Durban - It was SAA pilot Captain Mark Delport’s years of experience and expert training that got flight SA286 and its 165 passengers through the terrifying ordeal in the skies above Kuala Lumpur this week.
Flight SA286 from Joburg to Hong Kong was just over two hours from its destination when the Airbus A340-300 hit severe turbulence.
The massive jolts flung the passengers into the air and around the cabin. At the time, many of the passengers had been asleep and were woken by the violent shaking of the cabin and the screams of their fellow travellers.
The nightmare lasted seconds, but left 17 passengers and three crew members injured.
But it could have been a lot worse.
“I have been flying 38 years and 27 of those years with the airline and this was the worst turbulence I had ever experienced. You get light, moderate and severe turbulence, this was probably the severest turbulence,” said Delport, a Limpopo father of two.
The veteran pilot was accompanied on the flight deck by senior first officer Hendrick Badenhorst and third pilot Wayne Stynder.
Delport said that the type of turbulence encountered was clear air turbulence, which cannot be detected on radar.
“It’s the most unpredictable type of turbulence… other types of turbulence are associated with storm clouds and associated with moisture which you can see on the radar.”
Delport said that the severity of the turbulence they had encountered was rare and caused snappy instantaneous up and down drafts.
These instantaneous down drafts caused the aircraft to lose a few metres and throw passengers in the air.
“There was no warning, just a slight rumble… then the speed on the flight deck started to go haywire.
“The radar screens were clear then this thing walloped us,” Delport recalled of the moment the turbulence was encountered.
It was then that the experience and training of the flight crew was made to count, said Delport who assists in the further training of some of SAA’s more senior pilots.
“The training was superb because it just kicked in… in that situation you go into a kind of overdrive gear… you just know what to do in that situation,” said Delport who has 20 000 flying hours.
He said the flight deck was unaware of the extent of the chaos in the cabin area of the aircraft but communicated with the crew throughout. Delport praised his crew for their professionalism.
“The crew was phenomenal.”
Once everything was under control Delport said a risk and damage assessment was done and he spoke to the injured, including three members of the cabin crew.
“There’s three choices you have in such a situation. The first is to go back to your point of departure, but that was out of the question because we were 10 hours away. The second choice is to divert to an alternative airport and the third is to continue to your destination, which is the desired choice.”
Delport opted to go to Hong Kong.
“We were confronted with a situation where there were people lying all over and stuff strewn all over the place. We concluded that there was nothing life threatening… but it takes a while to make that decision.”
In the absence of any doctors on the flight, a paramedic and a nurse among the passengers were asked to assist Delport assess the extent of the injuries on board.
“If someone had a heart attack I would’ve diverted to the nearest suitable airport,” said Delport, who declared an emergency and notified authorities at Hong Kong’s airport of the situation on board. The airspace was cleared and SA286 was given permission to land.
Among the more seriously injured was a Korean passenger who had a neck injury.
“We had a tricky situation because we had a passenger lying flat on the floor and you have to be seated for landing so I asked the paramedic to remain with him.”
Delport said on landing at Hong Kong, a large contingent of support crew and at least 15 to 20 ambulances were waiting.
While Delport was relieved there weren’t any fatalities or critical injuries, he said that at no point was the aircraft, which sustained damage inside the cabin, at serious risk. The plane’s cabin damage will have to be repaired before taking to the air again.
“When you’re flying many years, you learn to read the situation… the training at SAA is phenomenal… it takes 14 years to become a captain which is an enormous amount of experience in any field. The airplane handled it really well. The airframe is built to handle continuous strain. But I wouldn’t want to repeat it.”
Delport said the incident highlighted the importance of passengers following safety protocols in the air.
“One thing’s for sure, we have 165 passengers who will make sure they wear their seatbelts the next time around.”
Former airline pilot Paul Green said that people shouldn’t be put off flying by the incident as severe turbulence is “an infrequent thing”.
Green praised Delport and his crew for their performance in difficult conditions.
“He did really well to handle the aircraft and prevent further injuries.”
Green said that he experienced clear air turbulence a few years ago while flying over Joburg.
“It doesn’t show up on radar. We had clear blue skies and then we were having our teeth shaken out,” he said.
“The first thing you do is come back on power to reduce the strain on the airframe,” said Green who has 20 years’ airline experience.
“But people shouldn’t panic. I’d hate for the general public to be scared. It doesn’t happen often. The most important thing is you must always keep your seatbelt on.”
Another pilot with a leading airline who wished to remain anonymous said Delport had done exceptionally well to protect his passengers and crew.
The crew of SA286 were given a hero’s welcome on Friday by SAA at the airline’s headquarters at Airways Park, where staff, family and friends celebrated their return.
The airline praised Delport and his crew for their efforts.
“SAA wishes to thank the crew for the professional way the incident was handled, a factor which was appreciated and expressed by the passengers on board the aircraft,” said airline spokesman Tlali Tlali.
The Civil Aviation Authority is investigating the incident. - Sunday Tribune