Mysterious Cargo

South African Airways Flt #295 left the Taiwan Taoyuan Airport, then known as Chiang Kai Shek airport, on November 27, 1987, enroute to Johannesburg. The Boeing 747 Combi, the Helderberg, carried 140 passengers, 19 crewmembers, and six platforms of cargo on the same flight deck. The passenger list represented 11 different countries, with the majority from China, Japan, and South Africa. About 135 nautical miles from its first stop at Mauritius, the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean, leaving no survivors.

Search efforts were delayed for some 12 hours because of the hasty and inaccurate reporting of its location by a crew who were not prepared to handle the catastrophic fire that occurred onboard. Two ships from the South African Navy, two tugboats, and one ship from environmental affairs were sent to investigate the crash. The flight data recorder, if found, would have been virtually useless for pinpointing the location of the plane in the depths of the Indian Ocean at over 16,000 feet. After a two-month search over a vast area, a deep ocean recovery team was brought in from the U.S. to go beyond the sonar exploration. Three separate areas of debris were recovered well north of the probable location of the crash, and at some distance from each other, which seemed to indicate that the plane had fallen apart before impact

Eight bodies were recovered from the surface, and strangely enough, three wristwatches were found in the baggage; two were still running, and one had stopped. Luckily, investigators were able to determine the approximate time of the crash from this watch, a mere 3 minutes after the plane’s last communication with air traffic control. Blood samples from these victims were analyzed and found to have soot present in the respiratory tract, but no other real evidence of any type of explosive device was discovered. Customs officials in Taiwan had found nothing in their investigation of the cargo before departure.

The media was quick to exploit theories of terrorism and conspiracy on the part of the government of South Africa, which served to arouse the public and add to the international uproar that circled the globe. Not only did the government own the airline, but also the incident took place during the cruel and dangerous times of the apartheid regime. Some reports suggested that the government was smuggling in weapons on civilian aircraft to be used in their ongoing fight against Angola.

Although rare on this type of plane, the question that a major fire had occurred was never in doubt, but the cause of the fire and the contents of the cargo were a mystery. Everything from fireworks to the highly controversial red mercury, better known as plutonium or uranium, in the cargo was mentioned. Whether the government was importing this for weaponry, we can’t say, as no proof was established that this type of dangerous cargo was even onboard.

Standard procedure was followed and a commission was appointed to investigate. The presiding judge, Cecil Margo, was thought to be highly experienced in such investigations as a pilot and having led many such inquiries on the Board of Inquiry. The transcript from the cockpit voice recording was dismissed as invalid, although its significance may have been intentionally or accidentally overlooked. It is thought that the captain, who had been reluctant to fly the aircraft, may have alerted the crew of the dangerous cargo onboard — explosives. If this was the case, the crew was obviously inexperienced in handling this type of cargo. Unfortunately, the Margo Commission arrived at no satisfactory conclusion at the end of its investigation.

The mystery did not end there, however, and the case was brought to the attention of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in 1996, dedicated to investigating the many atrocities committed by the former Nationalist Party of South Africa. Numerous discrepancies were found in the Margo Commission inquiry and witnesses were interviewed, but much of the necessary information was not available, ignored, or lost. Dr David Katzlow, a forensic expert, stated that the fire was not caused by the obvious things such as wood, cardboard, or plastic, negating the idea of computer packaging or other types of cargo igniting. He went on to suggest that the plane might have been carrying a new type of rocket. A former agent of the FBI provided his interpretation of the words on the voice recorder that stated there was a bomb onboard. This too was quickly pushed aside by the Civil Aviation Agency, as being no more than just undecipherable noise on the tape. The TRC concluded in 1998 that nothing on the cargo list, if accurate, could have caused the explosion. A special investigative unit, the Scorpions, was also ineffective in its investigation of the incident. No further inquiry was carried out, for one reason or another, perhaps because of financial limitations.

But, freight is one thing, and explosives are another. Some time later, comments by a retired South African Airlines employee definitely pointed to a conspiracy. In his words “we murdered the people aboard the Helderberg,” by carrying weapons and explosives as cargo, but listed as agricultural products, on this and other routes at the time including London, Frankfurt, and Lisbon.

Boeing conducted various simulated fire tests, but the only conclusion drawn from these was that there was probably inadequate protection for the passengers from the cargo. The manufacturer also agreed that more than likely the fire regulations were insufficient, a weak argument at best, and proved nothing about the cause of the fire. (Note: Subsequently, fire and safety regulations and cargo handling procedures were improved, and the FAA imposed new standards. As a result, the use of the Combi aircraft was deemed no longer practical, and it was eventually discontinued.)

What was lacking in 1987, and is even more important today, is the fact that cargo investigation and control must continue to receive top priority. This, and many other disasters, might have somehow been prevented. No one person, group, or country was ever held accountable, however, and as is often the case, no specific cause for the disaster could be determined. The case was considered officially closed in 2002 by the South African Board of Transport, leaving us with one more unresolved travel mystery.

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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