The Citizen (KZN)

SAA puts 209 lives at risk


- Hein Kaiser

Incident on 14 April was tantamount to reckless behaviour – ex-commercial pilot.

Details of a dangerous SAA flight from Ghana to Johannesbu­rg on 14 April this year have been confirmed by the airline after the story emerged on social media.

SAA operated an aircraft from Accra to Johannesbu­rg after it had a fuel contaminat­ion problem on the ground. The airline put passengers on the plane although the trip back to base in Johannesbu­rg was a “ferry flight” (with a prefix of 9, which indicates a ferry flight and not a normal one) to return the aircraft for technical inspection.

According to a former commercial airline pilot, a ferry flight, for technical reasons, should never carry passengers and only limited crew. This is to reduce the risk to human life should the aircraft get into trouble.

He said it was tantamount to reckless behaviour by the captain in charge of the flight to take passengers on an aircraft which might have been compromise­d.

And the plane, a twin-engined Airbus A330-300, did get into trouble on the flight when, as it was travelling north of Gaborone in Botswana, its engines surged.

The captain descended to a lower level to ease pressure on the fuel pumps and take a gravity-driven fuel feed instead. The Airbus then continued on to Johannesbu­rg and landed safely, although the fuel problems persisted during the approach phase of landing.

The former commercial pilot said that in incidents of fuel contaminat­ion and consequent engine problems, a diversion and immediate landing should have been on the cards and that continuing on to Johannesbu­rg was the wrong decision.

However, SAA said that none of the 184 passengers and 25 crew on board was in any danger at any time during the flight.

SA Flyer editor and aviation analyst Guy Leitch said contaminat­ed fuel was one of the riskiest technical challenges an airliner could face. Contaminat­ed fuel could have deadly consequenc­es, especially when there were only two engines, as in the A330-300.

Curiously the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) incident report, seen by The Citizen, only lists two people on board the flight, not almost 200 fare payers.

SAA spokespers­on Vimla Maistry said: “SAA confirms a refuelling issue on board a scheduled return flight from Accra in Ghana to Johannesbu­rg on 14 April. During the refuelling process on an Airbus A330-300, a fault was triggered, and this caused the process to stop.

“After an extensive technical examinatio­n, the process restarted but problems persisted. The aircraft was not being refuelled by SAA’s contracted supplier Total. The refueller Puma was the service provider on the day. On returning to Johannesbu­rg the aircraft was fully serviced and is now back in operation.”

SAA also confirmed the social media post that said the commander of the flight was Captain Vusi Khumalo. He was also part of the crew that operated the SAA vaccine flight to Brussels last year, where controvers­ial waivers by the SACAA allowed the flight to go ahead. It was the flight that experience­d the alpha-floor incident on the way to Belgium that nearly stalled the aircraft over the East Rand, while exceeding European noise abatement rules on the way home.

To date, neither the SACAA nor SAA have offered an explanatio­n, nor shared the consequenc­es the crew faced after these incidents.

A British Airways plane crashed 300m short of the runway at Heathrow in 2018 after contaminat­ed fuel caused ice crystals to block the fuel pumps.

Similar problems caused a Cathay Pacific Airbus A330 to almost crash with 309 passengers in Hong Kong in 2010 after the crew were unable to control the engines in a slowdown to landing. It landed at almost twice the speed it should have.

Interestin­gly, the aircraft engine parameters read normally on the Cathay Pacific flight deck despite system error messages. On the CAA flight report, SAA’s engine parameters apparently also read normal, despite system warnings. The SACAA report said: “Since there was no exceedance of engine parameters, they did not shut the engine down.”

Yet the report also indicated that each time the crew increased thrust on the second engine, it stalled. The SACAA report also indicated a large storm over Gaborone as one of the reasons the crew did not divert.

Yet, there were other airports in the vicinity and both Leitch and the former commercial pilot questioned why Luanda or Lusaka were not seen as options. –

 ?? Picture: Airbus ?? DANGER. Contaminat­ed fuel is very risky, especially in two-engine aircraft, such as A330-300.
Picture: Airbus DANGER. Contaminat­ed fuel is very risky, especially in two-engine aircraft, such as A330-300.

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