Western Daily Press, Wednesday April 9, 2003
Thirty years ago, an aircraft carrying Somerset mums on a day trip to Switzerland hit a mountain, killing 108 passengers and crew. Today, the Western Daily Press can exclusively reveal the crash was a needless waste of life and should never have happened.
ROGER TAVENER reports
In a simple moving ceremony an English oak tree will be planted tomorrow in a pine forest on the Swiss mountain which claimed 108 lives – mostly mothers – in a plane crash 30 years ago. Relatives want a small part of a foreign land to forever remain part of the West Country. It was a day that had begun so brightly but a few hours later turned into a nightmare.
The Basle air disaster tore at the heart of villages around Somerset’s Cheddar Valley which lost a generation of their womenfolk in an instant. Scores of children were left motherless or orphaned. Flight IM 435 from Bristol airport, a Vickers Vanguard 952 flying blind in a furious snowstorm, smashed into Herrenmatt at 9.13am on April 10 1973. Now some 103 family and friends have made the sad pilgrimage to Switzerland for Thursday’s ceremony in memory of the loved ones who never came home.
The fatal flight was doomed from take off. Today, the Western Daily Press can fully reveal for the first time the horrifying human error, mechanical flaws and cover-ups that came together to bring down G-AXOP. A damning report into the accident, buried for nearly three decades, discloses a shameful catalogue of blunders, botched repairs, instrument error and human failure which remain a disgrace to the aviation industry and an insult to relatives.
‘Aircraft should never have taken off’
Worse still, it says the crash could have been avoided if air traffic control had reacted correctly. Mike Latham, an engineer who lost his mother in the crash, agrees, The aircraft should never have taken off,” he says sadly, “It is as simple as that, When you consider all the factors, the flight should never have taken place. “The company organising the charter had even gone bust the previous week and the trip was delayed. The omens weren’t good even then. But the people wanted to go, They had been looking forward to it. The visit – £18.50 each for the day trip- had been the talk of mothers’ groups and village organisations for months. But, as accident investigators discovered, they were let down by a company which took short cuts, employed poor pilots and had a complete disregard for their safety A report by the Federal Commission of Inquiry into Aircraft Accidents says starkly: “Following two unsuccessful instrument approaches (ILS) to runway 16 the aircraft brushed against a wooded range of hills 16 km south of Base Mulhouse airport and crashed in the vicinity of the hamlet Herrenmatt, in the parish of Hochwald, at 09.13 hrs.
One hundred and four passengers and four crew were killed, 35 passengers and one hostess were injured. One hostess was unhurt. The accident happened in daylight in heavy snow, low cloud and poor visibility The accident is attributed to: Loss of orientation during ILS approach under instrument flight conditions. The following factors contributed to the occurrence of the accident: Inadequate navigation, above all imprecise initiation of final approach as regards height and approach centre-line. Confusion of navigational aids and insufficient checking and comparison of navigational aids and instrument readings, Poor reception of the medium wave beacons and technical defects in LOC (localiser) receiver No 1 and glidestop No 2 made the crew’s navigational work more difficult But the Daily Press can disclose that the technical jargon and use of careful under statement clouds the reality that flight IM 416 was doomed from the moment it took off from Bristol airport. This is what we found:
THE PILOT. Canadian Captain Anthony Dorman, 35, held a valid British airline transport pilot’s licence and had recently been assessed fit But he may not have been fit to fly a plane with a precious human cargo. He had undergone dubious’ basic training and had been discharged from the Royal Canadian Air Force due to ‘insufficient aptitude for flying’. He went on to acquire a private pilot’s licence, a commercial pilot’s licence and then a Nigerian pilot’s licence after an ‘allegedly’ successful instrument rating test which is not entered in his flying log book
After moving to Britain, he took nine at tempts to pass instrument rating tests, which he continued to fail because of ‘inadequate flying and /or theoretical knowledge’. Captain Dorman’s total flying experience could not be established exactly, as the British Accident Investigation Authorities found numerous discrepancies in his flying log book, There was no criticism of the more experenced co-pilot Ivor Terry, 47. Both men died.
There were allegations that the pilots were arguing shortly before the crash. The plane was effectively lost, out of position flying at times far too fast and heading inexorably to-wards a mountain instead of an airport,
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER. As the plane lurched sickeningly through the low cloud a retired pilot was alarmed to see it just overhead. He telephoned air traffic control, A recording, five minutes before the crash, hears him say he saw the four engine turbo prop ‘flying at 50 metres and it is snowing very heavily and I have the impression if it remains like this it will crash into the mountains. The former Swissair skipper repeated his warnings, getting increasingly worried. “It must be made to climb, it is going to crash into the mountains like this. The controller agrees but fails to act quickly – only telling the plane it is off course 30 seconds before impact.
Weather Warnings of the storm hitting the Base region might have led to postponement of the fight or at least prompted the crew to seek an alternative airport. Some planes made it into Base that morning, but others diverted. Investigators said; “In the accident area the cloud was continuous and the visibility conditions were so poor that, combined with the snow covered ground without contrast, the crew could not see in time whether they were approaching ground obstacles, particularly was not equipped with since the aircraft ground proximity warning device.
Faulty equipment on the eve of the crash the Vanguard was landed on instruments at Luton en route to Bristol The co pilot saw a worrying discrepancy between the indicators, one showing a definite deviation to the left while the other indicated being centred (over Basle the aircraft was well to the left of centre while trying to line up to land). That pilot insisted he informed the duty engineer about the problem. The engineer said he could not recall the conversation.
The pilot also said he informed the pilot flying from Luton to Bristol on the day of the crash when he travelled as a passenger, The two pilots informed their superiors of the fault – after the Basie crash, but UK accident investigators weren’t told about the problem until six months after the tragedy Further investigations showed the fault had been reported 11 months earlier. The experts worried about the settings of navigational aids but were more concerned about ‘botched’ repair work.
Automatic direction-finding equipment may have been faulty because of poorly soldered joints causing the signal to become intermittent and misleading. Previous crews had complained about the system. In short, the landing systems weren’t good enough to assist the plane safely to a landing in such severe weather conditions. Investigators said: “It is doubtful whether maintenance of and repairs to G-AXOP’s navigational equipment fulfilled the conditions for commercial instrument flight rules.” Navigational aids
The investigators had concerns over the medium-wave beacons at the airport, which were insufficient in such awful weather and revealed the authorities had been trying to get a new electrostatic-free navigational aid to landing for pilots flying blind. The Vanguard did not have a ground proximity warning device to tell the pilots how low they really were and they also completely mis- read the intermittent signals from beacons. The pilot had shown his inability to master such instrumentation many times before. He was completely disorientated, said the report, which led first to a near-accident and then, on the second approach attempt, to the disaster’
The crew had made a ‘crucial’ navigational error confusing the two beacons and didn’t know where they were. The investigators say the flyers must have realised after the aborted first landing they were over a built up and hilly area instead of an unpopulated flat aerodrome. Some of the survivors said they saw houses below shortly before impact.
The alarm was raised at about 9.30am but it was two hours before a search and rescue team set off for the scene It took 45 minutes to find the wreckage and the first injured were taken to hospital 30 minutes later “A very early report of a possible crash near Hochwald was not followed up at first because of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. A great deal of time was also lost because the access roads were only passable in places with cross country vehicle “It was not possible to use the military held copters which were made available because of the low cloud’ the report said.