Rollercoaster drama in the sky

2011-11-12 00:00

BEING on flight SA8739 on Thursday evening was like being on a roller-coaster ride.

This is how the passengers who boarded the flight from O.R. Tambo International destined for Pietermaritzburg’s Oribi Airport described the ordeal.

The plane took off at 7.10 pm and after being airborne for about 20 minutes, the pilot realised that there was a problem with the landing gear.

Passengers, who had to spend the night in Johannesburg, said the flight turned back to the airport and circled for more than two hours before landing on its belly in a dramatic emergency landing.

Among the passengers was Weekend Witness columnist Alec Hogg, who tweeted about the ordeal and posted videos of the plane on the runway after landing.

Barry Gibbs, chairperson of the Proud SA Pork Producers, said the drama started when pilot Harm Kelderman realised that the front wheels had folded, but the doors were not closed.

“He announced that we had to go back to the airport. On arrival he descended, but the wheels would not pop out, so he took to the sky again.

“We circled the airport under rough conditions. It was like a roller-coaster ride as the pilot made some sharp descending and ascending manoeuvres shaking the plane mid-air several times,” said Gibbs.

Kelderman then announced that he would make an emergency landing.

Fire engines were at the ready and foam was sprayed on the tarmac.

Passenger Roop Maharaj said on hitting the tarmac, he heard the pilot tell the cabin crew to evacuate the passengers and that if they didn’t see him in the next 10 seconds, they should assume he was dead.

“When I heard that, I thought this was my last night,” said the traumatised Maharaj.

Some passengers said there were no emergency personnel attending to those who were bruised when they fell on the tarmac when evacuating the plane, nor were there counsellors, despite Airlink CEO Rodger Foster saying on eNews counsellors had been sent to the airport to help.

The only counsellors available were “J&B, Bells and Jack Daniels”, passenger Dr Mark Manley joked.

He said the pilot kept the plane on its back wheels for a distance before allowing the nose to touch down on the tarmac and slide until it came to a standstill.

“The cabin was full of smoke. We kept calm and we survived it, thanks to the pilot and his crew,” he said.

Kelderman said he had never experienced such an incident before and he was fortunate to have been accompanied by competent crew.

“I was truly blessed and God took us through the ordeal. My primary concern was to bring my passengers safe back on the ground,” said Kelderman, who has been a pilot for 14 years. He was unable to elaborate further due to protocol, he said.

Airlink spokesperson Karin Murray said this was an isolated incident. She said all passengers received trauma counselling and medical attention.

“We are still sending letters to every­one so that those who require further counselling and medical treatment can go to their GPs at the expense of Airlink,” she said.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) said it will keep a close eye on the SA Airlink fleet following the emergency landing.

Spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba said investigations began immediately after the landing.

The aircraft has since been taken to a nearby hangar.

“Information available at this stage suggests that the human factor could have contributed to this incident. In the meantime we have assembled a team of inspectors to conduct inspections in order to ensure that an occurrence such as this does not happen again,” said Ledwaba.

• chris.ndaliso@witness.co.za

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