBs were out of range.
“Chaps!” Novodran exclaimed.
“Yes, yes, everything switched off — ILS, DME…” Kudryashev repeated.
“And they do not have electrical power,” said First Officer Kartamyshev.
“NDBs?” Kudryashev asked.
“And there to the left… what kind of light is there?” Kartamyshev continued.
“This is correct,” said Captain Novodran. “Something strange?” Why were they seeing lights between the scattered clouds if the power was out?
At this point the plane reached 3,000 feet, the minimum altitude to which they could descend without seeing the runway.
“3,000 feet,” First Officer Kartamyshev announced.
“Tolya!” Captain Novodran shouted to the radio operator, “3,000 feet!”
“3,000 feet!” Novodran let out another expletive.
“Maputo, Charlie Niner Charlie Alfa Alfa,” radio operator Shulipov said to air traffic control, “maintaining 3,000 feet.” Nobody had told him they were maintaining 3,000 feet, and in fact they had continued to descend below this altitude, despite not being able to see the runway. Captain Novodran might have chosen to violate this basic principle of airmanship because he thought he could see better if he got below the scattered clouds reported to be at 1,800 feet. Little did he know that they were up in the highlands, where 1,800 feet was below ground level.
“Charlie Niner Charlie Alfa Alfa, roger” the controller replied, “and confirm you have field in sight?”
“No!” said Captain Novodran.
“Not yet,” Shulipov relayed to the controller.
“And runway lights negative yet?” the controller asked.
“Negative,” said Shulipov.
“ILS negative, not working,” Novodran interjected.
“Roger, Charlie Niner Alfa Alfa continue approach, and ILS out of service?” Shulipov asked.
“And NDB,” Novodran chimed in again.
The controller, who had a poor understanding of English, did not realize that this was a question, not a statement of fact. “Affirmative,” he replied, although the ILS was in fact working normally. Since the crew weren’t picking up the ILS, he then cleared them to circle around for a visual approach to runway 05 instead.
Navigator Kudryashev now reported that they were still 25 to 30 kilometers from the airport. This information made little sense. “Something is wrong, chaps,” Captain Novodran exclaimed.
“Here they gave cloud base 1,800 feet, and so take it into consideration,” said radio operator Shulipov.
“Eight octas?” said Kudryashev, asking whether the clouds were supposed to fully cover the sky.
“No, two octas,” said Shulipov. The forecast only called for one quarter cloud cover.
“And so this…” Kudryashev started to say.
“It should be lit,” Captain Novodran concluded, staring into the dark abyss in front of him where the runway should have been. If the runway wasn’t obscured by clouds, then why couldn’t he see it?
In fact, the plane was headed straight for an unlit mountain, obscured in the pitch-black night. The lights of nearby towns were proving to be no use.
“There to the right, lights are seen,” Captain Novodran continued.
“Runway is not lit?” First officer Kartamyshev asked.
“Runway is not lit!” Novodran repeated. “There’s a problem.”
“Maputo, Charlie Niner Charlie Alfa Alfa, check your runway lights,” radio operator Shulipov said to the controller. But in official aviation English, “check” means “I’ve got it,” so the controller thought Shulipov was saying he had the lights in sight, when he actually wanted him to check whether or not they were working. In response, the controller simply repeated his clearance to perform a visual approach to runway 05. Shulipov then requested to turn right to circle around to this runway, although the captain had not actually decided to do this.
“Wait, right?” said Captain Novodran, upon hearing this transmission. “I understood nothing!”
“Don’t you see the runway yet?” Shulipov asked.
“And what runway, what are you talking about!?” said Novodran. “We are doing straight-in approach!”
“No, well, can you see the runway?”
“No, there’s nothing, there’s neither city nor runway,” First Officer Kartamyshev chimed in.
Shulipov explained that he asked the controller to check the runway lights but that he didn’t get an answer. First Officer Kartamyshev ordered him to ask again.
“Maputo, Charlie Niner Charlie Alfa Alfa, check again runway lights,” Shulipov said over the radio. But he made the same mistake as the first time, and the controller again thought he was saying he had the lights in sight.
At this point the plane’s ground proximity alarm, a Soviet model known as the SSOS Terrain Proximity Warning System, detected a dangerous closure rate with the ground. A loud, repetitive alarm began to sound in the cockpit. “Dammit!” Captain Novodran exclaimed. He pulled back to slow their descent, but not enough to stop it entirely.
The controller repeated his clearance for a third time, still not understanding Shulipov’s question.
“Runway lights out of service?” Shulipov now asked the controller.
“No, it’s cloudy, cloudy, cloudy!” Captain Novodran said.
“Confirm, runway lights out of service?” the controller asked. The radio operator and the controller were now chasing each other in circles, each asking the other to confirm the status of the runway lights.
With the SSOS still blaring, Shulipov replied, “Affirmative, lights not in sight.” In response the controller repeated the approach clearance for the fourth time.
“No! Normal!” said Captain Novodran. He still wanted to fly the regular straight-in approach.
After going off continuously for 32 seconds, the SSOS stopped sounding, probably due to a decrease in their rate of descent relative to the ground.
“No, no, there’s nowhere to go, no NDBs, there’s nothing!” navigator Kudryashev exclaimed. The crew were hopelessly confused — and little did they know, it was already too late.
Three seconds later, the left wingtip of the plane struck a tree atop a hill at an elevation of around 2,180 feet above sea level, some 150 meters inside South African territory. Traveling at over 400 kilometers per hour, the plane smashed to the ground, bounced, came down again, and skidded over the top of the mountain, breaking apart as it went. The wreckage tumbled on seemingly forever, leaving a debris trail over 800 meters long, strewn with shattered pieces of the Tupolev. By the time the plane came to rest, 34 people were dead, including Mozambican President Samora Machel.
Remarkably, ten people initially survived the crash: nine passengers seated on the right side near the tail, and Flight Engineer Vladimir Novoselov, whose survival could only be considered miraculous. Every other passenger and crewmember in the front of the plane died instantly on impact, except for him — and he wasn’t even wearing his seat belt.
Villagers in the nearby settlement of Mbuzini heard the crash, but it was not until 1:00 in the morning, nearly four hours after the accident, that someone managed to raise the South African police by telephone. A single officer from a nearby town hurried to the scene, where he found the survivors strewn about the vast wreckage field. The first doctor didn’t arrive for another two hours, and it wasn’t until near dawn that helicopters managed to reach the remote site to take the badly injured survivors to hospital. (One of them went on to die of his injuries after two and a half months, unofficially bringing the death toll to 35.)
Meanwhile in Mozambique, the controller repeatedly asked the plane to confirm its position, but his calls went unanswered. Realizing that something was seriously wrong, authorities launched a search and rescue mission near Maputo, but they failed to find the plane, as it was never located anywhere near the city.
In South Africa, aviation authorities became aware of the crash at around 5:30 a.m., and at 6:50 a.m. they informed authorities in Mozambique that the plane had been found in the farthest corner of South African territory, a few hundred meters from the border with Mozambique and some four and a half kilometers from the border with Swaziland. Although there were ten survivors, the president was unfortunately not among them.
The first sign for most people in Mozambique that something was wrong came at 8:30 in the morning, when all the national radio stations switched to funeral music. A few minutes later, Marcelino dos Santos, second-in-command of FRELIMO, announced that the presidential plane had crashed and Samora Machel had been killed.
The news of Machel’s untimely death shook all of Africa. Accusations immediately began to fly. South Africa was a pariah state, bent on destabilizing its neighbors; when it was revealed that the plane had crashed in South Africa, many people were immediately convinced that Machel’s plane had been brought down on purpose. Just days earlier, Mozambican authorities had warned that South Africa was planning an air raid against Maputo to kill anti-apartheid insurgents; now rumors swirled that something much bigger was afoot, perhaps a plot to destabilize the country in advance of an invasion, presumably to install a pro-South African puppet government. Others said that Machel had been assassinated in order to stall the construction of the railroad and preserve South Africa’s trade dominance with neighboring landlocked countries; indeed, there were immediate fears that security around the rail line would collapse and insurgents would destroy it. Newspapers spread allegations by a survivor that South African police had looked through the wreckage for secret documents before helping the survivors. Mozambique immediately issued veiled accusations that South Africa was behind the crash, while South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha toured the crash site and oversaw the recovery of the plane’s four flight recorders. Under international law, South Africa had the right to lead the investigation, and they fully intended to exercise it.
Chosen to lead the South African board of inquiry was former air force pilot and former Supreme Court Justice Cecil Margo, who was already well known for leading the controversial 1961 investigation into the crash which killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. (He would also go on to investigate the equally controversial crash of South African Airways flight 295 in the Indian Ocean in 1987.) Margo swiftly moved to invite teams from Mozambique, the state of registry, and the USSR, the state of manufacture, to assist in the inquiry, as was his obligation under international law. In order to ensure neutrality, the cockpit voice recorder was taken to Zürich, Switzerland, thus avoiding any suggestion of bias in its decoding.
At least initially, the three countries managed to agree on a basic set of facts. It was established beyond reasonable doubt by all parties that the plane had been on course until 21:11, when it made a 37-degree turn to the right. After that, it roughly maintained a course of 221 degrees magnetic while continuously descending until it eventually struck the ground. There had been no mechanical failure of any sort and all the instruments were assessed to be working perfectly. It seemed as though the plane had simply turned to line up with the runway about eight minutes too early without the pilots ever realizing their mistake.
Meanwhile, Mozambique mourned the loss of Samora Machel, who had been a defining force in the young country’s history. On October 28th, tens of thousands of people turned up for Machel’s funeral in Maputo. Over 100 foreign delegations attended, including from the United States, which sent President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen. South Africa, however, was not in attendance, and numerous people raised banners in the central square in Maputo proclaiming that “apartheid is responsible for the death of our president.” Others held signs featuring Machel’s famous slogan, “A luta continua!” (“The struggle continues!”)
On November 6th, eager to avoid any further destabilization of the country, the Politburo unanimously appointed Joaquim Chissano as the new President of Mozambique. Chissano would prove to be an even more transformational figure than Machel: during his 18-year tenure in office, he oversaw the rapid recovery of the economy, ended the civil war with RENAMO in 1992, and in 1994 established a multi-party democracy that survives to this day. Child mortality rates plummeted and literacy skyrocketed. In 2004, after running for and winning two terms in office, he chose to set an example by declining to run for a third, a precedent that his successors have emulated ever since. But all that lay ahead: first, Mozambique needed to know who or what had killed Samora Machel.
The central puzzle for investigators was why the VOR would have indicated that it was time to turn right, as the navigator apparently believed, when they were nowhere near the correct radial. South African investigators noted that at that time the plane was quite close, within a reasonable margin of error, to the 45-degree radial of the VOR at Matsapa in Swaziland, which was broadcasting on almost the same frequency as Maputo. It would have been quite simple to mix them up.
The problem was that besides the circumstantial evidence of the plane’s location at the time of the crash, and the similarity of the two frequencies, there wasn’t much else which would prove that the crew accidentally selected Matsapa instead of Maputo. The №2 VOR receiver was found to be displaying the correct heading to the Maputo VOR on impact, and the №1 VOR receiver had been switched over to the ILS setting before the crash, erasing whatever it had been set to when the navigator first made the turn. South African investigators felt that the most likely possibility was that the navigator simply entered the wrong frequency in the №1 receiver (which was the default source for his instruments), then attempted to turn the plane toward what he thought was the correct radial but never actually engaged the autopilot in VOR mode. Thus the plane initiated the turn at the 45-degree radial of Matsapa, but never intercepted it; instead, they ended up roughly paralleling the 45-degree radials of both Matsapa and Maputo, but were not on either of them.
Although it wasn’t clear why exactly the navigator would do this, it was obvious that the conduct of the crew left much to be desired. With five people in the cockpit, they needed to be a well-oiled team, or information would get lost very quickly. It was clear, however, that communication between the crewmembers was extremely poor: the five pilots fell victim to something like the bystander effect, where each assumed the others were handling the situation. The navigator made the turn without consulting any of the other pilots, and the captain took his decision at face value without questioning why they were turning so early. The first officer remained completely out of the loop as his radio was tuned to a Moscow radio station throughout the flight. In fact, during the entire sequence of events he did nothing that was of note. Meanwhile, the radio operator repeatedly gave information to the controller that had not been agreed upon by the rest of the crew, and caused confusion with his non-standard use of aviation English. The controller, for his part, actively exacerbated the pilots’ confusion by unintentionally confirming their suspicions that various systems weren’t working, when in fact they were all working just fine. It was found that understanding of English was the controller’s biggest weak point, and in this area he had finished second to last in his class during training.
On top of these breakdowns in communication, investigators noted that the crew did not use a single checklist or conduct a single cross-check. This represented a shocking lack of cockpit discipline that would be unthinkable at any major airline, let alone in the cockpit of a presidential aircraft. The crew seemed to be flying on faith alone, without ever taking the time to assess the situation objectively. Proper procedure called for the captain and first officer to confirm that the correct frequency for the VOR had been entered, but this didn’t happen. When faced with an apparent indication to turn right while still 100 kilometers from the airport, the pilots should have suspected that something was wrong, but there was no indication that anyone cared about the discrepancy. Nobody looked at the first officer’s VOR receiver, nor did anyone listen to the Morse code broadcast from the VOR, which would have confirmed its identity. Nobody ever realized that their DME reading was not what it should have been. (And on top of this, investigators noted a large number of additional procedural errors, too numerous to list here, which had little to do with the accident.) In short, plenty of methods existed to inform the pilots of their mistake, but through laziness, hubris, or both, they never performed even the most basic safety procedures.
The most frustrating part was that the pilots could have prevented the crash at any point up until the last couple of seconds before impact. But despite their inability to find the airport, and mounting evidence that it would not be possible to land on this approach, the crew ignored the SSOS terrain proximity warning system for a full 32 seconds. Pilots in most of the world were trained to react to such an alarm by immediately climbing to the minimum sector altitude, but in the Soviet Union, the procedure was a little bit different. The South African report did not appear to mention it, but the Soviet SSOS escape procedure implied that the pilots could ignore the alarm if they were over flat terrain, even if that terrain was not in sight. Obviously this did not account for a situation in which the pilots thought they were over flat terrain when they actually weren’t. Indeed, the procedure might have cultivated an attitude where pilots could always convince themselves that they were justified in ignoring the alarm, as long as they thought they knew where they were. In this case, the captain might have believed that he had no choice but to salvage the approach because he did not have enough fuel to reach Beira, which could have resulted in “motivated cognition,” priming him to conclude that the SSOS alarm need not be taken seriously. This glaring shortcoming in the procedure was typical of Soviet aviation, where the lessons of foreign accidents were ignored in favor of a domestic body of knowledge that was perpetually 15 to 20 years behind.
When South Africa concluded that pilot error was the cause of the crash, Mozambique and the USSR denounced the finding. Both countries complained that there was no evidence the crew had ever tried to lock on to the Matsapa VOR, accidentally or otherwise, and the flight path after the turn did not correspond to any radial of this beacon. Instead, Mozambique and the USSR argued that the most probable reason for the turn was that the crew had locked on to a decoy beacon, set up to lure the plane off course by broadcasting on the same frequency as the Maputo VOR.
To support this point they presented a number of items of evidence. Witnesses had seen a mysterious tent near the crash site at an encampment known to be used by the South African Defense Forces. The crew had actually turned while passing the 48-degree radial of Matsapa, not the 45-degree radial, undermining the assumption that they were turning onto this radial (although the South Africans put this down to inaccuracies inherent in the system). An analysis by the USSR showed that it wouldn’t have been possible to detect the Matsapa VOR from the point where the aircraft made the turn, because a mountain was in the way. And a report by none other than Ron Chippindale — the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents of New Zealand, who famously came to an incomplete conclusion about the cause of the Erebus Disaster — indicated that it would be easy to set up a VOR on a Land Rover using a couple of car batteries and 1.5-meter antenna. This beacon could have been made to overpower the real beacon by simply cutting electricity to the real Maputo VOR, which was located in an unsecured shed near the airport. Although the Mozambican and Soviet replies to the South African report didn’t directly accuse South Africa of setting up such a fake beacon, that was clearly the implication.
The theory that the plane was lured off course by a false beacon had a couple of important hurdles to overcome. The first was the fact, agreed upon by all three countries, that the first officer’s VOR receiver was showing the correct heading to the real Maputo VOR at the moment of impact. This showed that the VOR was turned on and was the most powerful beacon on the frequency of 112.7 in the area of the crash site. The Mozambican reply simply ignored this fact, but the USSR did try to explain it. In the Soviet deposition it was argued that the false VOR was sufficiently more powerful than the real VOR to mask it, even though both VORs were turned on. However, the plane flew over the false VOR shortly before impact, after which intervening terrain blocked its signal, causing the first officer’s VOR receiver to start indicating the heading to the real VOR, which was in line of sight. This analysis came complete with complex mathematical calculations and helpful diagrams, which were all technically correct, but came with one glaring flaw: the calculations placed the false beacon five to seven kilometers behind the crash site, well inside the territory of Mozambique. (In fact the plane only crossed into South Africa about two seconds before the crash.) As the proposed location for the beacon was controlled by the central government and was quite close to a Mozambican military camp, it was not clear how South Africa could have put a false VOR there without being noticed. Indeed, in trying to mathematically prove where the false VOR must have been, the USSR had seemingly forgotten why they thought there was a false VOR in the first place.
That left the argument that the Matsapa VOR was not detectable from the point where the plane made its fatal turn. The USSR noted that South Africa had not actually tested its Matsapa hypothesis with a reconnaissance flight, leading to an incorrect conclusion, although South Africa replied that this was because Mozambique never gave them permission to do one. In any case, this was the one major claim by the USSR that South Africa did not effectively rebut and which merited closer scrutiny.
Trusting neither apartheid South Africa nor the Soviet Union, I decided to find out for myself. For my calculations, I used the altitude, distance, and bearing figures for the airplane at the time of the turn as stated by the USSR, along with Google Earth and a protractor.
According to the facts agreed upon by the three nations, at the moment of the turn the aircraft was at a height of 19,000 feet above sea level and was located 202 kilometers from the Matsapa VOR on a radial of 48.8 degrees magnetic. The USSR calculated that a mountain northeast of the airport formed a 2.13-degree angle with the VOR, which when extended to a distance of 202km, would result in a signal shadow below ~24,500 feet. Using Google Earth, a protractor, and a calculator I was able to arrive at a value within 5% of that calculated by the USSR. I was, however, unable to corroborate the USSR’s claim that the mountains would block the signal below this height on the entire range from 19.8˚ to 57.8˚, as my calculation only held true for a narrow zone directly behind the summits of the two mountains in question, and it was unclear how the Soviets could have arrived at the conclusion that the whole range would be blocked. My best guess is that they used a different location for the VOR to calculate the width of the shadow than they used to measure its height.
In reality, the easternmost mountain didn’t line up with the 48.8-degree radial of Matsapa where the plane was said to be located. By cross-referencing with the location of magnetic north in 1986, I was able to plot the exact path of the 48.8-degree radial of the Matsapa VOR to a distance of 202 kilometers, thus establishing the near-exact profile of the terrain between the plane and the VOR. I then measured the maximum height of the terrain under this radial at various distances from the beacon. What I discovered was that this radial did not pass over the summit of the mountain, and the angle formed between the nearest high terrain and the VOR was significantly less than that calculated by the Soviets. Extrapolating this angle out to the full 202km resulted in a signal shadow height of 11,700 feet, well below the height of the aircraft. This implied that at the moment of the turn, the plane very well could have picked up the signal from the VOR. Although my calculations are subject to a fair amount of error due to uncertainty about the accuracy of Google Earth’s terrain database, it’s enough to cast doubt on the USSR’s assertion that the Matsapa VOR could not have been detected.
All this led me to two conclusions. The first, needless to say, was that the false beacon theory (at least as argued by the USSR and Mozambique) didn’t hold water. The second conclusion, which was also mentioned in the South African report, was that even if there had been a false beacon, it didn’t matter. In order for a false beacon to cause a crash, the flight crew involved must make a series of easily preventable errors. A simple cross-check with their distance could have told the crew that they were going the wrong way. Furthermore, simply because they were tracking the VOR was not an excuse to descend below the minimum descent altitude of 3,000 feet without seeing the runway, or to ignore a 32-second GPWS alarm. The fact that these crew errors led to the crash remained true regardless of whether they were tracking the Matsapa VOR or a false VOR broadcasting on the Maputo frequency. That very fact is the nail in the coffin for the false VOR theory. Why use a false VOR to bring down a plane when the operation’s success relies on gross crew incompetence? South Africa could not have predicted that the crew would behave this way; indeed, such a proposal probably would have been shut down in the planning phase as soon as someone mentioned that a basic cross check would reveal the ruse. Had South Africa wanted to bring down the plane and kill Machel, a much more effective method would have been to blow it up with a bomb or a missile. The false beacon theory was used to explain why the crash looked like an accident, when in fact the simplest explanation is that it was an accident all along.
Today, all the regimes involved in the accident and its aftermath are gone. The USSR collapsed in 1991, the People’s Republic of Mozambique became a democracy in 1994 (and dropped the first part of its name), and that same year South Africa’s apartheid system ended when Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress came to power on a promise to bring about racial equality.
Following the end of the apartheid regime, the new government of South Africa set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate apartheid-era crimes. Among the cases that they examined was the crash of Mozambique’s presidential plane. The result of the testimony before the commission was inconclusive: witnesses who were in government at the time hinted at the possibility that South Africa had a role in the crash, but no aviation experts were called to testify. In the end the commission found no grounds to overturn the findings of Cecil Margo’s original investigation, but expressed openness to a new inquiry. In 2006 it was reported that the investigation would be reopened, but 15 years later it does not appear that anything ever came of this.
Many people in Africa and around the world still believe that Samora Machel was probably killed by South Africa, although most of them allow for a great deal of uncertainty. Perhaps the most common description of the crash is that it “occurred under suspicious circumstances” and “some think South Africa was to blame.” Both of these are true statements, but the weight of the evidence shows that the “suspicious circumstances” were a red herring. Where there is smoke, there is not always fire. South Africa committed many atrocities in its day, but the facts don’t bear this one out.
The fact that theories of sabotage are still so widespread is testament to the unique historical circumstances in which the crash occurred. The reason for covering the last 20 years of Mozambican history before getting to the accident itself is to allow reflection on the societal undercurrents that drove the relationship between Samora Machel and the people of Mozambique. Machel was seen as a liberator, a crusader against apartheid, a hero who defeated a colonial power and freed his people. His whole life, in parallel with the life of the young country he led, seemed to be building to a confrontation with South Africa, a confrontation which never really came. Machel always said that “the struggle continues.” For those who believed in him, and there were many, the fact that his life was cut short at the age of 53 without finishing the struggle feels like an injustice. How can someone come in and say that no, it was not a matter of right and wrong, but the inevitable and indifferent outcome of a deficient system?
For this reason, the argument that the crash was a tragic accident will probably always be on the losing side of the struggle for a place in the world’s popular consciousness. It is discomforting to think about the extent to which we live and die based on tiny, random events that are not part of any rational narrative. We don’t want to believe that a navigator mistaking a three for a seven led to the death of an iconic president, when it feels so much better to believe that he died a martyr for a righteous cause.
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