It is 50 years ago since South African Airways Flight SA 228 left what was then Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg, on a scheduled flight to London, via Windhoek. Sadly, Boeing 707 ZS-EUW Pretoria crashed 57 seconds after takeoff from Runway 08 at Windhoek Airport on Saturday 20 April 1968.
Only five passengers out of a total of 116 and 12 crew members survived the accident. Before its last flight, the newly delivered aircraft flew regularly after its arrival in South Africa, including training and conversion flights. It was only 57 days old at the time of the accident, and had logged just 238 hours.
My father, FEO PA Minnaar, served in the SAAF during World War 2, and then joined SAA, working first as a ground engineer and then as a flight engineer, until his untimely death on that fateful flight. He had a passion for aircraft, despite having survived previous crashes. His first crash was aboard a SAAF bomber in the Libyan Desert. The crew escaped unhurt and survived a three-day trek back to their lines. He had flown various aircraft types, including Douglas DC-4 Skymasters, Lockheed L-749A Constellations, DH-106 Comets leased from BOAC, Douglas DC-7Bs and finally A and B models of the Boeing 707.
The Pretoria was the first C model of the 707 acquired by SAA. A second C model, sister aircraft ZS-EUX, the ‘Port Elizabeth’, delivered in May 1968, was used in flight tests to simulate the flight of the Pretoria as part of the accident investigation.
Compared to the Douglas DC-7B, which it replaced on international routes, the first Boeing 707 was impressive with its four jet engines in pods on swept back wings and its double bogey undercarriage bearing its heavier gross weight. I still remember that crisp Highveld morning in July 1960 when South African Airways’ first Boeing 707-344A, ZS-CKC Johannesburg, arrived in South Africa in the new colour scheme with the orange tail, doing a low level fly past down Runway 21 in front of the excited crowd. The flight distance of 18,418 km from Seattle to Johannesburg was flown in 21 hours 35 minutes. This was the first jet aircraft to enter service since the Comets had been withdrawn from service six years earlier, in 1954.
A number of records were established by these early 707 A models: ZS-CKD Cape Town set a record for a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, doing it in 1 hour 15 minutes 10 seconds in September 1960; and ZS-CKE Durban became the first passenger aircraft to fly non-stop from Europe to South Africa, flying from Zurich to Johannesburg in 10 hours 45 minutes in February 1961.
The Pretoria’s flight schedule as Springbok 228 was to make four stops on its route from Johannesburg to London Heathrow. It departed Jan Smuts at 18h05 local time on 20 April 1968. Flying time to Windhoek was 1 hour 45 minutes, with further routing scheduled for Luanda, Las Palmas, Frankfurt and London.
The Accident Board report describes the Pretoria’s last departure from Windhoek:
“It was cleared by the tower for Runway 08, left turn out, and unrestricted climb to Flight Level 350. The aircraft took off with all landing lights on. The landing gear was retracted immediately after lift-off and it is reported that the flaps were fully retracted thereafter, but the precise height at which ‘flaps-up’ was selected could not be determined.
“The prescribed procedure in SAA on this model was flap retraction at an altitude of 700 feet, but it is possible that this was done at 400 feet because of confusion with the procedure in the A model. Even if this were so, if the speed was correct, the aircraft should have been able to continue to climb away.
“After takeoff, the aircraft climbed to about 650 feet before losing height. It then flew into the ground 57 seconds after takeoff, 5,327 metres from the eastern extremity of Runway 08 at a speed of 271 knots (312 mph). At the point of initial impact, each of the four engine pods and the bottom of the hull gouged deep trenches in the ground and the aircraft then disintegrated.
“Local weather conditions were fine, without cloud or wind. The night was particularly dark, there was no moon and the horizon was indistinct. The area was sparsely populated so there were no lights, masts or other visual references which could have alerted the crew to the descent of the aircraft.”
The wreckage of the aircraft and its contents were scattered over an area 1,400 metres long and 200 metres wide. Fire broke out at two points, which the Board assumed to occur when each of the main planes came to rest, with a flash back of fire along the trail of fuel. The nose section broke off and the fuselage behind dug into the ground, ejecting passengers and other items along the general line of travel. Most of the bodies were flung up to 150 metres beyond the point where the tail section of the fuselage eventually came to rest. Nine passengers survived initially but three died shortly after, and another, some days later. All the survivors were seated in the nose section which had separated and decelerated less rapidly than the rest of the aircraft.
The Board of Inquiry appointed by the Minister of Transport to investigate the accident, headed by Justice Cecil Margo, concluded that the pilots were to blame for the accident. British aviation journal, Flight International, was, however, critical that the pilot had to do his second takeoff at night after only one hour of training on a new aircraft, especially as there were many different characteristics at high weight. The SAA Pilots Association maintained that although the pilots had been blamed for the accident, they had not been proved the effective cause of it.
The Board attributed the cause of the accident to the human factor and not any defect in the aircraft or its engines or flight instruments. They stated that the accident was a result of premature flap retraction, combined with a reduction of engine power, adjustment of stabiliser trim to maintain a pitch attitude of descent instead of climb, and a lack of co-pilot monitoring to detect this situation. Factors probably contributing to the accident were listed as flight into total darkness, spatial disorientation, pre-occupation with takeoff checks, and changed instrument layout in a new aircraft very different from existing models in service.
The C model was an advanced model of the Boeing 707 and this may somewhat paradoxically have been a contributing factor to the accident. This aspect was highlighted by John L’ange in his ‘Memoirs from my Logbook’ series (World Airnews of July 2005) where he wrote: “Although outwardly similar at first glance to earlier versions, they were, in fact, vastly different machines, equipped as they were with the latest Pratt & Whitney JT3D -7 turbofan engines, hugely enhancing performance.” He adds, “Such were the differences in this new aircraft that before flying on the routes, crews were required to undergo conversion training.” Significant other changes listed in his article were: “State of the art avionics, including a yaw damper, new pressurisation system, fully integrated flight instrument panel and different flying characteristics, including a marked rearward shift in the centre of pressure when the flaps were retracted.”
The shock of the news of the accident and the bleakness of the days that followed cannot ever be adequately described in words. It was a national tragedy, a severe shock for South African Airways and an almost unbearable loss for the victims’ relatives and friends. Journalist James Byrom wrote in his 1993 book ‘Fields of Air’: “Throughout the night we waited for reports, updates, passenger lists, and throughout the night we fielded calls from anxious relatives of passengers on board that Boeing. All we could tell them was that there were survivors, but we did not know who they were. No names had been released. It was a slender line of hope to which they could cling in those grim, dark hours. With dawn came the lists. Oh, Dear God, the sun rose blood red that Sunday morning.”
SAA Chief Executive AM Conradie expressed the effect on the national airline when he wrote in South African Airways News of April 1968: “The agony and suffering of the dear ones left behind have been aggravated by the difficult circumstances surrounding the identification of victims, and I know only too well that no amount of statistical data concerning the safety of air travel in general, or our previous record in particular, can adequately assuage the grief of those who mourn the untimely passing of relatives or friends. It is ironical to reflect that this fine record – one of which we are immensely proud and for which we are deeply thankful – has perhaps been responsible for a widely held belief among the public at large that a major air disaster was in our case a remote possibility. The stark reality of April 20 has given cause for deep reflection and I know it has sent a wave of sorrow through our organisation.”
Healing and closure come in time, but a scar remains etched in the minds of all those who have lost loved ones in this and similar accidents. Sudden and unexpected death reminds us of our vulnerability and impermanence. We feel the sentiments expressed by author H Rider Haggard who said, “Life is like a little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.”
As the sun sets 50 years later, we remember the casualties of the Pretoria, and indeed all those who have lost loved ones in air accidents over the years. They share the common memory of that awful shock and grief experienced after these isolated catastrophic events in what is still regarded as the safest mode of transport in the modern era.