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Breakthrough in 1967 aviation disaster probe

Publish date: 12 February 2024
Issue Number: 1063
Diary: IBA Legalbrief Africa
Category: South Africa

In October 2021, The Herald received a parcel addressed to aviation expert Wouter Botes which contained an account of the communications between the captain of the doomed SAA flight 406 and the airport control towers in Gqeberha and East London on 13 March 1967. Known as the Rietbok, the aircraft, carrying 20 passengers and five crew between the cities, crashed into the ocean off Kayser’s Beach. The Sunday Times reports that Botes, an aircraft crash investigator, commercial pilot and plane-wreck hunter, had already undertaken extensive investigations into the fate of the Rietbok. Until the mystery parcel arrived, he lacked vital information, but he now believes he has the final pieces of the puzzle. Botes believes the official report – by a commission headed by retired judge Cecil Margo, which was set up immediately after the disaster – lacked a number of important details and that some of its conclusions were incorrect. The official report, compiled with the help of aviation experts, mathematicians who analysed angles and speeds, witnesses and others, was comprehensive but relied on technology now more than 50-years-old.

The commission’s conclusion was that the aircraft was structurally sound and air-worthy, but the pilot Gordon Lipawsky in all probability suffered a heart attack or stroke and collapsed over the control panel, obstructing the first officer’s access to the controls. The Sunday Times reports that the inquiry said it could not rule out ‘spatial disorientation’ but this was unlikely. Botes, on the other hand, says information about a simple but vital aspect of the landing procedure – the altimeter reading – was overlooked. He believes this is what brought the plane down. No instruction was given to the cockpit crew from the East London control tower and neither did the captain adjust the altimeter to the correct local reading. He therefore had no idea at what height he was at the time of the crash. This throws a new light on the disaster, and Botes thinks his findings might help some of the surviving relatives of the dead get closure. Botes is now fundraising to put together a team to salvage parts of the wreckage. He says it will be a mammoth task given the capricious nature of the tides in the crash area, but he hopes it can happen within the next three months.

Full Sunday Times report

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