It was the loud and fast departure of the South African Airways (SAA) flight SA6273 from Brussels Airport on the night of 26 February with a consignment of precious vaccines on board that apparently proved to be the cherry on the top of a much-criticised mission.
Sign up for our free daily elections email
This is where we’d usually stop you and ask you to pay to read this story, but this week M&G is free so that everyone can access the information they need in the run up to the municipal elections on 1 November. Find out more here.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has now confirmed that it is investigating at least the departure from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg two days earlier.
The departure in Brussels on the return leg was allegedly an infringement of Belgium’s strict noise abatement regulations, which restrict airlines to land and depart slowly and softly so as not to disturb the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The restrictions are applied by all EU member countries and the EU’s aviation safety agency (EASA).
This infringement has allegedly led to the Belgian authorities’ request to see the training files of the crew that was on the flight that night.
Kabelo Ledwaba, the SACAA spokesperson, said it was not aware of any investigation in Brussels.
“Our role in this regard would be to provide the necessary cooperation and assistance to our counterparts with their investigation.”
EASA’s spokesperson, Janet Northcote, has confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that it was informed about these flights to/from Brussels and “performed some technical investigation”. It was found that the flight was not classified as a commercial one, but a humanitarian one, because of the vaccines it picked up. This meant the flight was scheduled outside the usual commercial parameters. She did not indicate the consequences of EASA’s investigation.
EASA may, in extreme cases, ban an airline from flying to and from any of the countries in the EU.
The risky take-off that set off the alarms
The SAA Airbus A340-600 departed from OR Tambo International Airport on 24 February after much speculation about why a whole passenger liner was needed to fetch a single consignment weighing about one tonne, when a more cost-effective way would have been to utilise one of the existing European air cargo flights.
The department of public enterprises and SAA came under fire from opposition parties because the flight’s total cost was about R5-million, adding to the total cost of the 80 000 vaccines and to the taxpayers’ pockets.
Richard Mantu, the department’s spokesperson, at the time blamed the South African Airways Pilots’ Association for sowing discontent and said the flight “carried goods to Brussels and will bring back the vaccine and more cargo on the return leg […] to ensure that the flight and the overall operation is cost-effective.”
Dr Anban Pillay, the deputy director of general health regulation and compliance at the department of health, referred all enquiries to Johnson & Johnson (J&J) as “they manage the transport and logistics to South Africa. We are not responsible for the cost of transport to South Africa”.
Abeda Williams, the manufacturer’s representative for medical and technical affairs in South Africa, confirmed to the M&G that all delivery costs for the vaccines are included in the vaccines’ price.
However, during this departure, the crew allegedly transgressed the flight envelope, which is now the subject of the SACAA’s investigation into the potentially disastrous incident – and not the alleged one in Brussels.
The aviation term for such is an “alpha floor” incident. In simpler terms, it means that the crew pressed the aircraft so hard that it couldn’t cope, and its automated system kicked in to prevent the jet from stalling and crashing.
When an event is classified as a “flight incident”, it means that SAA has to report the mishap to the SACAA. However, the incident was only reported weeks later.
The SACAA’s Ledwaba this week confirmed this.
“The said incident report was reported to the South African Civil Aviation Authority and the accident and incident investigation division (AIID) on the evening of 17 March 2021. The event flight took place on 24 February 2021.
“On receipt of the report, an investigation team was established to probe the incident as well as the reason for the delayed notification to the regulator or the AIID. The regulations stipulate that aviation accidents must be reported within 24 hours, serious incidents within 48 hours, and incidents within 72 hours.”
Window for errors widens
While the investigation is underway, no one knows what caused the pilots to take off in this manner. Speculation in aviation circles suggests there was a miscalculation with the take-off weight of the aircraft, disregarding the weight of the fuel load on board. This load weighed some 90 tonnes and would have made an immense difference in the flight profile.
This series of apparent shortcomings have the pilot community speculating why the SAA considered taking on a mission of this nature, knowing that under Covid-19 restrictions its crews have not flown regularly, nor have its aircraft.
The window for errors was thus significantly bigger than it would have been for pilots who were able to fly regularly and keep up with the prescribed continuous skills training in critical aspects of flying passenger jets.
Compliance training on hold due to Covid-19
With the exception of a few repatriation flights, SAA has not been flying operationally since March 2020. At the same time, most of its pilots represented by the SAA Pilots’ Association have been locked out of the company as business rescue efforts are currently underway.
That would mean that the majority of its pilots also could not maintain their compliance training requirements. According to a former senior instructor at SAA, who preferred to remain anonymous, SAA’s training is regulated by the SAA Operations Manual Vol 4.
The manual was compiled and updated to maintain the same high standard of training as is required internationally – especially when flying in and out of busy European airports.
A small group of SAA pilots is not part of the SAA Pilots’ Association. The crew for the Brussels flight was picked from this pool of pilots. These pilots are not locked out, but all of the airline’s senior training captains are. Therefore, the prescripts of the training manual could not have been followed except if their requisite training was done at another accredited and certified training facility.
Refresher training inadequate
According to Captain Grant Back, the chair of the SAA Pilots’ Association, the civil aviation authority initially did not want to grant the SAA exemptions, because pilots could not maintain their efficiency during the lockdown.
Refresher training, which was done, was at an institution in South Africa outside the manual’s prescripts. This training facility also did not have acceptable certification to present the courses and to mark the exams afterwards, said Back.
Another former SAA captain noted that the instructor who provided the refresher training was not a certified A340-600 instructor. He was rated as an instructor on the smaller A320.
The examiner who signed off on the exams at the end of the training was a SACAA-designated examiner but also not rated on A340-600s. These renewals needed to be overseen by a designated examiner.
The first consignment of J&J vaccines was delivered by TUI Airlines, an international air cargo company, as part of a bigger cargo load. When the next J&J consignment’s delivery date became clear, SAA again applied for an exemption to the civil aviation authority.
On a previous occasion when the airline had applied, the authority had not granted the exemption. This time, the airline was allowed to fly after 13 exemptions were made. The external training by an uncertified instructor was among the list of exemptions.
The Brussels crew consisted of two senior SAA captains who have been in management positions for some time. Captain Vusi Khumalo is also the appointed chief pilot of SAA. Captain Mpho Mamashela is the acting fleet captain of the A340 fleet. The others were first officers Gregory Pillay and Mawethu Majola.
Khumalo has been described as one of the “hero” pilots who last year flew to fetch a group of stranded South African students in Wuhan, China. It is not known how many flying hours the others in the crew have had in the past year.
Back did not want to speculate about the alpha floor incident, apart from the SAA Pilots’ Association statement that it was aware of the automated report by the aircraft monitoring software of the Brussels flight during the take-off phase.
“We have written to SAA management and the business rescue practitioners raising our concerns as to the state of SAA’s safety management system and asking that the SACAA-approved processes be followed in order to establish what occurred. We have not received a response and hope that the correct policy and procedures will be followed in the investigation of this safety event,” the statement said.