By Shaun Smillie and Kashiefa Ajam
Liezl Hamman believed her brother Hansie de Lange died in a plane crash caused by a faulty seat and pilot error.
Twenty years later, she would learn of an unknown investigation that years ago cleared the dead pilot of wrongdoing and suggested a cover up.
De Lange, together with Llewellyn Jones and Johan Kotze, were killed instantly when the Cessna 185 they were flying crashed close to the Syferfontein airport on November 23, 2000.
Back then, the Civil Aviation Authority launched an investigation into the fatal crash.
It concluded in May 2002, and the findings were that the cause of the crash was pilot error.
“One possible reason that they gave for the crash was that the seat could have slipped back. The pilot grabbed the joystick and he lost control,” says Hamman, who spoke to the Saturday Star from the UK, where she now lives. The Cessna 185 aircraft were known to have a problem with its pilot seat, which was known to slide back if the aircraft was in a steep climb.
What is known is that on the day of the crash, de Lange had joined Jones and Kotze for the flight. They flew to the Syferfontein airport, near Lenasia, to perform touch and goes, where a pilot trains to land, but instead of coming to a stop on the landing strip, powers up and takes off again. Jones was piloting the aircraft, with Kotze as the trainee pilot. De Lange was 21- years-old at the time and had been flying since the age of 16.
After the release of the report, de Lange’s family reluctantly accepted its findings.
What they were not aware of was that Jones’s father Bill, a retired airline captain, had launched his own investigation. He was not convinced that the report’s findings were accurate. Bill owned the Cessna 185 and had corrected the problem of the sliding seat glitch.
He re-interviewed witnesses who claimed to have seen the crash on that fateful day. What he found clashed with what the CAA had discovered. Bill approached the then minister of transport Jeff Radebe.
The minister instructed his department to investigate the crash.
A panel of experts were brought in who reinterviewed witnesses and forensically examined their testimony.
The new investigation concluded that several of the witnesses had lied, including two pilots, Stephan Bosman and Rob Fenenga, who were in a helicopter on the day.
“Their job for the day was to follow these two cash in transit vehicles and they had claimed that they were flying above these two vehicles, above the N12 when they saw the accident happen, about five kilometres away. But the investigators found through simulations that it was impossible for anyone in the helicopter to see a camouflaged Cessna flying below the level of the horizon,” says Hamman.
The Cessna was camouflaged because it had been bought from the South African Air force and was still in its original colour scheme.
The Department of Transport investigators concluded that the helicopter had landed at the airstrip and had taken off before the crash. The pilot had initially landed hoping to buy cooldrinks for the crew. Much of this evidence was based on a third witness, James Raper, who was in the helicopter at the time.
“The accident was caused by the helicopter cutting in front of the Cessna forcing the pilot of the Cessna to take evasive action, that led to loss of control and the accident,” the report concluded.
The report further stated that confusion of radio frequencies used at the airport contributed to the crash.
“The likely scenario is that the helicopter radio was set at 125.8 when north of the N12 after departing from circling Westonaria. When crossing the N12 on their way to the Syferfontein landing pad at the hangars, they changed to the GFA frequency of 124.4. The Cessna would have been on the Syferfontein frequency of 122.6.
If after having landed at Syferfontein Airport and being alerted by the radio call that the vehicles were approaching the Lenasia turnoff and preparing for takeoff, the pilots in the helicopter could have called on 124.4 before taking off, if they did, the Cessna would in all probability not have heard them. The Cessna in turn could not have indicated its presence as it would have been totally unaware of the helicopter intending to take off and cross its path.”
In the findings, the authors also stressed how witnesses had perjured themselves.
The initial CAA report had heavily relied on the evidence of the two helicopter pilots, who the later report declared had lied.
But one of the pilots, Fenenga, denied he had lied or caused the accident.
“I don’t understand how James(Raper) thinks we were there. I recall that we weren’t at the airfield,” he says. ”Maybe he had flown there in the past with another pilot and had landed at the airfield, I don’t know. We didn’t cause that accident. You just don’t know what it is like to be blamed for something you know you haven’t done.”
The report was finalised in 2009, but it was only uploaded on the CAA website in August this year. Its discovery was a blow to de Lange’s family.
“My parents have taken this very badly. The first time, they went through stages of grief. The anxiety, the shock and disbelief of what had happened. Now, it is more anger. And it is anger for the helplessness of the situation,” says Hamman.
The time passed has other implications.
“It isn’t possible for us to take legal action against the helicopter pilots because of the statute of limitations, whether this was coincidental that we only got to know about this almost 20 years to the day. One can only speculate. We were denied our opportunity to take this matter to court,” says Hamman.
The spokesperson for the CAA Kabelo Ledwaba said it was never the intention of the authority to not replace the new report with the revised one.
“Because of the time that has lapsed since both processes took place, it is unclear as to whether the then SACAA’s Accident and Incident Investigation Division team was furnished with a copy of the second report. The current Accident and Incident Investigation Division team replaced the old report with the latest one upon learning of this gap,” he says.
All Hamman can hope for now is that her brother didn’t die in vain, and that the safety recommendations called for in the second investigation are acted on, to protect the lives of passengers and air crew in the future. These include a standard radio frequency for unmanned airports like Syferfontein.
Also, she wants to know what really happened that day and for someone to take responsibility.
“We just want the truth, we just want someone to say this is what happened, we are sorry, we made a mistake. We want to know what happened on that day so we can make us understand that awful thing that happened,” she says.