The Forgotten Crash on Devils Peak

A sad day in aviation history – The Aftermath

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Many still remember that fateful day and its aftermath.  “Back then security was quite an issue and the mountain was cleared of every trace of the crash. When public were allowed to hike there again it was like it never happened. Hence the lingering interest in it I suppose.  For many years I could see two of the earth scars on the mountain slope from my flat in Rondebosch.”

“Something I don’t talk about much and haven’t for many years,” remembers Swannie.  “We were about 20 strong boys and girls and it was quite an occasion. We were all very young and in our teens. It was the 70’s What can I say. I don’t think the girls wanted to go up there but the guys did so the girls came with us.  One of the girls with us – a lovely English immigrant girl by the name of Patty Freestone (amazing the memory)- found a human organ hung up in a ‘silver’ tree on the site. I remember this as if it was yesterday and I remember seeing it close-up. I knew what it was. We left it there and did nothing about it. To do that would have meant a whole host of questioning bureaucracy, etc.  So we just walked away.  Our justification was that it wasn’t for us to do anything about that and in any case nature would clear it away soon enough. There were doubtless other remains still around. I think that was clear to us. They used parties of national serviceman to clean up after the larger parts of the planes that remained were taken away.”

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The Air Force Gym was stationed at Wingfield in Tents at the time, for the “Republic 10 Festival”. Members from 3rd Squadron were selected to stand guard at the site. One such a squadron member remembers still that “We drove up the mountain in Bedford Trucks and climbed the rest of the way up the mountain. The scene was utter Devastation. Some of us had tried to hitch a ride and were disappointed at not being selected!! I had serious second thoughts about ever learning to fly after that day.”

Another told us, “ …well several days later went walking with Melvyn Boiskin [for a cigarette or 2] after school along the Devils Peak trail that overlooked University estate and came across the scorched broken bodies of several airmen some hundred meters from the impact side…I ran to inform an army guard at a makeshift camp further in the forest of this find and within the hour the place was teeming with military police and press….the following day  in the press a few lines about some ashen faced schoolboys discover missing bodies…”

saafmercuriuscrash1971-wreckage

Yet another told “I was a medic at 2 Mil hospital at the time. We went up the mountain in Landie ambulances later that evening in the dark, found only burning wreckage. Next morning early some 20 medics, including myself, were lined up, injected, given a pep talk by the RSM and sent up the mountain to collect human remains only. We eventually spent two days on this mission and in fact one body was discovered much higher above the mountain some weeks later by a hiker. There are still two distinct holes in the mountain and i recall that some very thick pine trees to the right were chopped off clean at about 10meters up which would indicate that one plane struck the trees and disintegrated without hitting the ground. This explains why nobody can find the third hole. Wreckage and human remains were strewed about 500 odd meters up from the crash site. Don’t think it helpful to go into any more detail on that. When we had finished the air force personnel moved in to collect aircraft pieces and do their work.

Some weeks later the medics involved were bundled into a bus and taken to Ysterplaat where we were given the most awesome ride in a Dakota around the entire peninsula for about 90 minutes. Reason was to say thanks and to rid us of fear of flying hopefully.”

“There seems to be some confusion about the exact location. If you take the top De Waal drive to the city and turn off at the shooting range, follow that gravel road, then you eventually come out at the site. We did this in our ambulances. Alt. if you take the path up from Rhodes Memorial you also come out at the exact site. From the last few meters of this path you will see the two dents in the mountain on your left. The memorial is higher up and not even close to the impact area. The impact site is some 10 meters below the contour path with most of the wreckage ending up on the path itself.”

The location of the various crash sites on the mountain

The location of the various crash sites on the mountain

“I personally came across a complete jet engine in the undergrowth some 300 meters above the contour path. My friend and i mischievously youthful and not aware of the seriousness of what had happened decided not to tell anyone of this awesome find and thought that it might be nice to have one and take it apart to see what was inside. I recall us sitting under the trees discussing how we could carry it home…end of memory. Needless to say the air force people found it and took it first.”

Those who perished included Commandant LAS Henning,  Major GJ Euvrard, Major N Beetge, Major WA Prinsloo, Major HHAMC Lamoral, Captain D du Plessis Lombard, Lance-Corporal E Hays, Private GH Wassermann, Captain GN Snyman, Major MC de G Genis and Corporal RN Grobler.

Renier Grobler

One of the 11 SAAF personnel on board who was killed was a Provincial and Springbok Rugby player- Renier Globler – a Right Wing for the then Northern Transvaal Rugby team.  He accompanied the Sprinboks on the 1969-1970 tour of Britain, but was apparently not selected for any of the tests.

Major Prinsloo

Major “Willa” Prinsloo had survived a plane crash in the sea off Cape Columbine as a spotting pax two years earlier and had tried to save the life of the Pilot, Aubrey Clews, then spent two hours in the cold Atlantic before rescue by a fishing vessel.

Major Prinsloo had decided to take his discharge from the SAAF several months before his death. He had been offered a job with a fish spotting outfit and to get the “feel” of the job he did a stint with them – and ditched somewhere north west of Cape Columbine. He and his fellow pilot were in the water for quite a few hours before a fishing trawler found them – quite by luck, as the search was being conducted way to the south. This incident made him change his mind and stay in the SAAF.

Many such anecdotes and stories are still remembered  today, for example about Danie Lombaard, the pilot from Pretoria,  who was also grounded some time before for using a SAAF DC-3 to drop off the Sunday newspapers on his parents farm a few times until he got caught.

So, what happened?

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First, Just a few facts.

At the time of this accident GPS and other modern equipment had not been invented yet and would not have been of use in the particular circumstances anyhow.

Weather radar as fitted to aircraft are not suitable for terrain avoidance.

Ysterplaat did not have search radar and although DF Malan had, they were not in control of the military traffic at the time.

At the time there were many aircraft in the sky with predetermined well calculated and timed flightpaths designed for visual flying conditions.

What went wrong was the fact that the weather was unsuitable for an event that should have been cancelled.

Many experts and several eye witnesses later offered their input into what caused the tragedy.

“I was a young Shackleton pilot in those days and was the Squadron Standard Bearer for this parade. The actual facts of this mishap were as follows. The planner of the air side of this parade was Kmdt Mickey Lamb. Due to the number of different types and speeds of aircraft taking part in the flypast over the Saluting diaz, as well as the relatively short time spacing between the various formations overhead the diaz, certain aircraft were tasked to turn right towards Table Mountain. The speed of the aircraft in formation and the degree of bank required for the turn were all carefully calculated so that after a 180 degree turn the formation would clear the mountain by one nautical mile. This route was flown by the same three aircraft on previous practice sessions with no problems whatsoever. On this particular day and due to semi-inclement weather conditions, the formations flying over the diaz were experiencing excessive turbulence and these particular three HS125 type aircraft were finding it very difficult to maintain position in the formation at the speed they were tasked to use. Just after passing over the diaz, the leader of the formation requested to increase the formation speed by forty knots to make the position keeping of his wingmen easier especially as they were turning into low cloud and one needs to sit tightly in formation under such conditions. This was granted. However no-one at that instant even thought of the impact this would have on the radius of turn. The formation continued to turn at the practiced rate of bank which should have taken them well clear of the mountain as practiced in clear weather. It was this small oversight that caused the aircraft to impact with the mountain. With the loss of another group of people this last week-end as a result of the same CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) this just emphasises what happens when thorough planning before a flight including all the “What If’s” are not considered before a flight takes place and even during the flight itself. Being fallible human beings I am sure this will happen again sometime. In an aircraft you cannot pull over and recalculate before proceeding and very few aircraft in the world even today have the instrumentation to warn you of the marshmallow ahead with a hard centre! Hope this info will help with all the questions out there”

“When I was doing my national service in the SAAF, one of my jobs was investigating a problem with Radio-altimeters on the HS-125s (21 Squadron, I think.) The SAAF HS-125 were not originally fitted with these, and neither were the 3 replacement aircraft, but I think the extra aircraft which was bought later did have one fitted.  As far as I remember, Hawker-Siddley provided  instructions, and 4 Air Depot (Snake Valley) did the installations.”

“I doubt whether a radio-alt would have prevented the accident – the slope of the mountain is too steep, so a height warning would probably not have given sufficient reaction time.”

“They were flying in mist.  When flying in fog, there is no instrument to tell you of obstacles in your path. Planes are NOT normally fitted with forward looking radar. Your “instruments” in the plane are there to help you:

  1. Orientate the plane (i.e. keep it level when the vertigo attacks you. (and that is quick, tests have shown that even experienced pilots will enter a spiral dive in less than 2 minutes after entering a cloud if they their instruments are covered up).
  2. Check your altitude (the purpose to ensure that you remain HIGHER than the highest point in your area).

In the instances we’re talking about, the people were lower than the highest point. In one instance they (seem) to be relying on exact timing to avoid the mountain (which failed), in the Tzaneen case, it could either have been an altimeter error (these instruments rely on air pressure, and a sudden change in pressure can cause you to be out by a lot of height). Alternatively, they thought their routing was wide of the mountain when it was not.

When flying in formation you are so close together that there is no time to react for the “other” planes in the formation when the first one hits the mountain.”

“They  were practicing for an air show, and obviously were not flying “normal” flight rules.  It is actually protocol to fly at least 1000ft higher than the highest point in your immediate area AT ALL TIMES.”

Another eyewitness was flying in a Buccanner himself, as navigator and he recalled that as they approached  Goodwood stadium the visibility decreased dramatically and they aborted towards the left, the Mercurius formation was in front of them and veered right, impacting the mountain.

 

The Last word …

The reality was that the center aircraft, flown by a very senior officer, misjudged his flight path. In formation flying,  the wingman focus on the lead aeroplane. The weather played a major part in the disorientation of the pilots.

“The fact that all the flight crew partied very hard the previous night may have also played a role as to what happened. “

“I was also in the air that day when we were practicing for the Republic day celebration flypast.  Weather conditions was not conducive for Jet aircraft to fly that day in the practice and all jets were on the ground except the 3 Mercurius (Hs 125) VIP squadron aircraft. They were given special permission to fly that day as they had no previous time to practice due to other work commitments.”

Unfortunately it was all due to pilot error, no aircraft or instrumentation faults.

What happened to the last remaining “Mercurious” SAAF VIP transport jet from the 70’s?   The three that crashed were replaced and a fifth was bought in 1983. They served until around 2000.  They have all been sold.

The accident decimated this fleet, as the SAAF where left with only one H.S. 125 Mercurius jet which was according to some sources not included in this formation flight. This was a tragedy which took a long time to overcome and in many senses is still quite raw in SAAF circles and memories even to this day

 

 

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