How Pilot's Error Caused KQ Crash
 
 

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Murithi Mutiga
Nairobi

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.

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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 death.

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.

Secrecy

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 separate story).

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.

Theories

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 in flight."

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.

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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.

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