Plane Crash

Aircraft accident - ZS FJS

Date: Friday 7 October 2005

Time: About 18h20 South African time

Location: About 3/4 km west of the Louis Trichardt toll plaza on the N1

Passengers: Myself as pilot in command and Anwen Zeilstra, age 25 – Frans Dely’s personal assistant who was hitching a lift with me to the airshow

Pilot’s experience: 1700 hours over 20 years of flying with night rating

Last medical and flight test: December 2004

Aircraft: ZS FJS Cessna 172 K owned by myself for the past 20 years

This aircraft was superbly equipped with a total time of 4580 hours on airframe and, as far as I am aware, has never been involved in an accident before this incident. The aircraft was equipped with the latest Garmin GNS 430, S TEC 50 auto-pilot, transponder, Icon stand-by radio, engine management system and various other specialist panel mounted instruments.

At the time of the accident the engine, avionics and all systems were functioning normally.

Circumstances of the accident:

We took off from FAGM at about 16h00 for the flight to Air Force Base Makhado for the specific purpose of attending the ‘Fighter Meet’ that was to be staged at the base on the Saturday. I made all the relevant telephone calls to both SA Weather Services and ATC at Makhado before taking off and was advised that the weather at the destination was clear. Due to a 15 knot headwind, our flight time was increased by an estimated 15 minutes, which meant that I would be landing shortly after sunset, but still within the twilight time. I elected to over fly Polokwane International Airport at a height of 800 feet because of low cloud moving in from the east. Polokwane tower reports that I was overhead at about 18:10 and my last call to them was at about 18:13 on leaving their traffic zone to the north. At this time I elected to fly slightly to the west of the N1 highway, which was well lit by the traffic on the road. As I approached the Louis Trichardt Toll Plaza, which was very well lit up, I was aware that the weather was deteriorating and that I should turn around and return to, and land, at Polokwane Int. All the time I was transponding and therefore being tracked by Makhado radar and ATC. The last advisory I received was that they had me approaching the Toll Plaza and that I should turn left on track to the base.

This is where everything went wrong. I should have turned right to a position overhead the Toll Plaza so that I had good visual reference to follow the road back to Polokwane. However, I turned left away from the lights and immediately lost all visual reference, probably because I had entered a low bank of mist. The next thing I knew was that the headlights of the Cessna picked up the ground. I pulled the power off and pulled back on the stick in an attempt to fly the aircraft away from danger. I was aware of hitting the ground hard and flat, thereafter tumbling until the fuselage came to rest upside down. I am told by the CAA accident investigator that the distance from impact to final rest was 273 metres and that miraculously we missed several boulder outcrops whilst the bushveld scrub slowed the aircraft down.

Since we were both alive and I could smell fuel, my main priority was to get both of us away from the wreck as soon as possible. The three point harnesses were intact so I released myself before attending to Anwen, who was in considerable pain. I managed to get her about 30 metres upwind away from the wreck before cautiously approaching the aircraft again. At that stage I knew that I had to get her comfortable and as warm as possible under the circumstances so I used the aircraft covers, clothing and my flying suit to cover her. I was afraid that Anwen might have neck or spinal injuries. She reported that her right leg was very painful and she had a nasty laceration on her neck. I used the scattered contents of my medical kit to help apply pressure to her neck wound which fortunately was not bleeding too badly. I then removed everything that I could from the wreck to the position where we were lying on the earth. There I made a wind break for her head and side with the front seats placed on their sides. All of this was done in almost total darkness due to the mist obscuring the moon most of the time.

I remembered that I had a torch in the cubby of the aircraft and fortunately I had some spare batteries. This was a very small torch, but it helped me remove further equipment from the aircraft, including the fire extinguisher, which I placed next to us. I used the electronic flash gun in my camera case which we periodically flashed to try and attract the attention of the search and rescue helicopter. It had already missed our position on two occasions. Although I was aware of my own injuries, I regarded Anwen’s as more serious. Only later did I realise that I had also lost a lot of blood from head injuries. I was getting cold so I put on all the shirts in my overnight bag as well as my reflective safety vest.

At this stage we discussed the possibility of having to spend the night at the crash site and, because I had visual reference of the Toll Plaza, I decided to attempt a hike through the rough terrain. My left leg was in considerable pain which made the hike very difficult. The plan was that Anwen would keep the flash gun in order to be able to guide me back. I took my bearings from the moon (it had become visual through the low mist) as well as the wind and certain geographic features – water pan, game tracks and a road. When I had travelled an estimated 1.5 km the helicopter appeared to have returned to the general area of the crash site. At that point I decided to return to the crash site, moving as fast as I could through the bush with only the small torch to illuminate my way. The helicopter went away again towards the south west when I arrived back at the crash site, but was always within sight of us. The Nikon flash light was running low on battery power when I remembered that my two Nikon cameras also had pop up flashes on them. I pointed these directly at the helicopter and it was this flash that the crew thought was the rotating beacon on the aircraft. Thereafter the highly reflective vest I was wearing helped guide them to us. I estimate that we spent more than two hours beside the wreck before being rescued. Only later I found out that we had crashed into a hunting game farm which was well stocked with – who knows?

I feel terrible about letting all of aviation down with this accident because, with my experience and position in aviation, this sort of situation should never have happened. There is a great deal to be learned from the issues surrounding deteriorating weather conditions coupled with the premature night fall due to incumbent weather. I should have landed at Polokwane International Airport when I had the chance and phoned for a lift to AFB Makhado. I am so very sorry that I have put my passenger through this ordeal and wish her good fortune with a speedy recovery. Thankfully, she has no spinal on neck injuries, but her tendons were severed on her right knee. The resulting operation at the Polokwane Medi-Clinic was successful and she will be in plaster for the next six weeks. Although I was also pretty badly beaten up, we were both stabilised and then discharged on Saturday 8 October.

There were many people involved in the successful search and rescue operation as well as numerous others who quickly made us as comfortable as possible:

· The Oryx helicopter pilots and medical crew – what stars you are because this was a difficult and dangerous mission!

· The SAAF doctor and paramedics who attended to us at the crash site

· The SAAF accident investigators and fire personnel from Makhado

· Lt. Col LeRoux Greef and the ATCs who coordinated the search and rescue immediately we disappeared from the radar screen at AFB Makhado

· Russell Marsh who, together with many other SAAF personnel, secured the crash site and assisted me personally in a time of dire need

· Para-medic Vernon Jovner from ER24 and the ambulance crew at Polokwane who fetched us from the helicopter and kept me conscious when I was slipping away

· The fantastic medical care of the doctors, nurses and staff of the Medi-Clinic who kept our families intimately informed about the situation throughout our treatment. In particular, Dr. Raul Calokechi and his assistant doctor

· Jean-Pierre Pretorius, Anwen’s boyfriend, who drove through from Johannesburg on Friday night and helped both of us through this terrible ordeal

· Frans Dely, who drove through from Makhado to be with us in the middle of the night and who has shown fantastic friendship – Frans, you were a rock

· CAA accident investigator, Frank Masoga, who has helped me piece together some of the issues surrounding the crash. Frank also helped Jane, my wife, to organise the recovery of our personal belongings. Thank you Frank for taking the trouble to personally deliver our baggage to us from Makhado – service with a smile!

· Retired B747, Capt. Karl Jensen, first office Neville Austin and the crew of Rovos Air’s Convair 440 who flew me back to Lanseria and drove me home

· To all our friends who have telephoned and been there specifically for Jane

· A special thanks to Ella, who spent the best part of Friday evening with Jane whilst she was waiting for news from the search and rescue team. Also to Ralf Dominick who kept Jane informed every few minutes throughout the search and rescue attempt. Ralf kept Jane sane at a time when everything else seemed to be falling apart

· Personally I have a very special thank you to Jane my wife, who kept calm despite the fact that no one expected us to be found alive. Jane has been a pillar of strength and deserves a medal

· There are many other people who were involved and if I have not mentioned your name, I apologise. I still need time to come to terms with the events of the past 48 hours. I am also aware of the many sympathetic postings on AvCom – thanks for your support for both Jane and myself.

The purpose of writing this report immediately after the accident is an honest attempt to help prevent similar weather related accidents. I sincerely hope that all pilots will take special care over the coming summer months. Tragically, there was another Cessna 172 weather related accident near Nelspruit over this past weekend where all three occupants did not survive. The African Pilot team offers it’s most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those that were not as fortunate as us this weekend. We are all one big family and we owe it to each other to do everything in our power to help each other make aviation safer.

Over the coming months I will need to make a decision on the future of retaining my pilot’s licence and/or replacing my once trusty Cessna 172. African Pilot will continue publishing uninterrupted and hopefully this dreadful situation will have some positive spin off from an aviation safety perspective where other pilots can learn from the mistakes I made on Friday evening. I wish you all safe flying, more space between earth and cloud, happy landings and above all, please have fun.