FlySafair passenger: Nose-dive so severe I thought left ear would explode

Cape Town – A family returning from a holiday in Sun City, a mother accompanying her 10-year-old son who had just been discharged from hospital with pneumonia and a Persian magician who passed out during the incident “due to lack of oxygen”– these are just some of the passenger accounts after what they described as an “alarming unprofessional emergency situation” on board a FlySafair flight. 

Flight FA103 headed for Cape Town, was forced to turn back to OR Tambo International on Sunday, about 25-mins into the flight due to reported loss of cabin pressure.  

Traveller24 has since established that it is the same plane that was involved in an emergency landing on Friday, when it had to return to OR Tambo due to a cabin pressure issue as well. FlySafair said the aircraft which experienced two cabin-pressure incidents in the space of three days is about 20 years old. 

Rodney Kumar, a Cape Town resident who was flying back from a week-long holiday in Sun City with his wife and 18-years-old son, contacted Traveller24 saying he was not only concerned about the safety conditions of FlySafair but also felt the manner in which the emergency situation was dealt with , saying it was “completely unprofessional”. 

Kumar told Traveller24 that as the plane took off he felt it took a long time to reach altitude, and “as somebody who travels frequently, it felt much longer than usual”. 

About 25-minutes into the flight, Kumar said the captain announced said for passengers to fasten seatbelts, repeating the words “Rapid descent, rapid descent, rapid descent”.

Kumar said, “The lights in the cabin went off completely. You could feel the descent and that the plane went in a nosedive, it was so severe it felt like my left-ear felt like was about to explode.”

FlySafair said in a statement that it was at this point that Captain Lawrence Banda and First officer Charles Peck noted that the air pressure wasn’t stabilizing as it should and that the aircraft was experiencing a very gradual loss of pressure. The nosedive as described by Kumar required the pilot to take the plane from about 32 000 feet down to an altitude of 10 000 feet – releasing the passenger oxygen masks manually as a precautionary measure.

But for Kumar and a few others, not knowing what was going on and expecting the worst – they scrambled to deal with the situation – as some oxygen masks allegedly fell to the ground and Kumar stating that his son “needed to pick up one from the floor”.

Cape Town Magician Melika Razavi who was flying back from an event in Johannesburg said the sound of the pilot’s voice made her believe there was something gravely wrong with the plane. 

“The oxygen masks dropped and I was the only one screaming, saying ‘What’s going on, there is no oxygen?’ as I saw with my own two eyes one of the masks wasn’t even connected,” said Razavi.

“It was then that the air stewardess started giving emergency instructions, but she herself looked terrified.  I could feel myself having a panic attack, the passenger next to me tried to help me get the oxygen mask but I could feel myself about to pass out. It was then that she called for medical help and a qualified doctor who was sitting behind me left her seat and came to help. I’m told she stayed with me throughout the situation as I had passed out at this point.”

“The manner in which the pilot said rapid descent, rapid descent sounded like he was going to die.”

“Even before take-off I had an uneasy feeling about this flight,” Razavi said. “ Flight crew are trained to calm people down, to communicate the situation. I wasn’t even assisted off the plane, as I was shaking and could not walk properly. Passengers had to help me off.”

“I’ve flown all across the world and have never experienced anything like this, this was very unprofessional.”

(Photo: Melika Razavi)

Kirby Gordon, spokesperson for FlySafair said, “From a pilot’s perspective they actually have a very clear order of procedures. Pilots are required to Aviate, Navigate and then Communicate – in that order. 

“A common concern from passengers is that the pilot didn’t say anything when the safety actions were taken.  ‘Rapid descent’ indicates the course of action to the crew so that they know what to do. It’s then up to the pilot to steer the aircraft onto a safe course, before addressing the passengers – depending on the situation this can be 10 – 15min later – as soon as the flight path is stabilised.” 

The loss of cabin pressure was equally harrowing for Khanyi Mbili who was travelling back to Cape Town after a friend’s wedding in Vereerniging. Mbili’s son had also just been released from hospital after suffering bronchial pneumonia.  

“My son was still not breathing well and I had his pump in my bag,” said Mbili. When the plane started the rapid descent he started crying and struggled even more to breathe as there was no oxygen coming from his mask.”

“An air steward came to check on us and helped us with the spare mask. 

While Kumar and Ravazi told Traveller24 they were not prepared to fly with FlySafair again, saying the flight crew were “a nervous wreck” and questioned why there was no roll-call done or emergency staff on hand to assist when the plane on arrival at OR Tambo.  

Kumar said seeing an air stewardess needing to refer to a safety manual and looking as terrified as she did while instruction passengers to “drop your blinds down, look at your neighbour, you will need to help you neighbour when we land on land” made me believe there was something seriously wrong with the plane. She really should have been more professional.”

Ravazi said, “It very horrifying experience, there is no words that can explain it. They could have handled it so much better if they could communicate with the passengers.  I’m glad everybody is okay and we should just love the people around us and tell them that every single day.” 

Mbili however said, “I am not upset because we landed safely and the people were really accommodating. When we got to the airport, ground staff spoke to us about our options. It was such a traumatic experience and I hope I don’t have to put my kids through that again.”  

What is FlySafair’s safety procedures and service schedule?

Plane age and maintenance

Kirby Gordon told Traveller24, the airline complies with the Civil Aviation Safety Standards and Requirements as well as being IOSA safety accredited, having received its renewed certificate in September 2015, “with a clean audit.”

“The plane is a mid-90s vintage, this is very much on par with the average age of most Boeing 737-400 fleets. Europe and the USA routinely operate Boeing 737-400 aircraft which are more than 30 years old,” said Gordon. 

“The average age of our fleet is 15 years. In aviation though, the average age of a fleet isn’t really a very meaningful number as it’s the integrity of the maintenance that really counts, which we are very confident in.”

Oxygen Masks

“Aircraft manufacturers outline specific guidelines as to how often these masks need to be checked. On this specific aircraft type the masks are checked during a "C-check” which is a very carefully regulated and thorough process where the systems are actually deployed. The masks and oxygen canisters on this aircraft were given a cursory check over the weekend.”

“ Some people do get a little alarmed when the bags on the masks don’t inflate. Of course this is something that we cover in the safety. Up to four oxygen masks are attached to a special cylinder that contains a chemical compound used to generate oxygen.  

“One of the first things we do in the aircraft audit after events like this is check that the systems all deployed and worked. There are specialised indicators showing when oxygen was released as well as valve indicators that show that flow was activated. All masks were found to be 100% operational.”  

Cabin crew training and in-flight safety procedures

“Cabin Attendants and crew are all very carefully trained to operate without the need for manuals, and are regularly tested in order to keep their licenses current. That said we do keep manuals aboard our aircraft and encourage our teams to consult them because it’s essential that they follow protocol to the word – which we’re very proud to say that they crew did.” 

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