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South African Airways Flight 295
Accident summary
Date 28 November 1987
Type In-flight fire (cause undetermined)
Site Indian Ocean (off Mauritius)
19°10′30″S 59°38′0″E / 19.175°S 59.633333°E / -19.175; 59.633333 (SA Helderberg Debris Site1)Coordinates: 19°10′30″S 59°38′0″E / 19.175°S 59.633333°E / -19.175; 59.633333 (SA Helderberg Debris Site1)
Passengers 140
Crew 19
Injuries 0
Fatalities 159
Survivors 0
Aircraft type Boeing 747-244B Combi
Aircraft name Helderberg
Operator South African Airways
Tail number ZS-SAS
Flight origin Chiang Kai Shek International Airport, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China
1st stopover Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, Mauritius
Destination Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa (final)

South African Airways Flight 295 was a commercial flight that suffered a catastrophic in-flight fire and crashed into the Indian Ocean near Mauritius on 28 November 1987, killing everyone on board.[1] An extensive salvage operation was mounted in order to try to recover the flight data recorders, one of which was successfully recovered from a depth of 4,900 metres (16,100 ft)—the deepest successful salvage operation ever conducted.[2] The flight prompted conspiracy theories that the South African government was using the aircraft to smuggle arms. However, the actual cause of the fire was never determined.


History of the flight

Flight 295, a Boeing 747-244B Combi, registered ZS-SAS, delivered in 1980, called the Helderberg and flying in the aircraft livery and colours of South African Airways, took off from Chiang Kai Shek International Airport (now known as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport), on a flight to Johannesburg via Mauritius. Dawie Uys served as the captain of the crashed flight.[3]

The Boeing 747-244B Combi is a variant of the aircraft that permits the mixing of passengers and airfreight on the same deck according to load factors on any given route. Flight 295 had 140 passengers and six pallets of cargo on the main deck. The master waybills stated that 47,000 kilograms (100,000 lb) of baggage and cargo were loaded on the plane.[4] A Taiwanese customs official performed a surprise inspection of some of the cargo; he did not find any cargo that could be characterized as suspicious.[4]

At some point during the flight, a fire developed in the cargo section on the main deck. The crew's checklist advised the crew to initiate recirculation of the air in the cabin and to open the cabin doors to let toxic gases out of the aircraft. However, the checklist operated under the assumption that the fire had been extinguished.[4] Since the fire was probably never extinguished prior to impact, the recirculation fed smoke and toxic gases to passengers, and the opening of the door allowed in oxygen that fed the fire.[4] A crew member went into the cargo hold to try to fight the fire, but he left behind a charged fire extinguisher either because he could not access the fire, or because it was too hot to stay in the hold. Investigators later found molten metal on the fire extinguisher.[4]

The following communication was recorded with Mauritius air traffic control:[5]

Accident scene

Crash Site
Map of Africa, showing the destination of the flight and where it went down (slightly off-screen)

The Helderberg was initially unable to inform Mauritian air traffic control of its position, and when it did, it reported an incorrect location that caused the subsequent search to be concentrated too close to Mauritius. By the time the first surface debris was located 12 hours after impact, it had drifted considerably from the impact location. Oil slicks and eight bodies showing signs of extreme trauma appeared in the water.[4] All 140 passengers and 19 crew on the manifest were killed.

The United States Navy sent P-3 Orion aircraft from Diego Garcia, which were used to conduct immediate search and rescue operations in conjunction with the French Navy.[6]

The pingers in the flight data recorders were not designed for deep ocean use, and could therefore also not be used to locate the wreckage.

Rennie Van Zyl, the head South African investigator, examined three wristwatches from the baggage recovered from the surface; two of the watches were still running according to Taiwan time. Van Zyl found the approximate time of impact from the stopped watch. The aircraft crashed around three minutes after the last communication with air traffic control.[4] Immediately after the crash, the press and public opinion suspected that terrorism brought down the Helderberg.South African Airways was perceived as representing the South African apartheid government as the airline was government-owned, and airline offices around the world had been vandalized.[4] Experts searched for indicators of an explosion on the initial pieces of wreckage discovered, such as surface pitting, impact cavities and spatter cavities caused by white hot fragments from explosive devices that strike and melt metal alloys found in aircraft structures. Experts found none of this evidence.[4] The investigators drew blood samples from bodies and found that the bodies had soot in their tracheae.[4]

The South African Navy sent the SAS Tafelberg and the SAS Jim Fouche to assist in the recovery of debris and remains.[7] The ocean tugs John Ross and Wolraad Woltemade also attended the scene, along with the Department of Environment Affairs vessels RS Africana and RS Sonne[8]

The South Africans searched unsuccessfully with sonar for the wreckage for two months before abandoning the search on 8 January 1988 when the pingers were known to have stopped transmitting.[8] Steadfast Oceaneering, a specialist deep ocean recovery company in the USA, was therefore contracted to find the site and recover the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.[9] The search area is described as being comparable in size to that of the Titanic, with the water at 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) being considerably deeper. However the wreckage was found within two days of the sonar search of the area commencing.[10]

Three debris fields were found: 19°10′30″S 59°38′0″E / 19.175°S 59.633333°E / -19.175; 59.633333 (SA Helderberg Debris Site1), 19°9′53″S 59°38′32″E / 19.16472°S 59.64222°E / -19.16472; 59.64222 (SA Helderberg Debris Site2) and 19°9′15″S 59°37′25″E / 19.15417°S 59.62361°E / -19.15417; 59.62361 (SA Helderberg Debris Site3). These locations are 1.5, 2.3 and 2.5 km apart, which suggested that the fuselage broke up before impact.[citation needed] The cockpit voice recorder was eventually salvaged successfully from record depth of 4,900 metres (16,100 ft), but the flight data recorder was never found.[citation needed]

The cockpit voice recorder of SA-295 shown upon its arrival in South Africa from Mauritius

Van Zyl took the voice recorder to the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, DC, to show his goodwill and to ensure neutral observers.[4] Van Zyl believes that if he kept the CVR in South Africa he could have been accused of covering up the truth.[4] At the NTSB, Van Zyl felt frustration that the degraded CVR, which had been in the deep ocean for a year, did not initially yield any useful information. At the 25 minute mark Van Zyl felt very frustrated.[4] Around 28 minutes into the recording the CVR indicated that the fire alarm sounded. Fourteen seconds after the fire alarm, the circuit breakers began to pop. Investigators believe that around 80 circuit breakers failed. The CVR cable failed 81 seconds after the alarm. The recording revealed the extent of the fire.[4]

Van Zyl discovered that the front-right pallet was the "seat" of the fire. The manifest said that pallet mostly comprised computers in polystyrene packaging. The investigators said that the localized fire likely came in contact with the packaging and produced gases that accumulated near the ceiling. They also said that gases ignited into a flash fire that affected the entire cargo hold. The cargo fire of Flight 295 did not burn lower than one meter above the cargo floor. The walls and ceiling of the cargo hold received severe fire damage. Van Zyl ended his investigation without discovering why the fire started.[4]

The crash was the first fire incident on the 747 Combi and one of few fires on widebody aircraft. Fred Bereswill, the investigator from Boeing, characterized the Flight 295 fire as significant for this reason.[4]

Margo commission

An official commission of inquiry was chaired by Judge Cecil Margo.[11] The official report determined that while the Helderberg was over the Indian Ocean, a fire had occurred in the main deck cargo hold, originating in the front right-hand cargo pallet. This led to the loss of the airliner. The reason for the loss was not specified, but two possibilities were detailed in the official report: Firstly, that the crew became incapacitated due to smoke penetration into the cockpit. Secondly, that the fire weakened the structure and the tail separated leading to impact with the ocean.[citation needed]

The manufacturer is quoted in the report as having "contested" any scenario that involved a break-up of the aircraft and thus the commission did no more than mention the two possible scenarios in its final report as incidental to the primary cause of the accident.[citation needed]

The commission determined that the primary cause of the loss was because fire detection and suppression facilities in class B cargo bays (the type used aboard the 747-200 Combi) were inadequate. The accident alerted aviation authorities worldwide to the fact that the regulations regarding class B bays had lagged far behind the growth in capacity of such cargo bays. The exact source of ignition was never determined, but sufficient evidence was found to confirm that the fire had burned for some time and that it might have caused structural damage.[citation needed]

The cenotaph of the South African Airways 295 accident, located near Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. The cenotaph reads South African Airways Air Disaster Cenotaph (南非航空公司空難紀念碑, Hanyu Pinyin: Nánfēi Hángkōng Gōngsī Kōngnàn Jìnìanbēi, literally South African Airways Air Crash Memorial Stone)

Reopening the inquiry

In January 1992, the journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society reported that the inquiry into the inflight fire that destroyed SAA Flight 295 might be reopened because the airline had confirmed that its passenger jets had carried cargo for Armscor, a South African arms agency. The RAeS journal, Aerospace, asserted: "It is known that the crew and passengers were overcome by a maindeck cargo fire, and the ignition of missile rocket fuel is one cause now under suspicion."[12] However, no action was taken to reopen the inquiry, and this might have spawned a number of conspiracy theories concerning the nature of the cargo that caused the fire as well as doubts about the outcome of the initial inquiry.[13] Examples of such theories include:

  • The SADF was smuggling red mercury on the flight for its atomic bomb project; and,
  • Reports from the Wouter Basson investigation suggested that a weigh receipt showing that 300 grams of a highly volatile, carbon-based chemical substance had been placed onboard the ill-fated Helderberg. WorldNetDaily of 5 July 2000 postulated that such a substance may well have caused the fire, which then led to the crash.[14]

The television show Carte Blanche dedicated an investigation into a number of these allegations.[15]

A South African government chemist examined a microscopic particle on the nylon netting next to the front-right pallet on Flight 295. The chemist found that the airflow patterns on the iron suggested that it traveled at a high velocity while in a molten state; therefore the fire on Flight 295 may have not been a flash fire triggered by packaging.[citation needed] Fred Bereswill, the investigator from Boeing, said that this would suggest that the source of the fire would have had properties like a sparkler, with the source including its own oxidizing agent. A British fire and explosion analyst examined the exterior skin of the aircraft which had been located above the pallet; the analyst found that the skin became as hot as 300 degrees Celsius. Bereswill said that it would be difficult for a fire to burn through the skin of an aircraft in-flight because of the cool airflow outside of the aircraft.[4]

Dr. David Klatzow, a forensic consultant, said that the fire likely involved substances that would not normally be carried on a passenger aircraft and that the fire was not likely a wood, cardboard, or plastic fire.[4]

Members of the South African public believed that the South African government placed military weapons on its passenger aircraft. South Africa was fighting a war with Angola and was under an arms embargo at the time; the South African government therefore had to buy arms clandestinely. The public believed a conspiracy theory put forward that stated that South Africa used its passenger aircraft to smuggle arms. Klatzow claimed that a rocket system placed in the cargo hold started the fire, and that such a rocket would be unstable and could self-ignite due to vibration or movement.[4]

Post-apartheid investigation

In 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the post-apartheid South African Government, investigated apartheid era incidents. In particular, this incident was investigated to determine if there was any truth behind the conspiracy theories that the Margo Commission had covered up or missed any evidence that might implicate the previous government.[13]

In 1998, the commission concluded that nothing listed in the cargo manifest could have caused the fire. Debora Patta, an investigative journalist, said that the commission believed that "something untoward" occurred.[4] The commission's final report asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate the fire; the office never made any further investigations. Klatzow said that the commission "exposed the improbabilities" of the 1980s South African Government investigation position.[4] Van Zyl said that the cause could never be definitively determined unless a responsible individual would say so and present proof that he was not creating a hoax. Patta said that the likely reason why the Attorney General's Office did not continue the investigation is that doing so would be too costly.[4]

Combi design

Barry Strauch of the NTSB visited Boeing's headquarters to inquire about the Combi's design. Boeing's fire test in the Combi models did not accurately match the conditions of the Helderberg's cargo hold; in accordance with federal U.S. rules, the Boeing test involved setting a bale of tobacco leaves ablaze. The fire stayed within the cargo hold. The air in the passenger cabin was designed to have a higher pressure than cargo area hold, so if a crew member opened the door to the cargo hold, the air from the passenger cabin would flow into the cargo hold, stopping any smoke or gases from exiting through the door.[4]

Investigators created a new test involving a cargo hold with conditions similar to the conditions of Flight 295; the plastic covers and extra pallets provided fuel for the fire, which would spread quickly before generating enough smoke to activate smoke alarms. The hotter flame achieved in the new test heated the air in the cargo hold. This heated air was more highly pressured, which overcame the pressure differential between the cargo hold and the passenger cabin. When the door between the passenger and cargo holds was open, smoke and gases flowed into the passenger cabin.[4]

The test proved to the investigators that the design of the Boeing 747 Combi did not provide enough protection to the passengers. After the accident South African Airways discontinued use of the Combi. The Federal Aviation Administration created new standards for the use of the Combi. Complying with these new standards would have required substantial weight increases, which made the 747 Combi economically non-viable.[4]



Nationality Passengers Crew Total
 Australia 2 0 2
 Denmark 1 0 1
 West Germany 1 0 1
Hong Kong Hong Kong 2 0 2
 Japan 47 0 47
 South Korea 1 0 1
 Mauritius 2 0 2
 Netherlands 1 0 1
South Africa South Africa 52 19 71
 Republic of China 30 0 30
 United Kingdom 1 0 1
Total 140 19 159

Republic of China authorities stated that 58 passengers began flying in Taipei, including 30 R.O.C. citizens, 19 South Africans, 3 Japanese, two Mauritians, one Dane, one Dutch, one British, and one West German. The other passengers transferred from other flights arriving in Taipei, and as such their nationalities were not known to R.O.C. authorities.[17]

At least two passengers died of smoke inhalation.[4]


Notable passengers

  • Kazuharu Sonoda, A professional wrestler also known as Haru Sonoda (Magic Dragon), and his bride, Mayumi Sonoda (薗田 真弓 Sonoda Mayumi?), boarded Flight 295.[18]


Mayday (also known as Air Emergency and Air Crash Investigation) aired an episode titled "Fanning the Flames" (outside of Canada it aired as "Cargo Conspiracy" and "Mystery Fire") which documents the crash.

See also


  1. ^ Ronnie Watt (1990). "Helderberg Death Flight SA 295". Southern. Retrieved 2009-02-10. 
  2. ^ "No sign of Air France flight recorders as search ends". CNN. 2009-08-20. Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  3. ^ "SAA 'murdered people aboard Helderberg'." IOL.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z "Fanning the Flames." ("Cargo Conspiracy" and "Mystery Fire") Mayday.
  5. ^ Pat Hopkins, Bridget Hilton-Barber (2005). Worst Journeys. Zebra. ISBN 1770071016. Retrieved 2008-12-30. 
  6. ^ Nadine Dreyer (2006). A Century of Sundays. Zebra. p. 261. ISBN 1770071067.,M1. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  7. ^ Andre Wessels (20 April 2007) (PDF). The South African Navy During The Years of Conflict In Southern Africa, 1966-1989. Sabinet Online Ltd. Retrieved 2008-05-12. 
  8. ^ a b A.G. Mueller (1988) Report About the Search for the Wreck of the B74 M of South African Airways, Lost Over the Indian Ocean on November 28, 1987, Flight SA295, Taipei-Mauritius . (Report). Retrieved on 2010-03-16.
  9. ^ Michael K. Kutzleb (1988). "The Search for South African Airways Flight 295". Oceans '88 Proceedings: A Partnership of Marine Interests : Conference (IEEE) 4. 
  10. ^ Johan Strümpfer (2006-10-16). "Deep Ocean Search Planning: A Case Study of problem Solving". 
  11. ^ "Selective Summary of evidence given at the inquiry on the disaster involving the Helderberg (Flight SA 295 on 28 November 1987)". South African Government. 2000-08-18. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  12. ^ Aerospace. Royal Aeronautical Society. January 1992. 
  13. ^ a b Department of Transport (11 October 2002). "There is no new evidence to justify a re-opening of the Enquiry into the Helderberg Disaster of 28 November 1987, says Minister of Transport, Dullah Omar". Press release. 
  14. ^ The secrets of Project Coast
  15. ^ "Helderberg Conspiracy". Carte Blanche. 2000-06-04.
  16. ^ "Jet debris found in Indian Ocean." Houston Chronicle.
  17. ^ "Plane carrying 155 crashes in Indian Ocean." Houston Chronicle.
  18. ^ "’87読者が選んだ10大ニュース." Yomiuri Shimbun. Retrieved on November 26, 2008. "日本人乗客のうち三十八人は、南アフリカ・ケープタウンを基地にトロール漁業をしている日本水産の漁船員で、交代のための空の旅。わが国の遠洋漁業の現況を改めて浮き彫りにした事故だった。  このほか事故機には、二か月前に結婚したばかりの全日本プロレスレスラー・薗田一治さん(31)、真弓さん(30)夫妻や日本鰹鮪漁協連合会役員、新日鉄社員らも乗っていた。."(Japanese)

External links


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