A Tale of the Helderberg

ZS-SAS, the aircraft involved in the accident, seen at Faro Airport in 1986, a year before the crash.

Today, 28 November, marks the anniversary of the crash of South African Airways Flight 295, the Helderberg.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the Helderberg was a Boeing 747-Combi. Part passenger aircraft, part cargo freighter, it caught fire and crashed into the Indian Ocean approximately 250km north-east of Mauritius.

The reason for the crash has never been completely understood. The official explanation stated that a fire had broken out in the cargo bay and was not extinguished in time, leading to the loss of the aircraft. The cargo on board the aircraft was not revealed, but the Judge Cecil Margo noted that an oxidant such ammonium perchlorate, a compound used in rocket fuel, would have been required to damage the aircraft to the levels found in the wreckage.

The conspiracy theorists speculate that the South African apartheid government was using civilian aircraft from South African Airways to transport munitions into South Africa which was under international trade embargoes. This is the story of the hours immediately following the crash of the Helderberg, by an ex SAA employee who helped dispatch the investigative team to Mauritius.

27 November 1987 — Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, Taiwan

The Helderberg departed Chiang Kai-Shek International bound for Jan Smuts International Airport in South Africa. On board were 140 passengers, 19 crew members and 6 pallets of cargo with the waybill indicating a total cargo load of 47 000 kg.

The flight took off, turned towards Johannesburg and continued routinely.

The following hours on the aircraft are unclear, but a fire broke out, the crew were unable to extinguish it and the aircraft crashed into the Indian Ocean at approximately 2am local time on 28 November 1987. This is where the story I was told began.

Jan (Not his real name) received a phone call at 4am asking him to come to the airport as the government needed an aircraft urgently dispatched. He arrived at Jan Smuts and was informed that an aircraft had been lost and South Africa needed to send an investigative team to Mauritius to determine what happened.

Jan began preparing a Boeing 747–200 for dispatch to Mauritius and soon received the passenger register. Every passenger for the flight was either a member of the South African Defence Force (SADF) or staff of ARMSCOR, the South African arms procurement agency and manufacturer.

The aircraft departed for Port Louis at 7am SAST, returning 2 days later with a number of personnel who had fulfilled their work. All were sworn to silence by the South African government.

Jans involvement in the process effectively ended at this point, but it does make one wonder why the apartheid government was eager to dispatch a military procurement agency to the scene of a civilian aircraft incident.

Wreckage of ZA-SAS reconstructed to determine the cause of the incident.

Jan told me that soon after the staff returned, they admitted in private that the aircraft had been carrying chemicals to be used in the manufacture of rocket propelled grenades and that those close to the captain, Dawie Uys, had said he was uncomfortable flying the aircraft with this cargo.

Captain Dawie Uys

Little is published about the captain of the Helderberg, Dawid Uys. What is known is that he served, under conscription, in the South African Air Force in a unit involved in transportation of Apartheid government VIPs. He was a trusted staff member of SAA with 13 800 flight hours and a strong military background.

Captain Dawid Uys

What is noted about Captain Dawid Uys is that he expressed concern about flying an aircraft with civilian passengers and military supplies on board. There is little worry that he was in any way involved in the aircraft being downed, but Captain Uys’ worries came true.

Ben Gurion Incident

The most interesting story Jan told me occurred at Ben Gurion Airport in early 1987.

South African Airways used to fly from Johannesburg to Taiwan and then continue on to Israel. The aircraft did the same route in reverse to get home.

Arriving at Ben Gurion airport, the aircraft unloaded its passengers and cargo and taxied to a quiet corner of the facility before returning to the gate a few hours later.

At Ben Gurion, there were (are?) no passenger tunnels from the terminal to the aircraft. Passengers board via stairs off the tarmac.

Next to the SAA aircraft was a British Airways aircraft which was unloading its passengers. In full view of the BA passengers, a baggage handler opened a cargo door in the SAA aircraft and the already loaded cargo fell out. Onto the tarmac at an international airport, rocket propelled grenades rolled across the tarmac, in full view of another sovereign states passengers and national flag carrier.

Through PR wizardry and a lack of cell-phone cameras, the incident was kept quiet. Jan only knew of the incident from the SAA captain who witnessed the incident.

All of these incidents open far more questions than answers. Why was the apartheid government transporting military supplies on civilian aircraft, why was this never disclosed in the final report and why did no one confess at the Truth and Reconciliation commission? The result is that 27 years after the incident, the families of the passengers on board the Hederberg have had to accept that they will never know what really went wrong over the Indian Ocean.

First published on Kinja.