Pilot in SA Airlink crash dies in hospital

2009-10-08 00:00

THE aviation world is mourning the death of Allister Freeman, the SA Airlink pilot who avoided crashing into houses by landing his aircraft on Merebank Secondary School’s sports field, two weeks ago.

Tributes have poured in from locals and from abroad and from the residents who rushed to help Freeman, his co-pilot Sonja Bierman and flight attendant Rudelle Oosthuysen when the Jetstream 41 crashed into the concrete palisade fence of the school. A municipal cleaner, Abraham Mthethwa, was also injured in the crash.

Freeman passed away in Durban’s St Augustine’s Hospital at 1 am yesterday.

It is believed that Freeman sustained broken ribs, a punctured lung, spinal injuries and facial fractures during the crash. He had undergone surgery and was on a ventilator.

News of Freeman’s death has touched hundreds of people who followed the September 24 plane crash. Messages of condolences have been displayed on Facebook.

Hospital manager Augusta Dorning said Freeman had been on life support in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the hospital since the accident.

His wife, Thabitha, and children spent a lot of time at his bedside.

The Freeman family has declined to speak to media.

“On behalf of Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital, I wish to express our sincere condolences and deep sadness at Allister’s untimely passing to the Freeman family, his wife, Thabitha, and children, friends and colleagues. Our thoughts are with you during this extremely difficult time,” said Dorning.

The CEO and managing director of Airlink, Rodger Foster, praised Freeman for the way he landed the aircraft on the day of the crash.

“We will remember Allister for the role he played in averting what could otherwise have been a far worse accident,” he said.

Merebank residents have also expressed sadness at Freeman’s death.

Alka Bejai, one of the first people on the scene, said she would be “eternally grateful” to Freeman who she believes saved her entire neighbourhood by landing the plane the way he did.

“I’m shocked and sad that he died. We are so grateful for what he has done. He steered the plane away from our houses, saving us all from a horrible death,” she said.

Bejai added that she hoped that Freeman would be honoured with a posthumous award for his bravery.

“He is truly a hero as he saved lot of lives that day. The community will pray for his family during this painful time,” she said.

Another resident, Aveshkar Jadhoo, said that he thought that Freeman would make a recovery and visit the residents he saved.

“It’s a sad day for all of us. That man was a brilliant pilot,” he said.

Pilots who spoke to The Witness yesterday said talk among the flying fraternity was that it was almost a certainty that whoever was in control of the plane had switched off the wrong engine in error.

“When an engine fails, there is no time often to check the instruments. The pilot will feel a lurch to one side and will react on that alone. It’s a physical thing. You feel it and you react,” said one pilot.

“Many pilots have been killed because they shut down the wrong engine by mistake. It’s a common thing.”

The Witness also heard that if an aeroplane has smoke billowing from an engine, this does not always indicate that the engine can no longer operate or that it has shut down. “It could just be an oil seal that’s gone, but the engine can continue operating.”

The pilot, who asked not to be named for professional reasons, said the Jetstream engine may have been shut down “on hearsay” after air traffic control warned the crew of the smoke coming out of an engine, or because the pilot in control became confused.

He said it was accepted that all theories about the crash were mere speculation at present.

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