The common jinx in most plane crashes in Africa

Sunday March 17 2019

Ethiopian Airlines

Ethiopian Airlines disaster: Colleagues of victims of UN's World Food Programme office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, console each other as they visit the crash site at Hama Quntushele village in Oromia region on March 14, 2019. PHOTO | ATONY KARUMBA | AFP 

KAMAU NGOTHO
By KAMAU NGOTHO
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In my high school days, one of our literature set books was a novel titled The Concubine by Nigerian author Elechi Amadi.

The main character is Ihuoma, a woman who was possessed by a bad spirit such that any man who married her was struck by a calamity.

Anyway, I am a Christian and do not believe in superstitions. Sorry for digressing. I was writing about air crashes.

But much as I do not believe in superstition or kamuti and kababa as my Kamba and Kisii friends call it, I am just struck by the fact that all major airplane crashes in Africa had a link to Kenya.

All but two involved a Boeing aircraft. Three of them happened on Ethiopian airspace, and two happened on Kenyan airliners flying the Abidjan-Douala route in west Africa.

LUFTHANSA FLIGHT

The worst airplane crash on Kenyan soil happened on the morning of November 20, 1974. It involved a Boeing 747 plane carrying 157 people – the same number the Ethiopian Boeing that crashed last Sunday was carrying.

It was a Lufthansa Flight (the airline of then-West Germany) headed to Johannesburg from Frankfurt. At 7.40am the flight was cleared to take off from runway 24 at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (then called Embakasi Airport).

After clearing the runaway, and about a kilometre from the airport, the aircraft engines began stalling. Then hell broke loose as the plane hit the ground and burst into flames.

Some 59 lives were lost. But thank God 98 passengers survived. The following are excerpts retrieved from the aircraft’s black box from take-off to the crash:

Control Tower: “Lufthansa five four zero. Nairobi Tower.”

Co-Pilot: “Five four zero, go ahead.”.

Nairobi Tower: “Roger. You may take runway two-four at your discretion or runway zero-six. Your choice.”

Flight Captain: “Oh, two-four okay.”

Control Tower: “Roger, cleared to taxi holding point, runway two-four.”

Co-Pilot: “Roger, thanks.”

Flight Engineer: “Checklist completed.”

Co-Pilot: “Okay, take off.”

Flight Captain: “Pay attention. Vibration (Engines begin stalling).”

Flight Engineer: “Stickshaker.”

Flight Captain: (Inaudible reply)

Co-Pilot: “Crash!” (Warning horn began to sound. Then loud bang)

EAC FLIGHT

Two years earlier on April 18, 1972, an East African Airways Flight EC-720 left Nairobi for London via Addis Ababa.

Clearance to jet off at Addis airport was given at 9.21am and the aircraft taxied out for take off on runaway 07.

Ten minutes on the runway, the pilot reported seeing dead birds on the track and requested they be removed before take-off. A fire truck was dispatched to do so.

Shortly after the aircraft had passed the mid-point of the runway, the nose wheel ran over a steel jacking pad dropped by an earlier flight but undetected by airport ground controllers.

The flight crew decided to abort take-off. The engines were throttled back and reverse thrust selected.

The aircraft continued down the runway, veering slightly to the right, when the left outer wing of the aircraft ruptured a fuel tank and the plane went into flames. Forty-three of the 107 people on board died.

ABIDJAN CRASH

On Sunday January 30, 2000, a Kenya Airways Airbus Flight 431 took off from Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire heading to Nairobi with stop-overs in Lagos and Douala. It had 179 passengers and crew on board.

Seconds after take-off, a stalling warning showed at the cockpit. First Officer (Co-Pilot) Lazarus Muthee requested the Flight Engineer to activate the landing gear as he and the Flight Captain Paul Muthee put the aircraft in a controlled descent.

Meanwhile, the crew sounded the Ground Proximity Warning System. Suddenly the captain noted the aircraft was descending so fast and shouted, “Go up!”

But too late. The descent was too fast to be reversed. The aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean only two kilometres from Abidjan Airport.

Only 10 of the 179 on board survived. The casualties came from 33 countries, 84 of whom were Nigerians and 20 Kenyans. It is so far the worst tragedy by a Kenya Airways plane.

PILOT ERROR

Tragedy would again revisit the same route when Kenya Airways Boeing from Abidjan to Nairobi crashed in Douala, Cameroon, on May 5, 2007, killing all 114 people on board.

A report by Cameroon’s civil aviation authority attributed the crash to pilot error. It said the Flight Captain appeared unaware the plane was dangerously banking to the right until it was too late to salvage the situation.

Just before a warning sounded, said the report, instead of correcting to the left, the Captain turned further right, increasing the bank and ultimately sending the plane into a spiral.

As was the case in the Abidjan crash, the pilots again did not have external visual references though they were flying in darkness in a heavy downpour.

The report also blamed "inadequate operational control" and "lack of crew coordination". The First Officer appeared cowed by the Captain.

As the plane began a spiral dive, the First Officer at first told the Captain to turn right, before correcting himself and saying “left, left”.

BAD WEATHER

To make it worse, the report said, the plane took off without authorisation from air traffic control.

I had a personal experience of what passengers go through when hell threatened to break loose up in the skies. We were flying on a Kenya Airways Boeing (again!) from Lagos to Nairobi.

Overflying the Congo basin the clouds got nasty and the plane started spinning left, right and down like a headless chicken.

The worst came when the Flight Captain announced on the intercom that the plane was going through extremely bad weather but asked for calm.

The passengers thought the Captain was being optimistic but in reality, he was telling us we were headed for the worst.

A Nigerian lady seated two rows on the opposite side from where I was unfastened her belt and went on her knees screaming a prayer in Pidgin English.

I looked behind to make eye contact with then-Director of the Kenya National Archives Musila Musembi with whom we had attended a seminar in Abuja.

I still remember his comforting words: “Kamau, do not worry, if today is not our day to die, we are going to live!” On arrival at JKIA, we said a short prayer.

Postscript

Early in the week, I heard one of the most experienced Kenyan pilots Captain Clement Wambugu say on a local TV station that air travel is statistically still the safest mode of travel invented by man.

Since he had flown more than 10,000 hours and was still flying, I had no reason to doubt him. Have a safe flight – but keep praying.