LONDON – A report from the Congo this week twelve years ago marked perhaps one of the most unusual aircraft accidents I have reviewed. A twin-engine Let L-410 Turbolet aircraft operating on a domestic flight on 25 August 2010, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stalled and crashed on an otherwise normal approach to a regional airport.
Twenty occupants of the flight died in the ensuing crash, with only one survivor. The root cause of the accident was finally reported as an escaped crocodile which had been smuggled aboard by one of the passengers.
According to the final finding, “Loss of control on final approach was due to the movement of several passengers in the cabin, panicked by the presence of a crocodile.”
And just like the old saying “Crying crocodile tears”, I remain dubious to this day as to whether this was in fact the truth of it. Let’s take a look at the details.
A Filair (FIL) twin-turboprop Let L-410UVP-E20C aircraft registered 9Q-CCN was operating on a regular domestic passenger flight in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The scheduled flight operated into a number of regional aerodromes: Kinshasa to Kiri, Bokoro, Semendwa, Bandundu and then returning to Kinshasa.
The accident occurred on the leg between Semendwa Airport (FZBS) and Bandundu Airport (FDU/FZBO), with a complement of 3 crew members and 18 passengers.
The takeoff from Semendwa and the cruise leg were reportedly uneventful. As the aircraft made its final approach to Bandundu Airport, the crew lost control and the L-410 crashed in a village area approximately a mile from the airport.
The aircraft was destroyed on impacting the ground, but it did not burn. Of the 21 persons on board, 20 occupants died on impact and one female passenger survived.
British pilot Chris Wilson (39) from Gloucestershire was acting as the aircraft’s first officer alongside Belgian pilot Danny Philemotte (62) who was an owner of the operator Filair
Initial media reports immediately following the accident suggested that fuel starvation was the probable cause of the accident, however a spokesman for the Congo air operator Filair stated that there were 150 litres of fuel remaining in the tanks.
The aircraft reportedly went into a nose down attitude before it impacted in the village.
The sole survivor is attributed with giving different reports to investigators, which have included a report that passengers ran forward to the cockpit when they noticed that the aircraft was not lined up with the main runway.
A later version of her report stated that passengers and the flight attendant ran forward toward the cockpit when panicked by a crocodile which has escaped into the cabin from a passenger’s carry-on bag.
Whatever the initial cause of the passengers’ panic and subsequent mass move towards the front of the small commuter aircraft, the resultant mass weight shift would likely cause a change in the centre of gravity, putting the aircraft out of balance and resulting in loss of control.
Photo Credits: Radio Okapi
The Let L-410 aircraft
The Let L-410 Turbolet is a twin-engine short-range transport aircraft, manufactured by the Czech aircraft manufacturer Let Kunovice (named Aircraft Industries since 2005), The aircraft is capable of landing on short and unpaved runways and operating under extreme conditions.
The aircraft is unpressurised and powered by 2 General Electric H80-200 turboprop engines, and seats 19 passengers. The aircraft has something of a dubious safety record, with 116 accidents and 426 fatalities in total.
Filair Crash in the Congo – Summary
It seems many media outlets have settled on the final finding that an escaping stowaway reptilian caused mass panic and the resultant tragedy after pilots lost control of the unbalanced aircraft.
For me, the jury is still out. Further unconfirmed evidence suggests the low fuel scenario may hold up – it has also been claimed (unconfirmed) that the aircraft was operating with one engine shut down and propeller feathered, suggestive of possible fuel starvation.
In other nations, accident investigation would identify these key factors. Reports from the Congo remain rather hazy to this day, and the unconfirmed reports of the aircraft operating with one engine shut down begs the question of whether this was a loss of control at low speed in asymmetric flight.
The country’s domestic aircraft fleet typically consists of rather poorly maintained Soviet-era aircraft, typified by the Czech-built Let L-410 which crashed that day.
According to the story, the crocodile survived the crash, but was killed on the ground with a machete. So, was the cause of the August 2010 accident a crocodile, or is that story just a croc?
We will probably never know for sure. What we do know is that 20 people tragically lost their lives in an air accident that day.