The Drakensberg, a mountain range notoriously dangerous for aircraft, has claimed another plane – this time reportedly with Nelson Mandela’s medical team on board.
The SANDF confirmed on Thursday morning that a Dakota military aircraft that went missing near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal had been found and survivors were being sought.
However, the SANDF would not confirm whether Mandela’s doctors were on board.
The plane is said to be the C-47TP aircraft of 35 Squadron.
Durban weather office forecaster, Wiseman Dlamini, said the weather was “very bad” in the Drakensberg on Wednesday.
There was mist and fog in the morning but that the weather worsened during the day.
Musa Mntambo of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said search teams would probably need to have a basic knowledge of the terrain of Giant’s Castle.
“The area is basically one stretch of rocky mountains; there are cliff faces and the bush there is not as thick as it is in surrounding areas.”
The wreckage was found after a massive search of the area around Giant’s Castle.
The plane, which had been missing since Wednesday, took off from Waterkloof Air Force Base, Pretoria, and was scheduled to land in Mthatha at around 10am.
It was believed to be carrying at least 11 members of Mandela’s medical team, as well as a helicopter crew which flies the same route every week.
The medical team and helicopter crew are on standby in case of emergencies involving the former president.
Aviation expert Linden Birns said on Thursday morning that there would be questions asked as to why the aircraft was flying near the top of the Drakensberg.
Champagne Castle is 11 079ft above sea level, and aircraft need to be pressurised above 12 000ft. The Dakota is not pressurised.
“Higher than 12 000ft, you need to have oxygen,” he said.
“There’s also the issue of equipment on board, whether there were collision avoidance systems and GPS and whether the crew were trained in it.
“The biggest question is why, if they knew there was inclement weather, the captain of the flight did not file a flight plan that would have avoided the Drakensberg altogether and routed the aircraft through the Free State and around Lesotho.
“Or perhaps there was catastrophic engine failure, which renders all of these issues irrelevant.”
A South African Air Force (SAAF) board of inquiry would have to look at all these issues, starting by finding the engines of the doomed aircraft and stripping them down to look for signs of engine failure.
However, he said the aircraft, which dated from World War II, had an enviable safety record as the workhorse of the air.
“The SAAF completely modified its Dakota fleet in the 1990s, replacing piston engines with turbo props and stripping out the old cockpits for modern flight decks with up-to-date avionics and reinforced and lengthened the airframes, effectively turning back the clock on the aircraft.
“The fact that they aren’t pressurised and so can’t fly higher than 12 000ft means they are subject to far less stress [in the airframe] than modern aircraft and that’s why they’re still flying today.”
A highly experienced former SAAF pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Drakensberg was a graveyard for aircraft, both military and civilian.
“Look at the records, we’ve lost plenty of aircraft there over the years,” he said.
“The combination of moist air and updrafts and downdrafts make mountains naturally hazardous environments to fly in and the Drakensberg has eaten plenty of aircraft.”
He said it was difficult to comment without knowing the full facts of the crash.
SANDF spokesman, Siphiwe Dlamini, said the wreckage was located at about 7am today.
“I can confirm that early this morning our team in the area did identify and found the wreckage of the Dakota that went missing yesterday, and we are busy now looking for any survivors,” Dlamini said.
Neither Dlamini nor the Nelson Mandela Foundation spokesman, Sello Hatang, could confirm that the medical team was on board. Dlamini could not confirm the number of people on the plane.