#102Seconds in the air, KQ's Flight 507 Douala crash in 2007: How and why?

On the night of Friday May 5th 2007, heavy rains and thunderstorms struck in Douala Cameroon, in West Africa. Three flights scheduled to depart from Douala Airport from 11pm were delayed. Kenya Airways flight KQ 507 was among them. However, after one hour, the crew took off, ascending into the pitch-dark rainy and stormy skies of Douala. Unfortunately, after only one minute and forty two seconds, the Kenya Airways aircraft, a Boeing 738-800 crashed into a swamp within a mangrove forest killing all 114 people on board. It is now exactly sixteen years since KQ 507 crashed. How and why did the accident occur? Was it weather, technical or pilot error? Could the accident have been avoided? The Daily Nation has obtained the technical investigation report from Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority that lays bare answers to some of the questions of the how and why? The ill-fated KQ flight 507 was to have a two legged from Abidjan in Ivory Coast via Douala before landing at its final destination, Nairobi. Majority of the passengers on board were to connect flights upon touching down at Jomo Kenyatta International airport. That never happened. On Friday May 4th at 6;30pm, KQ 507 departed from Abidjan Airport with 55 passengers and safely landed at Douala Airport at 10;01pm for a scheduled stopover whereby 38 passengers disembarked while 91 new passengers for its second and final leg to Nairobi’s JKIA whose departure had been scheduled for 11pm. However, there was a problem. The weather was horrible and terrible. It was stormy. Torrential rains accompanied by heavy thunderstorms were pounding Doula making it impossible for any flight to either land or take off. As result, the flight was delayed. Two other flights operated by Cameroon airlines and Royal Maroc were also delayed as pilots were asked to wait for the weather to improve. As it approached midnight and having been delayed by an hour, Kenya Airways Captain decided to depart for Nairobi, but as soon as the aircraft lifted off into the stormy skies of Douala, it was airborne for only one minute, and 42 seconds when it crashed inside a mangrove surrounded Mbanga Pongo swamp, 5.42 kilo metres from the airport. The flight was expected to land in Nairobi on Saturday 6;15am, it never landed. It had many passengers who were to connect into China, majority were businessmen from West Africa who used to buy electronics particularly phones for selling back home. Immediately the plane departed from Douala Airport, its signal was lost and remained unnoticed until Nairobi control tower called Douala to establish whether the plane had left. Mike Okwiri, who was KQ’s spokesman at the time, says the signal had ben lost but it was raised by the operation team three to four hours later. Kenya airways top brass hurriedly assembled at its Embakasi headquarters on 2nd floor that morning at 5am where a war room command centre had been set up. A crisis of monumental proportion had struck at the crack of dawn. “ initially people took time to acclimatize and digest the news then the process of communication with people in Douala started, communication was a challenge because Douala is not like Nairobi in terms of communication” – Mike Okwiri, former KQ spokesman. The first official announcement was made then KQ chief executive officer then Titus Naikuni that Saturday morning. When he appeared before cameras, one could tell the weight he was carrying on his shoulders as a battery of journalists both local and international anxiously waited him to finish and start fielding questions. “ we are here to announce that one of our flight KQ 507 coming from Abidjan via Douala to Nairobi, a 737-800 took off from Douala at five minutes past mid night local time, and was due to arrive in the morning at JKIA at 6;15am.Unfortunately the aircraft has not arrived.” –Titus Naikuni, former CEO-KQ Naikuni who was carefully reading his press release while also looking at the journalists in the room added that, “The last message from the aircraft was received by the control in Douala immediately after take off and thereafter, the tower lost contact with the aircraft and so far we have not nor has the tower been able to establish contact with the aircraft. We have no details at the moment as to what happened to the aircraft” Then came the most anxious moments for both the national carrier and the nation. The country was kept in the dark for nearly 48 hours. KQ chief had to personally appear at state house, armed with a map to brief then the President Mwai Kibaki who followed keenly what Naikuni was explaining pointing on various spots. The whereabouts of the aircraft remained unknown neither was crash confirmed. It was all hands on the deck. “ from structured point of view to all airlines you can’t confirm anything until the plane wreckage has been sighted” Mike Okwiri, former KQ Spokesman. It took two days to locate the wreckage. That was the beginning of a long search for answers to the many questions that lingered surrounding the ill-fated plane. Dan Okwiri, a former Kenya Airways manager in charge of cargo and revenue capacity who was on duty that morning when the plane went missing says it was a bit surprising at how events were turning. “I knew the routing of the aircraft was over land.Why is it that it took two days to locate the plane which had crashed on land? Dan Okwiri, former KQ manager, Cargo and Revenue Capacity. The plane was in airborne for less than two minutes meaning it must have been close to the airport since it was on its flight path and therefore two days without its sighting was a major concern. Pressure against Kenya airways from all quarters was ballooning. Kenya and Cameroon governments, families of passengers on board, Boeing manufacturers as well as the insurance company, all these interested parties wanted answers regarding the whereabouts of the plane. On Monday 7th May at night, came a breakthrough. The debris of KQ 507 had been sighted at Mbanga Pongo mangrove swamp, on the bank of Dibamba river, a distance of 5.42Km from Doula airport. It had been a long wait and search parties on the ground couldn’t wait any longer. Transport minister Chirau Mwakwere who was in Cameroon led team that dashed to the accident scene. A shell shocked minister described the scene at the point of impact which was deep in a swamp as “ a very sad sight,horrific and a catastrophe” Chirau Mwakwere, former transport minister. Former Ntv journalist Dennis Onsarigo who was among journalists who flew to Douala to cover the incident says its was around 8;30pm when information came that the wreckage had been sighted. Immediately word came in that night that locals had sighted the wreckage, the search party left in a huff for the forest. They were relying on locals who only spoke in French yet the delegation understood English. He adds that, the trek into the forest was difficult given that they relied on cell phone lights that at some point batteries ran out of power. They held onto each others back as they went through the thick forest “Finally we were met by thick stench of jet fuel and decomposing bodies, then realized we’ve gotten to the crash site. KQ had a difficult time explaining the whereabouts of the plane and therefore we had to rush into the forest and confirm that night” Dennis Onsarigo, former Ntv journalist. The sight of the crash was horrific, devastating and blood curdling. The aircraft came tumbling from the skies nose, diving into a swamp deep in the middle of a thick mangrove forest. ”a vast crater was created as the plane plunged into the ground then exploded. Then there was a pool of water, with jet fuel floating and pieces of human bodies scattered. It was horrifying” Dennis Onsarigo, former Ntv journalist. All 114 people on board who were nationalists from 26 countries perished. They were 108 passengers and six crew members. Cameroon was the hardest hit with 37 victims followed by India which lost 15 people. Kenya had 9 victims being 3 passengers and six crew members, South Africans were 7, Ivoirians 6, Nigeria lost 6 citizens , China 5, UK 5. Other countries affected included Comoros, Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, DRC, Guinea among others. West Africa had the highest number of victims who were from the business community. A lady working at the airport that night recounted to journalists events of that black Friday as she described the faces she saw boarding the plane as she checked them in. Onsarigo says she spoke of a happy couple newly married who were flying out for their honey moon as well a rich West African man who had carried so much money in cash that he had to declare as he boarded. He was a businessman. Several of them had boarded. Dan Okwiri says he handled their cargo. ”we had traders who actually flew 2-3 times a month on Kq moving to china to buy mobile phones in bulk.They carried hard cash in dollars up to even one hundred thousands.” Dan Okwiri, former Kq manager, Cargo and Revenue capacity. The Douala crash was a big blow to Kenya Airways because that aircraft Boeing 737-800 was only 6 months old after acquisition from the manufacturer and was the latest in the market at the time. Cameroon lost its 37 nationals. The image of Kenya’s national carrier, The Pride of Africa was on the line. Anti terror police, NSIS Director General at the time, Kenya Air force personnel were dispatched to Douala to establish whether it was a terror attack. Stakes were high. Royal Air Moroc flight 287 that was lined up successfully took off after Kenya Airways. The third flight also lifted off from Douala airport successfully, begging the question what befell the KQ flight? Cameroon government set up a technical commission of inquiry to establish the cause of accident, whose report that was released on 28th April 2010. Daily Nation obtained that report from the Cameroon civil aviation authority which lays bare the cause. According to the findings of the technical investigation report, facts established from the probe revealed that among others; -The crew took off in full awareness of the prevailing meteorological condition. -Air traffic control did not broadcast latest weather reports to Kq 507 -The controller at the tower used French language to transmit a special weather report indicating much worsening condition following a request that was also done in French by the subject carrier implying Kq 507 unlikely understood the severity of it. -Kenya Airways pilot took off without authorization from air traffic control. - That at 1000 feet climbing, the pilot released flight controls for 55 seconds without having engaged the auto pilot command meaning that the plane was flying itself with no input from both pilots. - There was a fallout in the cockpit whereby the captain and first officer were not working as a team and the first officer did not call out lapses in piloting. Pointers led to the ruling out technical error as the cause of the plane crash and therefore singling out pilot error as the cause. A background check conducted against the captain revealed that he had some red flags in his history and poor cockpit skills. The report says that as the bank angle of the airplane increased continuously by itself up to 34 degrees right, the captain appeared unaware of the plane’s changing attitude. Just before the bank angle warning sounds, the captain grabbed the controls, appeared confused about the attitude of the aircraft making corrections in an erratic manner increasing the bank angle to 50 degrees right. That is when the auto pilot was engaged and the inclination tended to stabilize. However, movements of flight controls by the pilot resumed and the bank angle increased towards 70 degrees. It was at that juncture that captain screamed “we are crashing” and the first officer responded in affirmative. A prolonged right rudder input brought the bank angle to beyond 90 degrees and the aircraft descended in spiral dive. The first officer frantically called out to the captain to level the wings by the right, then quickly corrected and insisted “ left, left, left captain” the bank angle was reduced to 70 degrees and the flight hit the ground crashing into the swamp. According to procedure, when the captain called for auto pilot to be engaged, the first officer should push the CMD button and respond by saying auto pilot engaged. It looks like the first officer concentrated on in putting the route around the heavy storm and failed to engage the auto pilot while the captain on he hand assumed it had been engaged. He released the control column and there was no one controlling the aircraft. Not the pilot, not the auto pilot. Kq 507 was flying itself and none was monitoring the instruments. If any would have looked at the screens, would have noticed it was flying on FD or flight direct mode and not autopilot. 16 seconds after warning, the aircraft continued its treacherous roll to the right ultimately crashing. The Emergency Locator Transmitter-ELT broke up on impact and therefore no useful signal was emitted to assist in locating the plane after the accident. Concerning the fallout between the 52-year old Captain and the 23-year-old First Officer, the investigation team zeroed in on the cockpit voice recorder. The recording of the first leg from Abidjan to Douala revealed why the first officer remained silent after being shouted and shut down by the captain. The captain was heard screaming at the first officer asking “What was wrong with you?" and when the officer sought clarification on whether he had told him to rise to 1400 feet, the Captain retorted .."Yes, don’t be stupid, write it down if you can’t remember” Adding, “What’s wrong with you, did you not hear the instructions?” With that tongue-lashing, the First Officer shut down which explains why he was withdrawn most of the time only engaging the Captain sparingly. At 10;33Pm Kq 507 made its first contact with the air traffic controller on duty requesting for start up data which was transmitted at 11;20pm and Kq 507 requested clearance which was granted. But, at 11;37Pm the crew announced cancelling start up to await for a lull in the weather. Heavy rain and storm had engulfed the airside visibility was 800m. 14 minutes later, at 11:54PM the Captain asked the First Officer to request taxi clearance who appeared surprised at the speed at which instructions were being issued. He told him to try and keep up. He checked the storm position using the aircraft’s on board weather radar and figured the route around the storm, informing the control tower that after departure he would maintain heading left, but the first officer whispered “to the right!” forcing the captain to correct by saying sorry to the right. Seemingly the captain’s mind was engaged on how he would navigate past the heavy storm At 12:06am… the aircraft took off without take off clearance by the control tower which is a major procedural breach and at 1000ft climbing the Captain released the flight controls after 55 seconds and called “OK Command” but the first officer did not respond in affirmation. The captain released flight controls without having engaged the auto pilot. The plane, which was now flying itself, immediately begun tilting sharply to the right and at 34 degrees the bank angle warning sounded. That was when they realized the autopilot was not engaged prompting intense action in an attempt to level the plane and that’s when a catastrophic mistake was made. The captain engaged the autopilot but after 5 seconds out of panic, he again started inputting the york and roller pedals effectively overruling the autopilot which experts say would have resolved the situation had it not have been interfered with. According to Onsarigo who camped in Douala for two weeks covering the calamity told the Daily Nation that from initial investigations on the ground, it was established there was a disagreement between the two pilots. “It was discovered the Captain had a party he was hosting in Nairobi, reason he was in a hurry to take off” Dennis Onsarigo, former Ntv Journalist Family members of all passengers on the ill-fated plane were flown to Douala by Kenya Airways to assist in DNA identification process of 58 pieces of remains recovered. The remaining 56 others were never found. The crash sight itself loudly spoke to their unanswered questions. The crestfallen relatives had arrived with the hope of at least getting remains of their loved ones, but that wasn’t the case. There was nothing to identify, nothing to repatriate back home and nothing to bury. “that’s something difficult to describe even for the Captain’s family, there was no body to identify. There was no closure. I’ll never forget how the wife and his children were devasted.” Dan Okwiri, former Kq Manager, cargo and revenue capacity. Okwiri adds that it was heartbreaking to see the family of his deceased colleague get into the swamp, pick the mud and drop into the dirty water painfully crying because their were no remains of their father. For other families, they would simply scoop the mud to carry back home. Having stayed on the beat for over ten days, some journalists were also affected. Nation Media group journalists had to undergo counseling. “ fact that we were flying from Douala the same time in the night, using same airline and under similar bad weather, it really affected me psychologically particularly when I remembered walking on human remains the first night we rushed to the crash scene. It was tough for me” Onsarigo. Kenya airways contracted a South African firm to assist in the DNA identification process, but for five months nothing seemed to be moving. There was a stand off between Kenya airways and Cameroon authorities. The fact that neither Kq top management nor Kenyan government officials had failed to visit Douala as investigations continued offended Cameroon which on its part declined to issue a clearance to allow repatriation of the remains. Families of the victims were getting impatient since the south African company had failed to deliver. Dan Okwiri who was at the time the airline’s manager in charge of cargo revenue capacity was asked by Human Resource director to fly to Cameroon and take charge. “ I looked at him and its the when I realized there was a serious problem. Families were making noise, insurance was screaming and the public wondering why we have kept silent for 5 months”…….was given power of the attorney…. Okwiri who was given the power of attorney by Kq claims upon arriving in Douala, he met hostility from the team he was taking over from who had called Nairobi demanding to know why the turn of events, in what he describes as high-octane rage. He managed to secure an appointment with the governor of Douala. Cameroon authorities were still furious, seething with anger because apart from the day of the crash when the transport minister visited, no senior government official nor KQ management had returned to Cameroon. Okwiri says from the beginning he could see tension mounting in the room as local administration conversed among themselves in French which he couldn’t understand. He describes the environment as being octane red oven with a flurry of discussion before an enraged governor banged the table shouting ”for goodness sake, 37 of our Citizens died on that aircraft and the last 5 months we have not seen nobody from Kq, instead you send a team from South Africa to handle this issue that is sensitive to us. This is our blood that poured!” Talks in the first meeting ended without success for Kenya Airways, but on the second day, Okwiri managed to prevail upon the governor who finally agreed to give clearance for processing of death certificates to allow repatriation of remains but gave a condition that a requiem service be conducted in Douala within 10 days whereby Kq was asked to fly in family members of all the 114 victims from 26 countries that were affected. This was both a logistical and emotional nightmare for the airline. Only 58 pieces of remains were found yet all family members were being flown in. 56 were in for yet another round of disappointment. The former Cargo and Revenue capacity manager painfully describes that handling a person who has received remains is at least easy because there;s closure, but talking to a victim’s relative with no remains is hell. They demand answers. “I have never forgotten a lady from India who had lost 5 family members and there were no remains. she was holding me by the neck, crying without releasing tears and said she doesn’t want any compensation because she has lost everything” Dan Okwiri For those who were unlucky to get remains of their loved one, nothing could satisfy them why the airline took so long. Those with remains, had nothing much, probably fingers, a hand, piece of a skull etc. None of the Kq crew had their remains found. Empty coffins were flown to Nairobi and symbolically received by colleagues. The former manager says he hurt him most was seeing children of the ill-fated flight and their mother get into the swamp, pick the mud wailing while dropping in the water. It was very emotional. They needed closure but there were no remains. Some of the repatriations had peculiarities. For instance victims who were Indians had to be cremated, but it was difficult locating a crematorium in Douala. Having studied in India and learnt about that culture, Okwiri had to perform the ritual himself. He explains that the exercise involves many things like getting firewood, ghee and rice, then going round fire and thereafter piercing the skull to free the spirit of the deceased. Those without skulls, he pierced the ashes. For the next few days he kept the ashes of six victims in his hotel room and says he could feel their spirits whether real of imagined. “I slept with ashes of people I never knew. You can imagine the emotions. I would take a whole bottle of whiskey at night which I don’t partake ordinarily, I would still remain sober” It was difficult. Okwiri . Daving successfully accomplished his mission in douala, Okwiri flew back to Kenya. Unfortunately he did last long at the airline. One afternoon he was handed a sacking letter having worked for 25 years. He believes he was done away with for being outspoken about goings on in the company. “I was done away with, but walked out head high. Sometimes a warrior who fights a battle is dispensed with for reasons of his resolves.” Dan Okwiri He left the city and migrated to MigorI County where he runs his business and is currently documenting a book titled; My life in Aviation, 25 years.
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