No ambulance at Airlink crash landing: iLIVE

12 November 2011 - 17:23 By Andy Pepperell, from Hilton, KwaZulu Natal (a passenger on the Airlink that crash-landed at OR Tambo)
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Myself and three colleagues from our Hilton, KZN office, were on the Airlink Flight SA 8739 that made an emergency landing at OR Tambo on Thursday.

I have read your article and wish to correct certain aspects of it, as well as making some hopefully helpful comments to the Minister of Transport and ACSA about some serious deficiencies of emergency procedures at OR Tambo.

Firstly, what is certainly correct is that the two pilots (Harm Kallenberg/Chris van Rensburg) and two cabin attendants (sorry ladies, I don't have your names) who crewed the plane (all of whom I believe were under 30 years old?) were absolutely impeccable in the way they handled the emergency.

Being an ex pilot myself, the pilots managed their side exactly in accordance with the best practices and the emergency landing was about as perfect a piece of airmanship as it could have been in the circumstances.  We owe our lives to these pilots. 

The two lady cabin attendants conducted themselves in a very professional and calm manner throughout  We met them afterwards and could see that they were both having serious trauma reactions like the rest of us, but during the crisis they were so professional - bravo!. 

In the two hours that we had to burn off fuel before the landing, we were properly briefed and trained in the emergency chute procedures, setting up and briefing chute teams at each end of the aircraft, and removing all sharp objects, clearing the cabin of obstructions and rehearsing the dreaded "brace" position that, I assure you, no one in their lives should ever experience for real.

Alex Hogg (Natal Witness article) was correct in most things in his colourful journalistic reporting manner, but I disagree that the aircraft we were moved to was old.  The first one that we were moved from was, I believe, a smaller BAE 146 which was much older than the larger Avro RJ85  in which we we had the incident. 

In fact I commented as we boarded that at least we had been moved to a newer aircraft.  I might still be wrong but perhaps check your facts first please Alex?

Therefore, whilst Airlink and Avro must investigate carefully why such a mechanical failure occurred in the nosewheel gear, Airlink's other handling of the accident and the aftermath was as good as it could be in any emergency situation, and we would like to thank the two brilliant pilots, their two cool calm cabin crew, and their Operations Manager at ORT, Mr Innes Bester, for a job well done. 

This is further exemplified by the fact that all our left-behind belongings were safety and quickly recovered from the wreckage and returned to us, including shoes, glasses, and my colleague's wallet full of money.

Now I have to move to the serious downside of this accident, and this has nothing to do with Airlink but everything to do with the Department of Transport and ACSA - the operators of ORT - and who charge us huge fees and taxes in the cost of our air tickets.

Firstly, please remember that the ORT emergency services had nearly two hours to prepare for the emergency landing whilist we burnt fuel, rehearsed our emergency procedures, and seriously contemplated our fate.

One of my colleagues had been taking serious stress during that two hours and had already completely lost conciousness once before landing.  We managed to revive him and get him prepared and into the brace position during the landing, and myself and another colleague got him safely down the chute before we exited ourselves. 

We were surrounded by numerous fire crew on the ground and there were indeed plenty of crash tenders attending and very caring emergency crew escorting us away from the scene to a safe distance.  Good job so far. 

However, our stressed colleague collapsed on the runway and went into serious shock.  Here lies the problem... there was not one person with any medical training, nor an ambulance, anywhere near the scene of the crash!  Unbelievable.  What if the aircraft had broken up and there were injured people lying all over the runway? 

There were two passenger buses there but no ambulances!  We stayed with our downed colleague long after the rest of the passengers had been taken to the terminal building by Airlink.  The fire crews had no oxygen or even a blanket to cover our shocked, shaking and convulsing colleague. 

As I had nothing suitable, my female colleague used her jacket to try to cover our colleague to keep him warm.  Innes Bester from Airlink arrived on the scene and made an urgent radio request for an ambulance, but the one solitary ambulance (still with no rescue or medical treatment facilities on board - not even oxygen) arrived only about 20 minutes later! 

We were then left in the back with our colleague whilst the ambulance crew sat up front!  We eventually got our colleague to ORT's Clinic where he was only then properly treated, and his Joburg-based relatives arrived to take him home.

My suggestion to the Minister of Transport and ACSA is that you should be ashamed of yourselves.  How can you make the following statement without first properly checking all the facts?:

"We want to commend the captain and crew of the aircraft, Airports Company South Africa, Air Traffic and Navigation Services, emergency services [and others]," Ndebele said in a statement.

"This again demonstrates our readiness and preparedness as a country to effectively deal with such emergencies."

We totally agree with the commending of the pilots and crew.  Probably also the air traffic control and navigation services to close the airport, and during the time we made the very low level fly-through so they could inspect the undercarriage. 

However, we were an aircraft making a crash landing with 74 souls on board, with 2 hours notice, but not one ambulance on the scene?  Fire crews with no paramedic experience? 

My sources also tell me that it was not possible to pre-foam the runway ahead of the landing, which is normally used to reduce friction and sparks and the risk of fire. Instead we had friction, sparks, and smoke entering the cabin. 

What are you going to do when a fully laden Airbus A380 arrives for COP-17 and the same thing happens?  Honorable Minister - your last statement is just generic political propaganda and you need a reality check please!.

I would like to close with one or two other observations that also need serious attention.  These are directed to the manufacturers of the Avro RJ85.  There were two pairs of emergency chutes at each end of the aircraft.  Our chutes at the rear ended up hanging in an elevated position as we had no nosewheel, and this made the angle of the chute down to the ground almost a vertical drop. 

Almost everyone had serious tumbles at the end of that chute and it was lucky no one was seriously injured apart from scraped knees etc.  Also the emergency door needed two strong people to heave it open before the chute actually triggered and deployed. 

At the front of the aircraft, one chute deployed properly and the other just fell off completely and landed flat on the ground!  This meant that some evacuees had to jump down to terra firma, which is unacceptable.  Please pass these observations on to Avro in the interests of improved aircraft design and safety.

At the end of the day, we can all congratulate ourselves on a 100% injury free survival of the accident, although we will all no doubt be scarred mentally.  I've already had symptoms of this trauma. 

However, please can the Honourable Minister stop patting himself on the back by making uninformed statements and first take note of reports from those that experienced the incident so that these deficiencies can be rectified in the future.  I do hope someone out there is listening to us mere mortals.

Getting this load off my mind has already been therapeutic for me, and I hope that it perhaps also helps some of my fellow "survivors".

To them - enjoy the rest of your lives!

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