Helderberg: The search for invisible blame
The apartheid government was responsible for many disasters, but not for the Helderberg air crash, argues Robert Kirby
Here’s a little paradox to tickle your logic. After carefully planning the crime, you have just shot and killed someone. Things don’t go as smoothly as you planned. As you hurry away from the scene of your crime, you cross a bridge over a river. In your rush you trip and drop your gun over the edge, down in to the river. This gun has your fingerprints all over it. The river is extremely deep here.
Instead of sighing with relief, you immediately rush off to the nearest police station and not only tell them what happened, but give them an enormous down payment of your own money so that they can fund the most difficult underwater search ever undertaken in any river anywhere.
Eventually, and at enormous cost, they locate the gun but are unable to retrieve it. You immediately give them even more money so that specially designed equipment may be assembled and brought half-way around the world in order to bring the gun to the surface.
Once this is achieved you give the police even more money, this time to pay a vast shoal of experts to testify as to whether the fingerprints on the gun are actually yours.
A silly story, but as an allegory useful when looking at what happened after the Helderberg Boeing 747 air accident in late 1987. For it was that dependable old sinner, the iniquitous “apartheid government”, which, with no delay, no argument, ordered that the search and salvage operations take place, and made available an initial R20- million. A decision taken at Cabinet level and within a few days of the accident.
“Operation Resolve” began immediately - the search and salvage of the Helderberg wreckage from 4,5km under the sea. Eventually the South African government was to pay out a total of R28-million. When, at one stage, extra bridging funds were needed, South African Airways (SAA) lent the investigation team R3,5-million at no interest.
The above parallel assumes, of course, that the South African government was aware that the Helderberg was carrying some sort of illicit cargo: rocket fuel, fuel additives or whatever it was that is rumoured to have started the fire on board the aircraft.
The story goes that Armscor was hand-in-fist with its creator, the National Party government - hence with Magnus Malan - in the defence against “total onslaught”. And it was Armscor which was first blamed for the furtive use of SAA aircraft to transport ordnance and materials in defiance of the United Nations arms embargo.
It is not the purpose of this article to stir already muddy waters. The Helderberg accident was investigated with every available care, with the assistance of several countries and at great expense. The search and salvage operation set new world standards. The wreckage was located by patient and continuou s effort. The salvage invented and developed techniques that previously had only been imagined.
What needs to be examined with objectivity - and particularly out of the glare of the lurid speculation of present and past media coverage - is the balance of probabilities in the Helderberg accident.
Various allegations and theories submit that there were two fires on the aircraft. That the first fire was extinguished, at which stage - so the theories go - the captain of the aircraft was “ordered” by a senior SAA official in Johannesburg not to divert the aircraft to the nearest alternate airport, but to continue as though nothing had happened.
To use a tranquil term, this is preposterous. But then conspiracy theories are invariably predicated in irrational contexts. In order to survive they have to ignore heedful explanation. The “two fire” theory of the Helderberg accident might be backed by volumes of forensic evidence, every whisker of which looks fine on paper. In fact it could not have happened.
Those voices which propose this theory reveal an abject ignorance of basic flight operational procedures. For a start, no captain would take such a decision on his own. Several of his colleague professionals would have to agree, not only to an illegal decision, but to remain silent in the face of possible later interrogation by their superiors.
All five of the flight crew on the Helderberg would have been required to answer for their actions to international organisations like the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (Ifalpa) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and to the Boeing company. And so on and so on. So bizarre a proposition as to be laughable.
In any case, the days of the grizzled, all- powerful one-man-band airline captain are long past, were in 1987. The decision to continue with a flight, where the ability to fight a second fire was in any way compromised, would be like saying: “Sorry but we have to go on, fellows, even though two of our engines have fallen off. Apparently Armscor have told Magnus to tell the airline chief to tell flight ops to tell us that we must.”
This was not one of the rare “instant decisions” that can occur on a flight deck, say, to abort a take-off, where the decision needs to be made within seconds. In this case the first consideration would have been safety, not only of the passengers, the cabin staff, but of the crew themselves. Never mind a R700-million aeroplane. It is so unlikely as to be nonsensical to believe that the flight crew members of the Helderberg would consign their fates and those of 154 others on board to a disembodied voice from Johannesburg.
If there had been a first fire on the Helderberg it would have been very minor, immediately and easily extinguished. It would not have required the use of the fire extinguisher supplied for the main deck cargo hold, paltry as this was.
Other conjecture advanced about the “first fire” claimed that it was of enough severity to destroy the wiring looms involving the cockpit voice recorder. It follows that a fire of such intensity would also have melted the cargo hold windows, certainly damaged them so that pressure differential could not be maintained. Also, such a fire could very likely cause the aircraft’s pressurisation outlet valve to be permanently closed. Neither of these consequences would have allowed the flight to continue at high altitude - which it did. Under these conditions it is absurd to suggest the crew would have continued a trans-oceanic flight.
What is more, if the fire were in the main deck cargo hold - a feature of the “Combi” 747 - there would have been some 140 passengers and 14 cabin staff to attest later to the fact that the flight crew and their captain simultaneously took leave of their senses. The first fire theory is damned by no more than these considerations.
Much has been made of the missing tape recording of communications between the Helderberg and the SAA flight operations centre in Johannesburg, coded ZUR. The ZUR facility has nothing to do with air traffic control. It utilises upper-sideband and selcal (selective calling) facilities on various high frequencies, and is used by SAA flight operations for regular in-flight communications between themselves and SAA aircraft all over the world.
The system was originally installed in the Sixties when SAA first started flying “around the bulge” to and from Europe. SAA aircraft were often in what is called non- controlled airspace.
Regular calls were and are still made at pre-arranged “reporting points”, where aircraft crew would relay flight positions, onward estimates, wind strengths and weather conditions - information which, downloaded into the system, serves various ends - flight level and fuel conservation decisions for other aircraft on the same routes, commercial decisions.
The ZUR facility can and is used for technical advice, reference to ground engineering and other specialised staff. There is no doubt that any hazardous on- board situation, such as a fire, would have been reported.
A sequential listing of radio calls made from the Helderberg to various flight information centres (FICs) along their route that night is in the accompanying panel. As an aid I have added “elapsed time”. The one call made to ZUR is included, as is the time when the “extant” 24-hour tape ran out and was replaced by a fresh one - the one which went missing.
There is no evidence the reporting call, requested by the ZUR operator to be made at 18h00, was ever made. The ZUR operator had earlier stated that the selcal facility of the system was out of order. Whether it was again operative at that time is not known, but, in any event, would only have been used in calling the aircraft, not to receive transmissions from it.
HF (high frequency shortwave) radio calls to Mauritius began when the Helderberg was some two hours out. Like all the others, these were recorded and contained nothing out of the ordinary; no more than the quotidian radio chores of any airline pilot. Later described by another: “The calls sounded just like any other bored first-officer doing what he has to about 60 times in any one international flight.”
Between the time the ZUR tape was changed and the emergency call to Mauritius, the Helderberg’s position was reported to various FICs on six occasions. If there had been an emergency during this time, the crew would certainly have informed one of these six. They did not hesitate to contact Mauritius when the real emergency occurred.
Whether the Helderberg crew communicated with ZUR at the top of their emergency descent for Mauritius, is not known. In the event of an on-board fire and a contiguous maximum-rate descent, such a call would have been fairly far down the list of priorities.
A possible explanation for the “vanishing” of the relevant ZUR tape would be that, as is the practice, it had simply been put back into the system for re-use. ZUR uses its tapes on a rotating system. As each 24-hour long tape is filled, it goes to the back of the queue, to be used again about a month later. By the time the Helderberg ZUR tape’s significance was realised, it could already have been over-recorded.
It would be more than comforting to know exactly what was on the missing or over- recorded ZUR tape. The fact that, in the certain knowledge that there had been a major SAA accident, the tape was not kept intact and available for later examination is, frankly, indefensible. It is now believed that shortly after the accident, the tape was in fact taken out of the system and delivered, on his instructions, to a very senior member of SAA administrative staff.
What are as indefensible are the numerous implications - in press and on radio - that the Margo board of inquiry into the accident deliberately avoided the ZUR question; that the board was privy to a cover-up. First of all, it is quite apparent the inquiry board could make no finding on something of which they had not had sight.
That the board addressed the ZUR question and the missing tape with their usual compunction is a matter of record. It was their opinion - in the light of the above information - that the absence of the tape had no significant impact on the findings of the board. These findings were that the Helderberg accident was the result of an uncontrollable fire in the main deck cargo hold. From the evidence presented - publicly invited - to the board, no finding as to the origin of the fire was established.
It is surprising, though, to read newspaper reports stating that “new” testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission claimed that there was a fire during the “first hour of flight”. If there was, no mention of this fire was made in a report to ZUR an hour and a half into the flight. That recording of ZUR transmissions is available.
As surprising to hear and read are insinuations that the officer on duty at the ZUR station that night was paid - by means of promotion and reassignment to Miami - to keep his mouth shut. The spate of sensationalist reporting on both this air accident and the one which killed Samora Machel, seems to have been fired up once again.
An already shabby media catalogue continues to expand. Apart from fatal Paris car chases, there is nothing quite as effective as a spectacular air crash when it comes to coaxing media pagans out of their crevices. Almost without exception the reports on the Helderberg and the Tupolev accidents revealed meagre understanding of aviation methodologies.
As an example, the recent follow-up on SABC television news of the discovery of a bullet-scarred tail-section of the Tupolev aircraft accident. You could hear the antennae twitch. “Was Samora Machel actually shot down by the South African Defence Force?” squeaked one reporter. “No,” said another, reporting the next evening. “The bullet holes were actually made by bored South African police guarding the wreckage, who used it for target practise.”
Then came one of those grovelling solecisms so cherished by SABC news departments. “And so investigators are once again looking at the apartheid regime for fiddling with hilltop beacons.”
Even stranger is the incongruous decision of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission in regard to their “re-investigation” of the Tupolev (Samora Machel) and the Helderberg accidents: that the truth commission’s new inquiries be held behind closed doors.
Incongruous because the truth commission, itself, has always been very shrill on the need for transparency in all its deliberations. Ceaselessly it has piped its founding syllabus: a meticulous and visible search for truth. This goes to the primary remit of the truth commission, to lay bare what was often sedulously hidden by past South African administrations.
In prosecuting its privileged inquiries, the truth commission ignored some basic courtesies. Justice Cecil Margo was never even informed that the reports, which carry his name and those of other individuals, including one of the world’s most acknowledged aircraft accident investigators, were to be hauled up for covert evaluation by nameless eyes.
The appointed controlling body of civil aviation in South Africa, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), applied for observer status at the truth commission hearings. This was refused. Among the CAA observers would have been individuals who organised and directed the “Operation Resolve” search and salvage effort.
On the one hand, the truth commission’s explanation for this secrecy seems legally spry.
On the other, more than a little hysterical. “The lives of some witnesses would be in danger if their identities were revealed,” has been the principal justification. This simply doesn’t wash and sounds alarmingly like the alibis of the “apartheid government”.
More especially is public disclosure necessary when so technically complex a subject is being explored. The Margo board inquiries into the Helderberg and the Tupolev accidents were open, widely advertised with participation by vested commercial interests and other governments encouraged. The inquiry boards were advised by a veritable host of independent experts. Margo and his board had both gravitas and integrity.
On the other hand, the truth commission’s demeanor in this matter may charitably be described as ambiguous. Secrecy, as Desmond Tutu continually reminds us, is the handmaiden of deceit, corruption, hypocrisy, evasion and many other human transgressions. Secret hearings are, therefore, the very anathema of the revelation of truth. So long as its doors remain closed, nothing the truth commission finds in the cases of the two air accidents will carry more than flimsy credibility.
Unless something not only truly “startling”, but moreover, something tested in open forum by independent legal umpires, comes out of all this, we are left with a suspicion already abroad: that the entire exercise has been mounted in order to squeeze a few extra inches out of apartheid’s mileage.
What such suspicion will afford the general credibility of the truth commission is, of course, theirs to calculate. What it might also consider is how much, with these secret hearings, it has lubricated the continuity of what amounts to a wretched slander of, in general, the high standards of South African aviation, and in particular of the professionalism of the country’s national airline.
Despite considerable odds set against South African Airways by its politicians, the airline’s flight operations division has maintained an envious record of safety. It is a world leader, acknowledged as such in the international air transport industry.
If the Helderberg was carrying illicit cargo, it can be said with certainty that its crew knew nothing about it. The Helderberg crew died doing their utmost to save the aircraft, the passengers’ and their own lives. It is high time this was acknowledged as their paramount testimony.
With Samora Machel’s death, South Africa was much diminished. We lost a neighbour of imagination, purpose and optimism. With the Nkomati Accord signed, a new chapter of co- operation had been opened. There was nothing to gain, even for the “apartheid regime”, by killing Machel, much to lose. But still the slander extends, to those who died in both accidents, and to their relatives and friends. It is time these two terrible misfortunes were left alone, that in their rest at last some dignity may grow.
The Margo board conducted its inquiries with meticulous care and compassion. Sadly, these are exactly the constituents which are so patently lacking in those who would question its findings.
Not all that went on in the apartheid years was inherently malevolent. The indignant lobby, which now hangs upon the assumption that it was, is itself of heavy bale.
Helderberg radio calls
November 27 1987 (All times in UTC - universal co-ordinate time, which matches Greenwich. In brackets are elapsed flight times.)
14:23 - Take off Taipei
14:56 - Called Hong Kong radar - obtained direct clearance from Elato to Isban (34 minutes)
15:03 - Normal position reporting over Elato (40 minutes)
15:53 - Normal position reporting over Sunek (1hr 30 minutes)
15:55 - Called ZUR, Jan Smuts Airport - operations normal (1hr 32 minutes)
16:09 - Normal position reporting over Admark (1hr 46 minutes)
16:34 - Normal position reporting over Sukar (2hrs 11 minutes)
ZUR tape changed at about this time
16:49 to 21:43 - Position reports made to Bangkok, Colombo and the Cocos (2hrs 26 minutes to 7hrs 20 minutes)
21:46 - First HF call to Mauritius, reported time at Mauritius Flight Information Region boundary as having been 21:43 (7hrs 23 minutes)
22:30 - Report of crossing longitude 0700 east (8hrs 7 minutes)
23:13 - Position report made to Mauritius - 0650 east at flight level 350. (8hrs 50 minutes)
23:48 to 00:04 - Called Mauritius Approach on VHF - report of smoke problem, emergency descent (9hrs 25 minutes to 9hrs 41 minutes)