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Families of flight crew killed in 2020 crash consider legal action

The final report into the incident, released on Tuesday, makes damning findings about the crash and SACAA

25 January 2022 - 16:34
The Cessna Citation flight inspection aircraft that crashed on January 23 2020.
NOT AIRWORTHY The Cessna Citation flight inspection aircraft that crashed on January 23 2020.
Image: CAA

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) broke its own regulations, say the families of three crew who died in a calibration flight crash in 2020.

January 23 marked the second anniversary of a deadly crash involving a Cessna Citation operated by the SACAA that claimed the lives of captain Thabiso Tolo, first officer Tebogo Lekalakala and flight inspector Gugu Mnguni. 

The crew was performing an instrument calibration flight at George airport when the aircraft crashed into a mountain.

On Tuesday, the families said they were not ruling out legal action after the release of a final accident report which made damning findings about the crash and the SACAA. 

Lekalakala’s father-in-law, August Lekalakala, said those who allowed the non-airworthy aircraft to fly must be held accountable. “If the [transport] department doesn’t do that, we will charge them privately.”

He said the final report differed from a preliminary report the families disagreed with.

“It also confirms concerns we raised with the minister in terms of the preliminary report issued by the SACAA. We did not agree that it was pilot error. Second, the SACAA cannot be a referee and a player at the same time, so this matter is very sensitive and requires an independent investigating team. That was what we requested from the minister at the memorial,” he said.

The initial investigation was carried out by the accident and incident investigation division (AIID), an independent unit reporting to the transport minister, but operationally attached to the SACAA. 

Lekalakala said they were studying the final report, compiled by the Ethiopian Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB).

The final report found a host of irregularities in the operation of the Cessna, including its certificate of airworthiness being invalid at the time of the crash due to the flight data recorder not having been updated annually.

“The pilot is an operator. If the aircraft malfunctions there is absolutely nothing he can do about it, especially when you are in the sky,” he added.

The final report found a host of irregularities in the operation of the Cessna, including its certificate of airworthiness being invalid at the time of the crash due to the flight data recorder not having been updated annually.

The aircraft conducted multiple operations in 2021 without proper flight inspection unit authorisation, there was insufficient evidence that the pilot-in-command performed mandatory altitude recovery training on a simulator and there were irregularities in assigning the pilot-in-command to the flight, investigators found.

The aircraft did not trigger the recording of all mandatory parameters on the flight data recorder and there was no indication of whether the installed terrain-avoidance warning system was operational at the time of the crash.

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula handed the final report to the families on Sunday.

He said the parties had 60 days to appeal or provide further information on the contents of the report. “As the minister, I am enjoined to observe the due process and allow that period to lapse before pronouncing myself on the content of the report,” he said on Tuesday.

Under probable cause of the crash, the report found: “The crew lost control of the aircraft, which resulted in significant loss of altitude; as they attempted to recover, they collided with the mountain. According to the [weather] report, there was significant cloud coverage below 1,500ft above ground level at the time of the accident ... mountain tops were obscured, as seen on the webcam.

“The aircraft route ... passes over the obscured mountains. From the limited FDR [flight data recorder] reading, the aircraft attitude drastically changed into an unusual attitude when approaching the mountain area. This indicates that, most probably, the pilot has entered into an unusual attitude during transition from VFR [visual flight rules] to IFR [instrument flying rules] flight without preparation. The accident flight plan was VFR.”

The report also found the aircraft was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder, was unable to record terrain warnings and that the flight data recorder’s recording capacity was limited by the aircraft system and not fit to record the required parameters.

Talking about life after the crash, Lekalakala said: “It’s bitter. Life is not the same.

“There is a young girl and she was only four years old. The father is playing the role of the father and mother at the same time. It’s totally unfair because when the daughter feels she misses her mother she becomes lonely and life is not easy. The worst part is when she is playing with other children and they start talking about their mothers.”

Thabang Tolo, son of the deceased captain, said he was happy with the report.

“It’s a sense of relief. The incident happened when I was starting my matric. It was difficult in the beginning, but I pushed. For a long time I wanted to be a pilot, but I chose a different career because I began to feel like it didn’t resonate with me. I wanted to separate myself. [However] I am actually going into the aviation industry.”

Simnikiwe Tolo said her husband had reported incidents in the past.

“He wrote these reports in November 2019 when there was smoke. He wrote the report in the cockpit of the aircraft. The day of the incident I was more angry than hurt.”

“With this report it’s better because it’s not pointing to everything, to my husband, like the preliminary report.

“It’s very hard. Life has changed a lot. Now I am a single parent to three children [after] something they knew about and could have prevented. If this aircraft had been replaced and there was a crash, then I would have understood. It is something they chose not to attend to, so people’s lives are not important, according to them. This one they knew about and they were warned,” said Tolo.

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