A Conspiracy of SA Express Silence After Flight Management Flimflam



I have flown SA Express and Airlink a number of times recently.   Last week in fact.  From Nelspruit/Mbombela, the romantically named Kruger International Airport, to ORT or Johannesburg airport.  The Embraer lifted off at night into a storm and we bumped and humped back and forth yawing and rolling until around 15000 feet when the maelstrom passed.  I felt pretty safe.  The pilots, including a certain Ms Thompson, were doing all the right things at all the right times.  Good flying and no theatrics.  Excellent job.

Not a week later and the CAA suspends SA Express for transgressing safety monitoring.  Now that’s a bit of a shock.   Yet the suspension lasted just a day.  Twenty four hours later in a statement the CAA says.

“The lifting of the suspension comes a day after the operator’s AOC privileges were temporarily withdrawn by the SACAA, after recent inspections and audits revealed deficiencies relating to the operator’s safety monitoring systems.”

What exactly were the deficiencies?  Why not spell out the specific things that went wrong so we can figure out as passengers whether we think the airline is worth taking a chance with in the future.

Well we know.  It was the Flight Management System.  That’s a jolly big acronym known as FMS.  But the big problem is that SA Express wasn’t properly monitoring this failure.  That is verging on a crime.  If your loved one (like me I offer as example) were to fly at 600knots into a granite cloud somewhere because the FMS had failed, you’d want your pound of flesh.

Deficiencies relating to the operator’s safety monitoring systems

The flight management system is like the onboard computer.  You can input way points and destinations.  It’s like a super-charged tom tom and plugs into your display which is like a large tablet screen (or screens).  It has a database of locations, frequencies and even manouvres and saves the crew quite of a bit of navigation and other legwork.  Old_Embraer_FMS

When it fails it’s scary.  I had a failure on a simple comms the other night and it threw me.  Think about a plane, at night, in a storm, where suddenly the crew realise the FMS has failed.  It’s even worse when its reading incorrectly but you think its still working.  That’s a deadly situation.

Pilots wouldn’t know exactly where they are unless they’re also using an analogue system and VOR.   Having a problem is one thing.  Not reporting it or monitoring the problem as an airline?  That’s like Indonesia where aviation is run by corrupt and useless officials.  (Go check the facts if you think that’s an extreme statement).

SAA which owns and operates SA Express is deep, deep in the brown stuff.  And red stuff.  And accounting brackets.  Bailed out by the taxpayer,  if this taxpayer had been driven by into a mountain because the FMS had failed and SA Express was toying with standards, whoo boy.

Despite this real problem SA Express or SAX as we know them have gone all gimp-like.  Mute.

A conspiracy of silence has blown in across aviation land.   The statement issued by the CAA goes on:

“The SACAA will continue to work with all license holders to ensure that safety practices continue to be engraved in the DNA of each entity and operation *; because it is a fact that aircraft accidents, as a result of negligence or otherwise, can have a devastating effect not only on the business of operators or country, but also to the families of those that use air transport services.”

*my bold

So…  let’s get this straight dear blog reader.  We can deduce that the safety practices were NOT engraved in the DNA of SA Express.  Or is that too cute a logical deduction?

If not engraved,  then how so that within hours the DNA is suddenly and magically engraved?  What wand does the management of SAX wield that can change operating procedure and adherence at the stroke of a statement?

Can I have one of these wants to pass my dreadfully difficult aviation exams please?

Dear me.  I have to leave now for a nappy change having been born yesterday.


Stuttering Engines & A Presidential Cockpit

Last night my engine stuttered.  First it wouldn’t start.  Ok, mostly because Cirrus’s fuel injected Continental 6 cylinder engine is notoriously difficult to get going when its hot.  Its cranky.  Finally ZS-JAB roared into life and I was ready for the cross-country.  Steve was about to throw a number of night aviation curve balls at me, and I was nervous.  Then we rolled to Alpha 2 taxi way at Lanseria to conduct engine power ups and .. trouble.  During power checks the engine wouldn’t idle properly, it was coughing and wheezing.  That’s a major problem.  For when you’re landing the engine has to be idling like a purring kitty so that if a fox leaps out of the night bush you can gun the throttle and jump the brute.

But if the engine dies as you’re coming in to land, its nasty. Particularly when its as black as the ace of spades. Steve and I agreed it wasn’t safe to take off and we headed back to Hangarland. But there is a point to this pontificating.

During inspection, I noticed the left fuel tank was reading almost empty.  But the tank was full to the brim.  By now we all know the mantra about accidents happening when 3 things go wrong simultaneously.  Last night I had two out of three.  Earlier visual inspection of the fuel gauge (which often has issues) led us to conclude that the gauge was faulty.  Discomforting, but not terminal.

However a stuttering engine that’s trying to idle is a possible catastrophe waiting to happen.

This got me thinking about reports at the weekend about a training school at Heidelberg airport where questions have begun to surface about how effectively its operating.  What would have happened at other aviation institutions?  What would instructors have done at Vukani Aviation had they found their engine stuttering at 18h20 Zulu?

Heidelberg Airfield. Location of SA Flight Training Academy. SAFTA
Heidelberg Airfield. Location of SA Flight Training Academy. SAFTA

The Sunday Times reported this week that a probe has been launched by the Civil Aviation Authority into the South African Flight Training Academy, or SAFTA.  It’s owned by Nhlanhla Dube who has apparently called himself “the commander of the Presidential jet”.   I thought the president was the commander of the jet.  Dube may or may not be the captain of the presidential jet.  The Sunday Times says not.

But I digress.  Dube has received a whacking R1.2m per previously disadvantaged trainee – R66m for 59 would-be pilots.


Dube owns Vukani aviation under which SAFTA reclines.  He was the winner of the aviation lottery.  The National Skills Fund’s New Growth Path tender worth an eye-watering  R66-million.  Vukani scooped another R12-million from the Transport Education and Training Authority to train another 12 pilots.  Whooo, nice.  Who says there’s no money in aviation?

It’s taken 2 years for around a third of Vukani’s trainees to receive their Comm License.  That’s not too bad despite pundits suggesting that its dismal.  Most pilots I know have taken at least that long to go from their first day through PPL to CPL – in fact most take around 3 years because it costs so much and they need to work their way between flights.  Admittedly, these trainees are being fully funded by Ma & Pa taxpayer as opposed to everyone else.   Which means they should be in the air 6 days a week. Which means they should be getting their Comm licenses a tad quicker than you or me.

But the big issue is flight instructors.  Many have reportedly left his school after complaining about a number of issues.   One involved maintenance.  You don’t muck with maintenance.

Dube is fighting back, calling the reports the work of  “people opposed to transformation”. Like the people at the CAA apparently.   They’re also investigating an incident last week where one of Vukani’s Cessna’s ended up in a vegetable patch close to the runway at Heidelberg.

No biggie, folks.  I have personal experience of a load of incidents like this.  It’s part of learning to fly.  At least the emergency landing was made successfully too, which indicates correct training.   Then there’s the mutterings about his pilots failing to be hired by SAA or SA Express.  But that’s a bit disingenuous.  Most people need around 5 years to get close to the hours required to sit in the 1st Officers seat.


However be sure of one thing:  If the s0-called non transformed CAA finds that Dube, who didn’t own an aviation company before the initial tender, is found to be deficient in his operations,  his license will be either suspended or terminated.

Links to the president’s cockpit or not.  Will Vukani’s obvious links to the cash-dispensary known as government lead to the CAA being de-clawed?  Hope not.

Finally the crux of this biscuit is:

I hope Dube et al continue to opt out of flying when faced with a stuttering engine at 18h20 Zulu.