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By Karyn Maughan, Kamini Padayachee and Luvuyo Mjekula
An Airlink plane yesterday crash-landed and veered on to a freeway - its fourth controversial incident in less than four months - but its management insists there is no "safety problem" at the airline.
As it was landing at George Airport, an Embraer 135 regional jet ZS SJX missed the runway and crashed into a fence shortly after 11am yesterday. It came to a standstill on the R102 between the airport and the N2.
None of the 30 passengers, including Springbok Sevens rugby player Deon Helberg and a baby, was injured.
Three crew members had slight injuries.
Seven passengers, including an infant, were taken to the George Medi-Clinic for observation and were later discharged.
The flight's first officer suffered a sprained ankle.
A woman who was driving on the N2 highway at the time, and who asked not to be named, said she felt like she was in a Hollywood movie when she saw the plane stop on the highway several metres from her car yesterday.
"I was driving towards George from the N2 highway and I saw the plane go straight through the airport boundary fence and land on the road in front of me.
"Luckily there was no traffic near to where it stopped and it did not hit anything. It wasn't a major disaster, but I was really shocked.
"Once I realised what had happened, I got off the road as fast as possible," the woman said.
She added that it appeared as if the plane had overshot the runway and then skidded on the road.
"Since I was driving I was not looking at the airport, but I think the pilot overshot the runway and the plane skidded because of the rainy weather and landed on the road," she said.
"It could have been a lot worse if this had happened next week because there would have been a lot more cars on the road."
She said she feared there could have been several deaths if the plane had landed on the road during a peak period.
The accident, which follows the September 24 crash at a Durban school that killed Airlink pilot Allister Freeman, yesterday prompted the Civil Aviation Authority to express concern "about the recent number of accidents/incidents involving this airline".
While CAA spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba confirmed that the organisation was currently engaged in an extraordinary audit of Airlink's "maintenance, operating procedures and pilot training", he would not be drawn on whether this inspection could result in the airline being grounded.
"We don't want to pre-judge this issue. We are receiving full co-operation from Airlink and we hope that this matter will soon be resolved," he said.
A team of investigators from the CAA's Accident and Incident Investigations Division was yesterday dispatched to the site of the accident to begin the official aircraft accident investigation.
It remains unclear when the team's report on the crash will be released.
Like Freeman - who in 2006 survived crashing a twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander charter plane carrying a family, which went through the roof of a Durban house, before he was hired by Airlink and suffered his fatal Heritage Day accident - the captain of yesterday's Airlink flight, Captain Andre Bakker, was at the helm in a similar aquaplaning accident in Zambia less than two years ago.
Airlink chief executive Rodger Freeman yesterday did not respond to questions about Bakker's safety record, after earlier revealing that the pilot had recently undergone simulator training.
"He (Bakker) dealt with the aquaplaning scenario perfectly in the simulator ... why he didn't cope today (yesterday), I don't know," Freeman said.
Freeman said Airlink was "concerned" about its recent spate of "incidents", which included an Airlink plane skidding off the runway and into the grass at Port Elizabeth Airport on November 18, but maintained that they were in no way connected.
"I don't want to say that these incidents are coincidental ... but there is no thread that links them," he said.
Freeman admitted that Airlink was concerned about the impact of the recent crashes on the public's confidence in the airline.
"The best we can do is to let our passengers know that our standard of operations is (of) a world standard and that we continue to reinforce operational safety."
Asked why a November 24 Airlink flight, carrying Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, was forced to turn back to Johannesburg after experiencing a technical fault, Freeman said this was a "precautionary turn back" and could not be regarded as an "incident".
An unnamed pilot commented on the professional pilot site Professional Pilots Rumour Network that he had just landed at George when the accident happened, adding that the runway was "definitely not wet enough for aquaplaning. Also, the ceiling was around 7 000ft with no rain, visibility was +- 8km".
Although not injured, Sevens rugby player Helberg was shaken, team manager Sebastian Prim said. He was in good spirits and glad to be reunited with his teammates. Helberg was a late replacement for the injured Marius Schoeman in a Sevens tourney in Dubai.
"He has put (the accident) behind him now and he's fine," Prim said.
"SA Rugby and the team were grateful and extremely relieved that Deon had (survived) the incident with no serious injuries. The happening was obviously very traumatic at the time, but he recovered very quickly."
George municipality law enforcement manager Daniel Beeka said law enforcement, traffic and fire department staff were dispatched to the crash scene.
"We established a joint operations centre immediately as we needed to co-ordinate operations from a central point," Beeka said. "I am satisfied in the way in which my staff handled the situation."
Airports Company SA communications manager Colin Naidoo said Acsa's main concern was saving lives and property.
"All our stakeholders responded well to the situation," Naidoo said.
He said recent emergency exercises undertaken at George Airport had contributed to a quick response time by emergency services.
"The CAA has started investigations and will issue a report in due course."
The damaged perimeter fencing was a concern. "We are anxious about the security breach and have moved dedicated security control to the area until the fence is repaired," Naidoo said.
The airport was closed for two hours and firefighters at the scene said they were worried about a possible fire hazard emanating from any fuel still in the jet.
The R404 between the airport and the N2 highway will be closed until the stricken jet is removed.
George chief traffic officer Kenny Africa advised motorists to use the N2 via George to the airport.