Mail & Guardian
Dangerously flawed vaccine flight
SAA nearly botched its flight to Brussels, then delayed reporting it, amid other infractions
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.
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’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.”
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.