Helderberg: The smoke slowly clears
27 Nov 2013
ON November 27, 1987, South African Airways Flight 295, a Boeing 747-244B Combi named Helderberg, took off from Taipei Chiang Kai Shek International Airport in Taiwan at 2.23 pm, bound for Johannesburg via Mauritius carrying 140 passengers and 19 crew.
The Boeing Combi aircraft allowed for a mix of passengers and freight on the main deck. The flight crew consisted of Captain Dawie Uys (49), first officer David Attwell (36), relief first officer Geoffrey Birchall (37), flight engineer Giuseppe Joe Bellagarda (45) and flight engineer Alan Daniel (34).
During the flight, a fire broke out in the cargo section of the main deck. Shortly before midnight, while in communication with Mauritius air traffic control, the pilot referred to a fire and said: “I declare a full emergency immediately”. The last transmission from the aircraft was at 12.04:02 am.
Three minutes later, the Helderberg crashed into the Indian Ocean 248 kilometres north-east of Mauritius. All 159 people on board were killed.
An underwater search located the wreckage, but failed to find the flight recorders. A specialist United States company subsequently found the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) at a depth of 4 900 metres. The flight data recorder was never found.
An official commission of inquiry convened in late 1987. Chaired by Judge Cecil Margo, it delivered its eight-volume report on May 14, 1990. The conclusion: a fire in the front right-hand cargo pallet in the main deck cargo hold was the probable cause of the crash. However, the cause of the fire was not identified, though a leading Boeing specialist, Fred Bereswill, speculated that an oxidant such as ammonium perchlorate was present.
During the inquiry, forensic scientist David Klatzow was consulted to try to ascertain whether carbon monoxide had caused the death of the passengers. He was not able to obtain a definitive result.
Over the years, speculation as to the cause of the fire and the crash continued in the press and on television. Questions concerning the nature of the cargo and talk of a political cover-up refused to go away.
In the mid-nineties, Klatzow, after being consulted in a legal case involving the Helderberg, became so intrigued he began his own inquiry, contacting everyone, as he puts it, “who had the remotest connection with the Helderberg”.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1996 and tasked with investigating apartheid era crimes, the Helderberg came under the spotlight and Klatzow was invited by the TRC to explain his theories and cross-examine witnesses.
Though it made no definite findings, the TRC, in its final report, said that several earlier findings about the Helderberg disaster were questionable.
“It is clear that further investigation is necessary before this matter can be laid to rest,” the TRC said.
The TRC queried some of the conclusions of the Margo Commission regarding the fire and noted that civil aviation director Japie Smit had testified that most such fires were caused by illegal substances on board. Margo’s finding that the fire started just before the descent to Mauritius was also questionable, the TRC said. It also noted a statement by Jimmy Mouton of the Flight Engineers Association that Margo had asked him to withdraw a submission stating that there might have been two fires on board.
When the TRC records were released into the public domain in May 2000, then Transport Minister, the late Dullah Omar, said an inquiry would be reopened if any fresh evidence was discovered. In October 2002, he announced that no new evidence had been found to justify reopening the inquiry.
In 2010, Klatzow published his findings regarding the Helderberg in his book Steeped in Blood , in a chapter titled “The Mystery of Flight 295”.
Klatzow’s conclusion? There were two fires on the Helderberg, one after take-off and the second just before the crash. He contends Margo knew this and steered the commission investigation so as not to embarrass the apartheid government.
Klatzow said Margo prevented the full 30-minute transcript from the CVR being read out at the inquiry, barring the last couple of minutes. Klatzow later accessed the full transcript and found it contained reference to meals being served and other fairly inconsequential chatter until, from 28.31 (the part included in the Margo Commission), the plane’s fire alarm sounds and about 90 seconds of recording follow “while the captain and crew try to make sense of what is happening, and then there is silence”.
Why did Margo keep the earlier section out of the inquiry. “[Because the fire] must have started in the early part of the flight … and not at the end of the flight, as Margo wanted us to believe”.
“There was a fire three hours after leaving Taiwan,” Klatzow told The Witness. “Everyone was dead by then, I think. That was why the pilot couldn’t fly back or land the plane anywhere.
“Margo knew,” said Klatzow. “That’s why he wouldn’t admit the cockpit tapes as evidence.”
According to Klatzow, the first fire destroyed the communication system, making further recordings impossible.
Why did Margo insist on there being only one fire? Because if the fire had occurred earlier, this would have led to awkward questions, such as why did Uys not land the aircraft as soon as possible, and thus save the lives of his crew and passengers?
Klatzow said Uys had no options. “He had broken aviation law in carrying an illegal cargo. This meant that any inspection of the hold, if he landed, would find a dangerous cargo. The passengers were already dead. And that would have caused an international outcry. Uys would have been charged with culpable homicide, even murder, and the government and the airline could not have withstood the consequences.”
According to Klatzow, these issues were raised during the Margo Commission and those who voiced them were told by Margo, at his home, to back off. According to a statement given to Klatzow, Margo said: “Listen, you don’t know what you are doing. This thing has security overtones. If you carry on with this, you will cost the country R400 million. The safety of your future and your families is at risk.”
However, the CVR wasn’t the only source of in-flight information. There was another tape recording. At the time, SAA used a short-wave radio station at Jan Smuts Airport (now O.R. Tambo) known as ZUR. Transmissions were recorded on 24-hour reels kept for approximately 35 days before reuse.
According to Klatzow, this tape would have recorded the “crucial in-between time, when Uys would have been battling the [first] fire and calling home for help”.
However, it was missing. “Inexplicably, nobody knew the whereabouts of that tape.”
Margo referred to the tape and its loss, but said there was no connection between the ZUR tapes and the end of the Helderberg.
“I believe that Margo knew all along where the tape had gone,” said Klatzow, “and that it was damning.”
There is evidence of what was on the tape. On the Monday after the crash, Athol Hardy, a fire-equipment consultant, was at Jan Smuts Airport fire station. He said: “That Monday, the only topic of conversation was the Helderberg. The conversation between the officers was to the effect that the plane had a fire plus-minus three hours after take-off and that the plane wanted to divert to Singapore. They had used up all the fire extinguishers on board.”
Others tell a similar story. “Three entirely independent sources confirm the theory that there had been a fire on board the doomed aircraft shortly after take-off,” said Klatzow.
What was the cause of the fire? According to Klatzow, ammonium perchlorate, “the main component of rocket fuel”, required for the SAAF in their fight against Russian MiGs being flown by the Angolans.
According to one sworn statement, referred to by Klatzow, Uys refused to take off when he discovered what was in the cargo. “SAA moved very quickly and obtained instructions from as high as President P.W. Botha and General Magnus Malan. These instructions threatened the captain with instant dismissal without pension if he did not fly the plane.”
Klatzow said the affidavits and other material he has collected point to one feasible scenario only: “The Helderberg was carrying rocket fuel destined to assist a flagging South African Air Force in their Angola campaign. The rocket fuel caught fire, and everything that happened subsequently was a sustained government conspiracy to conceal the truth from the public and the rest of the world.”
Last year, Klatzow, advocate Paul Hoffman and Peter Otzen challenged President Jacob Zuma to reopen the investigation into the Helderberg crash. They received a reply, to the effect that the president is applying his mind.
The Helderberg crash happened during the apartheid era, so why should there be a need for secrecy now? Because, said Klatzow, if the truth came out, it could spell the end of SAA.
“It will come out eventually,” said Klatzow. “Someone on their deathbed will say something.”
• Acknowledgements to Steeped in Blood by David Klatzow, published by Zebra Press, and to Wikipedia.
IN fond memory our beloved Geoff taken from us so tragically in the Helderberg Air Disaster 25 years ago today. Ever remembered and still sadly missed by his family and mother-in-law Tina Vogel.”
Geoffrey Birchall was the relief first officer on the Helderberg. Tomorrow, the 26th anniversary of the fatal crash, these heartfelt sentiments will not be appearing in their usual place as Tina Vogel died earlier this year.
“She would phone me every year and say: ‘Have you remembered to buy The Witness’,” says Jenny Baldwin, Geoffrey’s sister who lives in Umhlanga, Durban.
“She kept a scrapbook of everything that happened and for 25 years on the anniversary, she always put a memoriam in The Witness.”
Baldwin recalls that the first she heard of the crash was on the radio news at 6 am on November 28. “Our mother was staying with us. Geoff was due to come. He had requested to be on that flight. He planned to overnight in Mauritius.
“Then we switched on the television. All they were saying at that stage was that a flight from Taiwan hadn’t come in. We then rang my sister-in-law, but the phone was constantly engaged. Then we thought: ‘Oops, something has happened’.”
SAA representatives had arrived at Petro Birchall’s home to tell her that the Helderberg was overdue, but that she was not to worry. SAA confirmed at 9 pm that all crew and passengers had died.
“We knew it was a cover-up right from the start,” says Baldwin. “The rest of the pilots were talking about it. They knew something was not correct.
“Over the years, every now and then, it looks as though it all might come out, but then nothing. But one day somebody will say something.”
Geoffrey Birchall’s son, Peter, has since followed in the footsteps of his late father, like his father, a Maritzburg College old boy, Peter became a pilot and now lives and works in Hong Kong.
“He and his wife Robyn had a baby son two weeks ago,” says Baldwin, “and they named him Geoff.”