Helicopter crash and cutting corners: SAA Technical CEO’s dodgy past
Johannesburg - The new chief executive of South African Airways Technical (Saat) was allegedly responsible for a helicopter crash that killed 10 people in Indonesia in 2011 after he ignored international aviation safety advice, Sunday Independent can reveal today.
He was employed by PT Nusa Halmahera Minerals, a joint venture between Newcrest Mining Limited and PT Aneka Tambang, as a general manager responsible for aviation to manage the helicopters that transported miners to the Gosowong Mine on the Island of Halmahera from 2005 until he resigned after the crash on August 3, 2011.
Adam Voss had “cut corners” to save costs by changing the mining company’s minimum aircrew experience and training requirements despite repeated warnings from supervisors that the company was now flouting aviation laws.
The victims of the crash, which was blamed on bad weather, included two South Africans.
Voss allegedly failed to disclose his dodgy track record when he applied for the Saat job in June this year.
SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali on Saturday said Voss had been appointed because of his “impeccable credentials, extensive in-depth experience and an understanding of the entire airline’s operations value chain, a demonstrable track record of delivering sustainable results and leading turnaround situations, and has a strong quality, safety, commercial, and profit-orientated motivation”.
“His appointment at Saat will enhance management capacity to deliver on the turnaround plans. In addition, it is already providing stability and direction for Saat at an executive level,” he said.
Tlali added that to insinuate that Voss may have been complicit in the events that led to that helicopter accident 13 years ago is defamatory, and untrue.
“He has voluntarily provided a proper perspective to SAA on this matter.”
But Tlali could not provide us with the “proper perspective” that Voss gave SAA.
He added that they “believe there is a campaign aimed at distracting us from implementing our strategy, one intended to undermine our brand and to impugn the reputations of those associated with the company.”
But on Saturday, South African Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) spokesperson Pappie Maja confirmed that they had received a complaint against Voss regarding the accident in Indonesia.
“It is currently being considered,” he said.
According to local and Indonesian sources and mine records, including email exchanges between him and other senior managers, Voss was warned about the dangers of his unilateral decision to change PT Nusa Halmahera Minerals’ safety policies at least three times before the helicopter crash.
Aircrew requirements stipulated that “all contracts with charter companies shall require conformance with Newcrest Mining Limited minimum aircrew experience and training requirements as detailed in unless a lesser experience level has been approved in writing by Newcrest Mining Limited Aviation Consultant.
“Aircraft shall be crewed by two pilots when:
“Flights operate under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
“The aircraft is certified with passenger capacity greater than nine.
“Night flying operations are carried out.
“An audit has determined that the operations should be carried out by more than one pilot.
“The charter company shall not be permitted to provide freelance aircrew without the prior written approval of Newcrest Mining Limited.”
However, Voss introduced new safety policies which saw helicopters operating at 50% crew capacity.
In an email on September 28, 2006, Voss’ supervisor, John Dickinson, who was responsible for Newscrest aviation policy, warned him that “your operation is in breach of that policy”.
“Our corporate aviation advisers are strongly advising that we should revise our aviation operations to comply with Newcrest policy. (They) are advising that it’s unacceptable to be flying this aircraft in the manner we are and in the area we are for the length (including periods of water) of flight time (approx. 1.5 hours). I have supplied you with the advice,” Dickinson said.
In his response, Voss asked to be exempted from the aviation policy.
“Attached is an explanation from the NHM Aviation adviser that in my opinion more than adequately explains how and why we are operating with only one pilot. Tim, accordingly can I please have an exemption from the aviation policy,” Voss said.
Sunday Independent has obtained a summary of the accident report compiled by Colin Weir, a lead investigator employed by Voss’s former colleague who suspected a cover-up.
“I spent a few years before the accident warning him that the operation was unsafe and that he needed to upgrade to a two-crew operation with properly trained pilots and with the correct instrumentation on the aircraft,” said the former colleague in an email response sent through Weir.
“I wrote the original Aviation Standard for them, this Standard defined exactly what they needed. However, after they had signed it, Adam Voss decided that it was too restrictive for them and he asked me to change it. I refused to do this, so he, in conjunction with another Newcrest Safety Manager made the changes.”
That exemption would prove to be costly. On August 3, 2011, the Bell 412 helicopter operated by Nyaman Air crashed near Manado, resulting in the death of 10 people, including two Australians and six Indonesians.
The crash was blamed on bad weather such as strong winds and heavy clouds.
According to sources, Voss left the company after the accident and joined Toll in Australia as their maintenance manager based in Brisbane.
He then went on to Fiji Airlines, ending up in Jet Airways as vice-president, engineering. The airline subsequently shut down and Voss made his way to SAA.
Sources within SAA confirmed this week that Voss did not disclose the mine incident in his CV.
“He does not put on his CV working for the mine in Indonesia and being responsible for the death of 10 people in a helicopter crash. Two people in the interview have confirmed that he never declared the incident or wrote it in his CV,” said the source.
Voss’s appointment at SAA was also surrounded by controversy. According to highly placed sources in SAA, he allegedly arrived in South Africa with a bag full of CVs. After taking over, Voss allegedly started purging some managers and replacing them with his associates. He also allegedly changed how job adverts were done and the prescribed time frames for them.
“Within two months of being with the company, he has fired people in key management positions and replaced with people from outside the country.
“Adverts are run and closed within four days as opposed to the normal 14 days. He then submits the CVs of his people and also sits in their interviews,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The cash-strapped national carrier has received billions in government bailouts over the past 10 years.
This week, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced during his mid-term budget speech that SAA would be getting yet another R5billion bailout to help it repay a R14.2bn debt due in March. The airline also received a bailout of R10bn last December to pay off debt and fund operations.
SAA has incurred more than R28bn in cumulative losses over the past 13 years.
SAA’s safety record has also come under the spotlight in recent months. Last month, some of its fleet were grounded by Sacaa on suspicion of being fitted with counterfeit parts.
On October 22, Sacaa issued Saat with a prohibition order which barred aircraft under its watch from operating pending the compliance with safety standards.
Saat was also accused of using fake parts on planes after a Mango flight was forced to turn back on September 2 following technical problems. At the time, SAA blamed component failure for the problem.
The issues within SAAT have cost it one of its clients. Comair announced this week it was moving its servicing and repairs overseas, saying it would be joining forces with Lufthansa Technik. It also initiated registration of an AMO (Approved Maintenance Organisation).
Comair is headed by Glenn Orsmond, whose appointment as Mango chief executive was rescinded allegedly at the instruction of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who preferred Nico Bezuidenhout, whose highest qualification is a matric certificate.