Condolences have begun pouring in for the 11 SA Air Force men who died in a military plane crash at Giant’s Castle in KwaZulu-Natal’s Drakensberg range on Wednesday.
Online aviation forums were swamped by messages of sympathy and the SANDF and political parties also paid tribute to the fallen airmen.
The SANDF said on Thursday that a board of inquiry had been established to investigate the circumstances of the crash.
In the presence of the chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke, and the chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Zimpande Msimang, forensic experts and a state pathologist retrieved the bodies of six crew members and five passengers from the Dakota on Thursday morning.
The crew members have been identified as: Major K Misrole, Captain ZM Smith, Sergeant BK Baloyi, Sergeant E Boes, Sergeant JM Mamabolo and Corporal L Mofokeng. The passengers have been identified as: Sergeant L Sobantu, Corporal NW Khomo, Corporal A Matlaila, Corporal MJ Mthombeni and Lance Corporal NK Aphane.
“I was up there with General Shoke and Lieutenant-General Msimang when the bodies were being taken out and it was very painful,” said SANDF spokesman, Siphiwe Dlamini.
“The process of preparing the bodies has begun. The families have been informed and the bodies were taken to a mortuary in Ladysmith ,” he said.
“Our sincere condolences go out to the families of the deceased.”
Initial reports suggested that the crew were part of Nelson Mandela’s medical team, but the SANDF has since denied this.
The plane, a C-47TP aircraft attached to 35 Squadron, based in Cape Town, left Air Force Base Waterkloof, Pretoria, at about 7.45am on Wednesday en route to Mthatha Airport.
The SANDF would not reveal why the crew and passengers were travelling to Mthatha.
According to the SANDF, at about 9.45am air traffic control lost contact with the crew. When the plane did not arrive at its destination as expected, a search and rescue mission was launched. The mission was, however, hampered by severe weather.
The Dakota was eventually located on Thursday morning.
According to a member of the KZN Mountain Rescue Club who had been called in to help with the search, the plane had crashed on top of a very high mountain on Giant’s Castle. “It is about an eight-hour hike from the Giant’s Castle base. It is very inhospitable terrain,” he said.
Military analyst Helmoed Romer-Heitman said the Dakota aircraft were well looked after by the military.
“It just looks like the guys ran into a combination of bad luck and bad weather,” he said.
“Those planes are in pretty good nick and are well maintained. However, because they are old they are not pressurised inside and there is no oxygen. So if you run into bad weather there is no way of flying over it.”
The chairman of the local SAAF Association said on Thursday night that the air force community and ex-members were in shock at the tragedy.
“They are shocked because of the loss of colleagues and because Dakotas are so reliable. I am gobsmacked,” said Colonel Steve Bekker, the former Officer Commanding Durban Air Force Base.
The Dakotas might be old, dating from World War II, but they were very reliable, very strong and fitted with modern technology, he said.
Bekker was the one-time commander of 44 Squadron in Pretoria and was the commander at the time when the Dakotas were withdrawn from the city in 1997.
“They were initially at Pretoria and Cape Town and are now only at 35 Squadron, the maritime patrol squadron in Cape Town. Pretoria then got the Spanish Casa planes,” he explained.
In the late 1980s or early 1990s the Dakotas, which had piston engines, were converted to turbine propeller engines, which are “extremely reliable”, said Bekker, who flew Dakotas on and off for 20 years.
The planes are “fitted with good instruments, excellent, world-class engines and navigational aids”, he said.
“Dakotas are really incredibly strong and have an outstanding safety record.”
They are limited to flying at 12 000ft above sea level because of oxygen shortage at that altitude.
“The plane can fly higher than that, but is limited because it is not pressurised,” Bekker said. “There is weather radar fitted on board to enable the commander to assess the conditions.”
If icing occurs, it can make a plane heavier and difficult to fly, but Dakotas are fitted with de-icing mechanisms to prevent the wings and the propellers icing up.
Bekker said he never felt unsafe in Dakotas and they never let him down.
“People are speculating about what caused the accident and I heard the minister of defence say that weather could have played a part. However, people should not speculate as all sorts of things could have happened,” he said. “One does not know.”
He said he saw a photograph of the Dakota in question on TV with the Silver Falcons, but pointed out that the plane would only have flown in formation with the Silver Falcons and would not have been involved in aerobatics.