Mail & Guardian

Dangerousl­y flawed vaccine flight

SAA nearly botched its flight to Brussels, then delayed reporting it, amid other infraction­s

- Erika Gibson

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 vaccines on board that apparently proved to be the cherry on the top of a much-criticised mission.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has now confirmed that it is investigat­ing at least the flight’s departure from OR Tambo Internatio­nal Airport in Johannesbu­rg two days earlier.

Pushing the envelope

The most serious allegation is that the crew allegedly transgress­ed the flight envelope (the limits of the flight’s load and speed capabiliti­es) during the flight to Brussels, which is the subject of the SACAA’S investigat­ion into the potentiall­y disastrous incident.

The aviation term for such is an “alpha floor” incident. In simpler terms, it means that the crew pushed 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 promptly. However, the incident was only reported three weeks later.

The SACAA’S Ledwaba confirmed this. “The said incident report was reported to SACAA 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 aviation accidents must be reported within 24 hours, serious incidents within 48 hours, and incidents within 72 hours.”

Window for errors widens

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 90-tonne load 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 wider than it would have been for pilots who were able to fly regularly and keep up with prescribed continuous skills training in aspects of flying passenger jets.

With the exception of a few repatriati­on flights, SAA has not been flying operationa­lly since March 2020. Most of its pilots are represente­d by the SAA Pilots’ Associatio­n (SAAPA) and have been locked out of the company as business rescue efforts are 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 Volume Four.

The manual is updated to maintain the same standard of training as is required internatio­nally.

A small group of SAA pilots is not part of the SAAPA. 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 the pilots’ requisite training was done at another accredited and certified training facility.

Inadequate training

According to Captain Grant Back, the chair of the SAAPA, 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.

Back said SACAA initially did not want to grant the SAA exemptions to fly to collect vaccines, because pilots could not maintain their efficiency during the lockdown.

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 SACAA.

On a previous occasion when the airline applied to fly, the authority had not granted the exemption. This time, the airline was allowed to fly after 13 exemptions were made, among them the external training by an uncertifie­d instructor.

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 stranded South African students in Wuhan, China. It is not known how many flying hours the other crew have had in the past year.

Captain Back did not want to speculate about the alpha floor incident, apart from the SAAPA 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 Sacaaappro­ved 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.

SAA responds

SAA’S joint business rescue practition­ers said SAA can confirm that an alpha floor incident was signalled.

“The pilots identified the symptoms prior to an impending alpha floor and took appropriat­e corrective action. It was the actions of the flight crew that prevented

any further warnings and the aircraft continued with its accelerati­on profile to Brussels,” said Siviwe Dongwana, one of the business rescue practition­ers.

“There have been a number of exaggerate­d and inaccurate reports in the media, which are unfortunat­e given that the incident is being investigat­ed. A full investigat­ion is being conducted by the SAA safety department in line with its approved safety manual. The SACAA was notified and as required, SAA is cooperatin­g with the authority with it.

“Once the investigat­ion has been completed, and SAA has identified the reasons for this event, the airline will implement the identified appropriat­e systemic remedial actions that may address any deficienci­es in the organisati­onal system. It would be irresponsi­ble to speculate before the investigat­ions are completed as to why the warning was signalled.”

Noise pollution

Another criticism of the controvers­ial mission concerns the plane’s departure in Brussels on the return leg, which allegedly infringed on Belgium’s strict noise abatement regulation­s, which compel airlines to land and depart slowly and softly so as not to disturb 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 on the flight that night.

But 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 and from Brussels and “performed some technical investigat­ion”. It was found that the flight was not classified as a commercial one, but as 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.

Questions about cost

There had already been much speculatio­n about why a whole passenger liner was needed to fetch a single consignmen­t weighing about one tonne, when it would have been more cost-effective to use 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 SAAPA 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,” Dr Pillay said.

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.

 ?? Photo: GCIS ?? Too loud, too proud: The second batch of Covid-19 vaccines was fetched from Brussels on a commercial SAA Airbus A340-600 by a crew that was not able to keep up with the certificat­ions required by the civil aviation authoritie­s. Mistakes were made on the outbound and inbound journeys.
Photo: GCIS Too loud, too proud: The second batch of Covid-19 vaccines was fetched from Brussels on a commercial SAA Airbus A340-600 by a crew that was not able to keep up with the certificat­ions required by the civil aviation authoritie­s. Mistakes were made on the outbound and inbound journeys.

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