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Business Maverick

SAA probed after take-off ‘blunder’ on Covid vaccine flight

(Illustrative image | Sources: Flickr / Adobe Stock)

An SAA flight from SA to Brussels on 24 February 2021 ‘didn’t go well’ as the airline’s crew allegedly miscalculated the take-off weight of the aircraft (Airbus 340-600), ahead of its departure to collect Covid-19 vaccines. 

SA’s aviation industry regulator says it is investigating an alleged take-off delay and safety incident involving an SAA flight that collected the second consignment of Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines from Brussels in late February. 

Several aviation industry watchers informed Business Maverick that an SAA flight from SA to Brussels on 24 February 2021 “didn’t go well” as the airline’s crew allegedly miscalculated the take-off weight (TOW) of the aircraft (Airbus 340-600) that collected the Covid-19 vaccines. 

The crew miscalculated by almost 90 tons, Business Maverick was informed. With an error like this, the take-off speeds are calculated as far too low (low TOW, low takeoff speeds). Fortunately, the Airbus is designed to correct these speeds, but not the speeds for flap retraction. Thus when the crew retracted the flaps the plane went into “alpha floor” event. This is where the airspeed is too low and the aircraft is in danger of stalling. A disaster was averted because once again the aircraft’s safety systems took over, adding power and lowering the nose slightly, preventing it from stalling.  

“By the grace of God, it [the aircraft] limped into the air. When the crew started retracting the flaps it went into alpha-floor,” said the knowledgeable aviation source on condition of anonimity.

While the error did not result in a catastrophe, or even come close to one, in the aviation industry any such incident is automatically reported – by the plane systems to Rolls Royce (engine manufacturer) and Airbus (airframe manufacturer), which receive thousands of such messages on a daily basis.

In addition, the event must be automatically reported by the pilot and co-pilot to the airline (SAA, in this case), which must then inform the SA Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa). It is Sacaa’s responsibility to conduct an investigation – even if the pilots deem the incident insignificant. It is part of the safety protocol.

According to Sacaa, aviation accidents “must be reported within 24 hours, serious incidents within 48 hours, and incidents within 72 hours”. But Sacaa confirmed that it was only informed about the SAA “alpha floor protection” incident on 17 March, three weeks after it occurred. 

Contacted for comment, a Rolls Royce spokesperson suggested that Business Maverick contact SAA directly. 

The alpha floor incident calls into question SAA’s competency to fly after its flight operations (commercial and cargo) have been grounded for about a year through a serially delayed business rescue process

Grant Back, the head of South African Airways Pilots’ Association (Saapa), noted that the union is aware of the automated report by the aircraft monitoring software of the Brussels flight during the take-off phase.  “We have written to SAA management and the BRPs [business rescue practitioners] raising our concerns as to the state of of SAA’s Safety Management System and asking that Sacaa approved processes be followed in order to establish what occurred. 

“We have not received a response and hope that the correct policy and procedures will be followed in the investigation of this safety event,” he says.

The incident has also called into question Sacaa’s ability to address aviation safety concerns in a proactive and timeous manner. 

Sacaa says after it was informed about the SAA alpha-floor incident, an investigation team was established to probe the incident “as well as the reason for the delayed notification to the regulator”.

The SAA flight to Brussels was initially barred from take-off by Sacaa on grounds that the airline’s pilots hadn’t clocked up the required number of flying hours, or maintained their training because SAA has been grounded. There were also concerns about whether SAA was conducting regular maintenance of its aircraft fleet while it was grounded.  

The flight was also controversial because many commentators labelled the exercise as a ‘publicity stunt’ that resulted in wasteful expenditure.

But SAA was allowed to fly to Brussels after it was given a range of exemptions by the regulator. Sacaa has been criticised for giving SAA special treatment, which the regulator has denied. 

“Each request for exemption is evaluated on its own merits. The Brussels flight was a once-off exemption; and was granted on the strength of its risk mitigation measures, which are aligned to South African civil aviation regulations and acceptable global standards,” it says in a statement. 

“The South African Civil Aviation Authority has on numerous occasions made it clear that there are no regulations specifically set aside to deal with matters pertaining to SAA. All operators are expected to comply with the same set of civil aviation regulations, that thus far has ensured that our country’s safety record in terms of commercial and airline operations remains untainted for more than 30 years..” DM/BM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    I’ll fly Airlink in future.

  • Rudd van Deventer says:

    They really do not need this sort of publicity or problems. They had all the time in the world to get these systems in place during the lockdown. So, the assumption is that everyone took the time off and forgot what their jobs entailed.

  • Brian Townsend says:

    And SAA want to return to commercial operations !! Would any member of the public in sane mind buy an SAA ticket under these conditions ? Firstly the safety aspect and secondly the very real risk of not getting your money back in the event of a cancelled flight.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Question from the peanut gallery : WHAT EXACTLY WAS ON THE PLANE?

    This was the outbound leg. That plane can take about 45 tonnes of cargo – the miscalculation was 90 tonnes!

    I cannot imagine that the systems allow crew to enter a take-off weight that is less than what the empty plane weighs

  • Patricia Sidley says:

    There is apparently even more to this. it has been alleged by another anonymous source that the good folk from abroad came here and scheduled a meeting with those concerned with the incident here. The SAA people did not turn up for the meeting, according to the allegation

  • Paul Fanner says:

    Just an anecdote; I worked for the DoT, which included Civil Aviation. A colleague there had flown on the Berlin Airlift. One load was a number of aluminium plates. The next was steel plate but the loadmaster loaded the same number of plates. The colleague made it, obviously. Accidents happen.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Paul : we are short of steel + aluminium right now – hopefully we are not airfreighting either at multiples of its value.

      There are metals with much higher density that I imagine may have filled this plane to make up for the missing 90 tonnes. Lead is not one of them…

      Did customs inspect?

  • Bruce Kokkinn says:

    Close the buffoons down!

  • John Goldreich says:

    SAA should be grounded for this. They have an entire team of inexperienced pilots. A disaster
    Is in the wings!

  • Hilary Morris says:

    Can’t see a rush to book a flight on SAA anytime soon. Assuming of course they DO intend to fly?

  • Chris Hill says:

    I wasn’t planning on flying SAA, (along with many other airlines) but now definitely not going to fly them!

  • Pierre Myburgh says:

    As far as I know SAA pilots have been locked out. Who were these pilots ???

  • Joe Kilian says:

    Remember “don’t fly sawcom days
    They are here again
    SAA is being rescued entirely for the freebies for ANC cadres at the taxpayers cost

    • Zane Erasmus Erasmus says:

      I’ve wondered about this myself. Why spend billions on a failed airline? It does not contribute a thing to tourism or allied industry.
      Do politicians really get lifelong free tickets ?? Really??

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