Vintage: One of South Africa’s worst aviation accidents: Remembering the Albatross Angels
On 14 August 2011, one of South Africa’s worst aviation accident occurred. Here is a recap of some aspects of the incident. The search and rescue response to this accident is still a reference for how a complex aviation incident should/could be managed despite several challenges. Two Albatross aircraft, Piaggio P166S, ZS-NJX and ZU-MMI with six and seven people respectively onboard, took off, in formation, from Tzaneen Airfield at approximately 10h20 on 14 August 2011 destined for Rand Airport. This was after participating in the Tzaneen Air Show. Despite other aircraft departing before and after the Albatross arriving at their respective destinations, the Albatross aircraft did not arrive at the destination airport and the known radio communication and radar contact with the aircraft was limited to the time just after take off.
At the time there was generally poor weather conditions and a low cloud base over the higher ground in the vicinity of the Wolkberg mountains, which lie close to Tzaneen on the potential flight path of the missing aircraft. After the alarm was raised, Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) activated Mountain Search and Rescue (MSAR) at 15h50 on 14 August 2011. A hasty search was performed by volunteer aircraft that Sunday afternoon but nothing was found.
The ground and aerial search efforts started in earnest on day two with a large number of volunteers, volunteer organisations state emergency agencies participating but poor weather (particularly low cloud) constrained the search effort significantly. The search effort of day two did, however, produce significant clues and a priority area was identified.
Early on day three of the search, the two aircraft were located on a mountain ridge, approximately 40 kilometres Southeast of Tzaneen, where they impacted approximately 75m apart into the mountain slope. The crash location was within the priority search area which had been identified based on the search efforts of day two. All 13 persons on board of the two aircraft were killed on impact.
Several organisations were involved: ARCC, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), South African Police Services (SAPS); Air Wing, K9 Search and Rescue and several local police stations, South African Air Force (SAAF) 19 Sqn, SAAF 41 Sqn, Tzaneen Emergency Medical Service (EMS), disaster management, State Pathologist, MSAR, Off Road Rescue Unit (ORRU) plus numerous individuals (including pilots and aircraft owners).
At least seven rotor-wing (civilian and state), as well as two fixed-wing aircraft, took part in the main (day two and three) aerial search (plus some additional private aircraft on day one). This included: Police R44, Police Squirrel, Bell 230 (private), Squirrel AS350 (NAC), Squirrel, Bell 207 LongRanger, SAAF Oryx, Cessna 310, King Air 200. In addition resources and personnel was flown by among others, the SAAF 41 Squadron.
Two private fixed-wing aircraft flew shifts as ‘Telstar’ above the cloud level and acted as a relay between the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) and the rotor-wing aircraft as well as between aircraft. This allowed direct communication between the search aircraft and the JOC.
On day two of the search, there were times when at least six aircraft were actively searching in far less than ideal weather in mountainous terrain (most of the higher ground was covered in cloud with the helicopters searching up various valleys from all sides of the mountain).
In addition to the airborne search efforts, several ground search parties and 4x4s were involved in active searching as well as searching for eyewitnesses and other intelligence. In all, it is estimated that at least 150 individuals participated in the search and recovery.
MSAR played a key role in the search and an MSAR rescue officer (RO) assisted at the ARCC in OR Tambo International Airport during the three days of the search and recovery in tasking, search planning and general activities at the ARCC. A team was mobilised to arrive in Tzaneen ready to contribute to the day two and onward efforts.
On day two a team of five MSAR members were on-scene at the Tzaneen JOC (travelling in the morning with 12 ORRU vehicles) and participated in Oryx search sorties, which included aerial spotting and evidence collection from eyewitnesses.
On day three a team of six Cape Town MSAR team members (flown on a commercial flight on the eve of day two) and seven Gauteng MSAR team members were sent to Tzaneen. Before this team arrived the aircraft wrecks were found. The team did continue to assist the Police and other agencies with the recovery operations.
Sources: Dean van der Merwe, Mountain Search and Rescue; and Off Road Rescue Unit