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The air disaster at Ondekaremba

Avatar of inke inke - 24. April 2015 - Discover Namibia

The site of the accident was five kilometres from JG Strijdom Airport. (Source: Wikipedia)

The air disaster at Ondekaremba April 20th 1968 was a moonless, starlit Saturday evening, with no wind and a temperature of 17 degrees centigrade at almost 9 o'clock. Flight SA 228 was ready for take-off from JG Strijdom airport (now Hosea Kutako) 45 kilometres east of Windhoek. The Boeing 'Pretoria' was on its way from Johannesburg via Windhoek, Luanda, Las Palmas and Frankfurt to London. Relatives and friends of the 46 passengers who had recently boarded the plane were standing on the terrace of the airport building. They saw the Pretoria speed away on the runway, take off and start to climb. Then, unspeakable horror: the plane levelled off, rapidly lost height and hit the ground. A fiery glow lit up the night. Fifty seconds had passed since take-off. 

Rescue teams immediately rushed out. In the rough terrain it took them 40 minutes to reach the site of the accident. Relatives tried to find their way through the bush on foot. The Boeing had ploughed into the ground five kilometres from the eastern extremity of the runway. In Windhoek the sirens of emergency vehicles disrupted the quiet evening. Movie theatres stopped their shows and medical doctors and blood donors were asked to proceed to the state hospital. Four-by-four owners set off to the airport to assist with the rescue effort. 

The scene of the crash was a horrific sight. The plane had fallen from an altitude of 200 metres at a groundspeed of approximately 500 kilometres per hour. The engine pods and the hull gouged five deep trenches into the soil and the aircraft then began to break up as its momentum carried it forward. The hull broke into three pieces and soon after the impact the fuel in the wings caught fire. The wreckage was scattered over a wide area. 

The names of the survivors were announced shortly after midnight. Many relatives waited at the airport for hours, hoping for a miracle. Now they had to accept with terrible certainty that none of the 46 passengers who boarded the plane in Windhoekhad survived the crash. Married couples, mother and daughter, father and son and entire families lost their lives. Of the 116 passengers and 12 crewmembers on board the Pretoria only six first-class travellers survived. One of them was transferred to a hospital in South Africa and died there in the middle of May. The bodies of the victims were recovered during the night and the following day and laid out in the freight hangar. Those who could not be identified were taken to Johannesburg. 

On the day after the catastrophe the newspapers AllgemeineZeitung and Windhoek Advertiser published special editions listing the names of all the passengers and crew. These were displayed in numerous shop windows on Kaiser Street (Independence Avenue) where unsuspecting citizens on their Sunday stroll were horrified to learn about the disastrous plane crash. 

The international airport on the farm Ondekaremba had been inaugurated only three years earlier. How could it have happened? The Pretoria was the latest addition theSouth African Airways (SAA) fleet. The mayor of Pretoria had ceremoniously baptised the brand-new Boeing 707-344C on April 3rd. The aircraft's captain was one of SAA's most experienced pilots. A commission of inquiry arrived the day after the crash to reconstruct the course of events. An expert team from the Boeing Company in Seattle was also on the way. The accident site was cordoned off, as at that stage the possibility of sabotage had not been ruled out. Furthermore, the Boeing was apparently carrying a parcel of diamonds worth half a million Rand. 

The press was only allowed access to the site one month later. The largest pieces of the wreck had long since been taken to South Africa for further investigation, but the tail unit was still there and other pieces of wreckage, remains of suitcases, clothing, toiletries and books were scattered everywhere. 

The plane had not yet been equipped with a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder. The commission of enquiry followed up on numerous leads and finally presented its findings in November: the reason for the crash was pilot error. In line with regulations the aircraft's captain, who had flown Boeing 707-B aircrafts for years, had completed one flight hour on the new 707-344C as well as an introductory course. Both co-pilots had also done one hour's training on the new plane. The three of them were flying together for the first time. The commission of enquiry concluded that the differences between the new and the usual type of plane had proved to be fateful. The flaps had been retracted too early, which led to a loss of lift. The altitude had probably been misread because the aircraft's drum-type altimeter was notoriously difficult to interpret correctly. The commission also considered the possibility that the pilots suffered spatial disorientation because they had no visual reference. The horizon was invisible on the moonless night and the plane took off into "a dark hole". 

Following the publication of the commission's report a number of safety regulations became mandatory worldwide. Airport rescue services were instructed to acquaint themselves with the surrounding terrain, and from 1972 all turbojet aircraft had to be fitted with a ground proximity warning system. 

One of the 116 passengers on board the Pretoria survived the crash almost unharmed. The 36-year-old US State Department diplomatic courier flew first-class from Johannesburg to Frankfurt. He pulled two fellow travellers from the wreck and was taking care of an injured woman when the first rescue team arrived on the scene. 

A businessman from Cape Town who was booked on SA 228 on the 20 April was spared the catastrophe. He met with his son in Johannesburg and took a later flight to London. Only his luggage travelled on the ill-fated aircraft. 

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