Canadian Airline crash in Saskatchewan and memories of a Botswana suicide

West Wind 2
West Wind ATR crashes after take-off. ©TSB Canada

It’s not every day that a commercial airliner plunges to the ground 1.5km after takeoff with 22 passengers and 3 crew on board. Amazingly, no-one died but the plane was pretty much left mangled in a forested area close to the runway after the accident on 13th December 2017.

How in the Dickens did everyone make it out alive? There are six critically passengers and one crewman injured but lets hope the miracle is complete. However operator West Wind airline has had its aviation certificate revoked as authorities inspect its operations.

The twin engine ATR42-320 Turboprop crashed after take off around 6.15pm just west of the Fond-du-Lac runway in a remote area of the country en route to Stony Rapids. What will surprise, nay shock, you is why the certificate has now been suspended and all aircraft grounded immediately. And furthermore, the ATR has an interesting side-note history when it comes to Botswana, but more of that later.

According to the Canada Transport Safety Board “deficiencies in the company’s operational control system” had been detected.

There are no specifics stated, but the deficiencies could include:

  • Maintenance issues
  • Weight and Balance setup
  • Icing
  • ATC and other communication problems
  • Hours worked by pilots, a lack of experience or other crew related deficiencies.

The final moments before the crash indicate quite a set of issues. The cabin crew are reported as saying something about the plane being overweight. They also appear to have suffered two engine “outs” in a short space of time but some speculation exists that one failed and the other was shut down to avoid a fire upon crashing.

It took less than three minutes from ground roll to accident.  The Transport Safety Board reported that the aircraft lost height and then descended into trees and slid for around half a kilometer before coming to rest in an upright position steeply tilted to the right.

The worst damage occurred to the left side of the fuselage which ruptured at seat row 3. The pilots were injured, one critically. It was night, and a young passenger who was drenched in aviation fuel found himself hanging upside down from his seatbelt. There was a large hole in the fuselage, and he released the belt and walked along a nearby road in moonlight.

ATRs have been involved in more than their fair share of accidents as they operate short haul routes in some of the world’s most dangerous places

There he found rescue vehicles and flagged them down. One of the injured passengers was only cut loose over three and a half hours after the accident. It’s really a miracle that all survived albeit some in serious and critical condition. Take a look at the photos of the ATR turboprop and be amazed. Every passenger was slightly injured as you can imagine if you see the damage below.

It was snowing lightly with a breeze from the West on take off, nothing too strenuous even for a light plane. But this aircraft has issues when the conditions cause icing on the wings.

The Canadian TSB is now conducting a full investigation including the following actions:

  • Examine data from the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder and other electronic devices to help determine the sequence of events prior to the accident
  • Gather and analyze weather information to understand to what extent weather was a factor
  • Examine aircraft maintenance records, pilot training, qualifications and proficiency records
  • Conduct follow-up interviews with witnesses, the aircraft operator and others
  • Review operational policies, procedures and regulatory requirements
  • Examine previous occurrences involving this type of aircraft and subsequent safety action taken in Canada, the United States and other jurisdictions

It’s the third, fourth and fifth bullet points that will probably lead to the discovery of what was behind this accident. But take a look at the background to the ATR Turboprop.

ATR 42-320

ATR42 320
An ATR 42-320 in Air France livery ©Wikipedia

This plane was developed as a short-haul regional airliner by both France and Italy. The ATR stands for Aerei da Trasporto Regionale or Avions de transport régional. The number “42” comes from the standard seating arrangement of at least 42 and up to 52 passengers. West Wind’s plane had 22 passengers, but was carrying quite a bit of cargo

It’s powered by two powerful Pratt & Whitney PR 121 engines but this variant was produced until 1996 so is more than twenty years’ old.

The Botswana connection

There have been 33 hull losses (or accidents where the plane was written off) as this plane as a short haul aircraft would be more susceptible to incidents flying from smaller airfields across the world. There was the 1987 crash on Conca di Crezzo in Italy which killed all 37 on board, then 1994 Royal Air Maroc suicide flight where the pilot disengaged the autopilot and crashed the plane into the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.

However, it was an incident in Botswana in 1999 which stunned the country. On the 11th October an Air Botswana captain Chris Phatswe boarded an ATR 42-320 at Gaborone Airport.  According to medical reports which have been released, he was suffering from the effects of HIV/AIDs and his license had been suspended.

He circled the airport and came on the radio demanding to speak to the President Festus Mogae, Air Botswana’s general manager, and other authorities.

After two and a half hours of flying the plane ran out of fuel. Phatswe then indicated he was going to glide the aircraft into the airport buildings, but ATC said there were many people in the building who’d die.

So instead, the pilot flew two loops and then gliding at 200 knots, ploughed into Air Botswana’s two other ATR 42s parked on Gaborone Airport apron – all three planes burst into flame and burned out. He died but no-one else was injured or killed.


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