The East African Standard (Nairobi)
February 1, 2004
Posted to the web February 2, 2004
The worst aviation accident in Kenyan history was
caused by a dramatic, 18-second sequence of events in which fatal faults in
the machine and an error by the pilot combined to produce the most deadly
air crash, we can reveal.
A report into the air tragedy in Abidjan four years
ago, which the Kenyan Government has doggedly refused to release to the
public, offers a dramatic reconstruction of the last few seconds before KQ
Flight 431 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean - killing 169 people.
The report gives startling insights gleaned from the
cockpit voice recorder of the ill-fated Airbus 310-304, including an
anguished order by the co-pilot, "one second before impact with the sea," to
ascend to a safer altitude.
The air tragedy, a few hundred metres from Abidjan's
Felix Houphouet Boigny Airport was the biggest aviation accident in 2000 and
the worst air disaster in Kenya Airways three-decades in business.
Despite the staggering toll on human life and enormous
material cost of the crash, Kenyan authorities have consistently rebuffed
calls by families of the victims and the public to release the report. The
Ministry of Transport and Communications, as well as aviation authorities,
say that the report is still being translated from French to English - two
years after it was completed.
The bulky report, obtained exclusively by the Sunday
Standard through international aviation sources, offers a detailed and
compelling insight into the possible causes of the fatal accident.
It is dated January 25, 2002, and signed by the
director-general of the Cote d'Ivoire aviation authority, Mr George Philippe
Ezaly, on behalf of the West African nation's transport minister.
Principally compiled by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the
report says that the ill-fated plane's flight lasted barely three minutes
and the aircraft never ascended beyond 400 metres above altitude.
An unexplained system malfunction triggered panic
within the cockpit, resulting in the pilot applying wrong emergency
procedures that sent 10 crew and 159 passengers - including two children to
But the report was not entirely agreeable, and both
the French and Kenya governments sent protest notes - letters of difference
- to the Ivorian authorities about its findings. Kenya queried the fact that
the report did not find fault with the poor evacuation of the victims after
the crash. According to aviation sources, better emergency response measures
would have saved many lives.
The Kenya Airways Flight 431 5y-Ben carrying 179
passengers had initially been scheduled to travel straight to the Nigerian
capital, Lagos, from Nairobi although strong winds blown up by the Harmattan
desert windstorm forced the plane to re-route to Abidjan.
This change of route proved catastrophic for the
mostly Nigerian passengers, who would have disembarked from the plane in
Lagos before it continued its journey to Abidjan. Thirty-six Nigerians died
in the crash.
How it happened
According to aviation experts who studied the flight
data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, the plane took off from the
airport safely at 9.08 pm local time. A few seconds after take-off, an aural
alarm mysteriously went off, indicating that the plane was stalling while,
in the opinion of the investigators, there existed no signs to indicate that
the plane was actually stalling.
"The moment the alarm went off, the take-off checklist
was interrupted. The pilot immediately applied part of the emergency
procedure in the event of a stalling alarm and the plane started
descending," the report says in French.
Having taken to the sky late into the night, however,
the pilots appear to have suffered simultaneously from poor visibility and
the need to grapple with the violent weather conditions, which caused the
treacherous West African coastal currents to sweep the ocean's waves to a
height of up to four feet.
Although the aircraft's alarms went off to signal a
perilous loss of altitude only seconds before impact, the report concludes
that these alarms were drowned out by the false aural stalling alarm, which
- in aviation terms - was an "alarme prioritaire" (priority alarm).
"The over-speeding VFE alarm was put in function one
and half seconds before impact," the report says, adding that it was
nevertheless drowned out in the prevailing confusion.
Tragically, recordings in the cockpit voice recorder
appear to suggest that the plane could have been saved if an order to ascend
- following the crew's realisation that the plane was just about to hit the
sea - had been issued about two seconds earlier than it eventually was.
Says the report: "The overspeeding VFE alarm was put
in function one and half seconds before impact. The co-pilot became aware of
the dangerously low altitude of the plane and gave an order to ascend one
second before the impact."
With the pilot not having realised how dangerously
close to the sea the plane was flying, the report concludes, the crew
probably controlled the plane at full speed until it hit the sea, instantly
splitting it into dozens of pieces due to the sheer force of collision.
"The trajectory was probably controlled by the crew
until the impact," says the report.
Despite the fact that it does not directly blame
Kenyan authorities for the mishap, the Government has demonstrated a
peculiar desire to keep the report's contents secret.
Contacted on Thursday, Transport and Communication PS
Gerrishon Ikiara said that the Government had not "yet accomplished" the
mission of translating the report from French to English. He added that
under international aviation rules, the onus of releasing the report lay
with Ivorian authorities.
Nonetheless, there has been speculation that the
Government's reluctance is in deference to the interests of the parties to
the saga who dread being exposed as culpable for an accident of such
magnitude to be tragic in the highly competitive aviation industry (See
After the crash, a tussle ensued for control of the
investigations. The plane's manufacturers, Airbus Industrie, insisted that
French authorities decode the black box; the engine manufacturers, General
Electric, preferred US experts while Kenya Airways insisted on Britain.
Eventually, Canadian aviation authorities spearheaded the investigation into
the Black Box.
Various theories have been spun about the cause of the
accident. One links the engine of the Airbus 310 to an identical one of a
plane which crashed in San Juan Puerto Rico with engine problems in 1998.
But Rick Kennedy, the public relations manager of General Electric aircraft
engines rejected the theory in a terse response to the Sunday Standard
stating that investigations proved that the "engines were fully functional
Kenya Airways was similarly reluctant to be drawn into
discussion of the cause of the deadliest aviation accident that year and the
first fatal international accident involving its plane.
Although it started shakily after its formation in
1977 following the splinter of the East African Airways - being derided as "Matatu
Airways" by a respected Tanzanian statesman due to a reputation for
tardiness - KQ has evolved into a model airline in Africa, with several
awards to its credit.
It is one of the few companies with State interest
that has consistently returned a profit during the last ten years and is
regarded as one of the best airlines in Africa.