Did crash pilots err?

2009-10-02 00:00

PRETORIA — Only about 60 seconds.

That was all the time the crew of SA Airlink’s Flight 8911 had to react in a plane with one problematic engine.

Pilots believe there was probably one of three possible scenarios that could have happened in the cockpit of the Jetstream 41 last Thursday, when shortly after its take-off from the Durban airport, it crash-landed at a school.

Regardless of which possibility is the true account, it left the two pilots with very little time to put emergency procedures in motion.

Accident investigators will eventually be able to provide the final answers to these questions, probably only after several months.

One possibility is that the wrong engine — not the faulty one — was shut down.

Pilots can see clearly in the photos of the wreck that the right side (faulty) engine’s propeller blades were bent backward, and the blades on the left side are not bent forward or backward.

“Neutral” blades mean the engine was in the feathered state; in other words, switched off.

In a nutshell, that means that the right side (faulty) engine was still turning, since backwards-bending blades mean there was still forward force.

However, the faulty engine is the one that should have been switched off. Thus the healthy engine might have been switched off by mistake.

According to pilots, it is also possible that the faulty engine couldn’t be switched off. If it were to continu­e turning, the airplane would have been pulled to the right by wind shear, which would make it practically impossible to continue flying with only one engine.

The third option is that — if the engine could not be shut down — the pilot could have decided to make an emergency landing if he or she came to the conclusion that the plane couldn’t fly any further.

By switching off the healthy engine and “gliding into” an emergency landing, the chances of fire or an explosion at landing due to the absence of electrical power in the engine would be significantly reduced.

The plane, indeed, did not burst into flames upon impact, despite the fact that it was filled to capacity with fuel.

It is not clear whether it was the captain, Allister Freeman (40), or the co-pilot, Sonja Bierman (26), who was at the controls at the time of the accident.

On a “dead leg” such as this flight, with no passengers on board, the captain may allow the co-pilot to take control and fly the plane.

During emergency procedures it is usually also the task of the steering pilot to handle the emergency situation through to the end. A swop of responsibilities in those few seconds could easily lead to poor decision making or adverse actions, said the pilots.

According to Airlink, the accident probe will determine who was flying, while flight data recorders will provide further information.

A civil flight accident investigation earlier found that Freeman made a bad decision in 2005 due to lack of experience on a Britten-Norman Islander, a decision that contributed to the plane crashing into a house. He later started flying for Airlink.

According to Airlink, all their pilots undergo strict aptitude tests before they are appointed.

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