Pilots expressed fears about skies over Africa Evidence of collision of German, U.S. planes mounts

September 17, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The suspected midair collision of U.S. and German military planes off the southwestern coast of Africa coincided with heightened warnings from international pilots of the dangers of flying in Africa's unfriendly skies.

The pilots of one airline alone reported 77 near misses last year.

A spokesman for the search-and-rescue operation in Windhoek, Namibia, said wreckage from a U.S. C-141 Starlifter with a crew ** of nine was found yesterday in the same area as remains of a German air force Tupolev TU-154 with 24 aboard. This indicated that the planes had collided about 100 miles out to sea in an area beyond local radar control.

Two other indicators of a collision surfaced yesterday -- a report from a Namibian fishing vessel of a fire on the sea's surface Saturday, and a heat flashrecorded by a U.S. satellite off the African coast about the same time the planes disappeared.

"It looks like it [a collision] is established," said the Windhoek official.

The U.S. plane, on its way from Namibia to Ascension Island, had filed its flight plan before takeoff and local air traffic controllers knew its location. But the Windhoek controllers had no knowledge of the flight of the German plane, which took off from its last refueling stop at Niamey, Niger, en route to Cape Town, South Africa, with a scheduled refueling stop in Windhoek.

They were not informed of its departure, its progress, its plan to refuel at Windhoek, or its destination, either by the Germans or controllers with whom it should have logged in along its route.

"From the German aircraft, nothing of that sort ever existed," said the search-and-rescue official, who asked not to be named. He said he could not explain why the German plane's flight plan had not been reported.

Graham Rochard, manager of flight safety for South African Airlines, said communication failures were a major problem in Africa. Either the Germans failed to submit their flight plan or the controllers to whom it was submitted failed to pass it on, possibly through lack of training or lack of equipment.

So dangerous have Africa's skies become that SAA, whose pilots reported the 77 near-miss incidents last year, organized a forum of two dozen major commer- cial operators flying over Africa. Members include British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM and Virgin Air.

Africa, with its game parks and tropical beaches, is a popular destination for Europeans, with the London-Johannesburg route one of the most heavily traveled in the world.

The airlines, which carry millions of passengers a year to and from Africa, will meet in Rome next month to push for equipment and communications improvements in the continent. If they are not made, SAA's pilots are threatening to fly around most of the continent rather than across it, increasing flight times and fuel costs.

"It would be an option that would be seriously considered if the situation does not improve," said Cathy Bill, spokeswoman for the Airline Pilots Association of South Africa. Last year, the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations declared a large part of Africa "critically deficient" because of inadequate air-to-ground and ground-to-ground communications, inadequate radar coverage and lack of air traffic controller training and proficiency.

Namibia was not among the countries listed. Countries reported to have problems include Angola, Chad, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Mozambique, Nigeria, and Niger, where the German plane last refueled. All of those countries are impoverished, in states of upheaval, or both.

The International Airline Transport Association, oversight body for the major airlines, is to present African delegates at its meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, next week with recommendations on how to make the skies over the continent safer. One of these is wider adoption of a broadcasting procedure, used only in Africa, requiring high-flying aircraft to regularly report their positions to each other on a special radio frequency.

The system has been proven successful in use by major `D operators. "It has been adequate over Africa up to now," said Bill, the pilots' spokeswoman. "But it's certainly not the way it ought to be. That information should be provided to aircraft from the ground. But because [ground communication] can't be counted on, pilots use the broadcast system as a secondary measure."

The two military planes that collided were on "a flight information route," meaning that the pilots are required to file their flight plans and report their positions as they approach checkpoints.

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