The Disappearance of South African’s ‘Helderberg:’ A Look Back on the 30th Anniversary

The 747-200, registered as ZS-SAS, operated flight 295 on Nov. 28, 1987 (Photo: Pedro Aragao [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

November 28 will mark the 30 year anniversary of one of the most intriguing and controversial mysteries in aviation: the crash of South African Airways flight 295. What started as a routine flight from Taiwan to South Africa would perplex investigators and strain relations in an already divided nation. The crash fueled speculation about South Africa’s apartheid government, and the full details of the crash are still not known to this day.

A Look Back in History

On the evening of November 27, the Boeing 747-200 Combi, named Helderberg, that operated flight 295 departed Chiang Kai Shek International Airport enroute to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a planned stopover in Mauritius. The flight had 140 passengers and six pallets of cargo on the main deck, along with five flight crew members on board who were very experienced, with a combined total flight time of approximately 39,000 hours. The flight departed Kai Shek and proceeded on course for Mauritius.

As the flight cruised over the black Indian Ocean, a fire began in the cargo area on the main deck. As the airplane started filling with smoke, the flight crew made contact with Mauritius air traffic control shortly before midnight. They reported that they were making an emergency descent due to the smoke. The crew declared an emergency and began to make preparations for an emergency landing on the island.

However, 20 minutes after first making contact with Mauritius, the radios went silent. After trying for another 30 minutes to reach the South African jumbo, the Mauritius controller declared a formal emergency. Search and rescue operations began shortly thereafter for the stricken 747. Operations were hindered as the last position of the aircraft was incorrectly given, initially focusing the search closer to Mauritius.

Spotting Debris and Speculation

12 hours after the search began, the first debris was spotted on the surface of the ocean. All 140 passengers and 19 crew members perished in the crash. The initial speculation into the crash was terrorism, however, the evidence found on the little debris that was recovered at first showed none of the normal signs of a terrorist attack. A search began for the aircraft’s black boxes, though after two months the search was abandoned. The South African government contracted an American deep ocean recovery company to use sonar to search for the recorders.

Finally, on Jan. 6, 1989, almost a year after the search was first called off, the cockpit voice recorder was found in water at a depth of 16,000 feet. Although rejoiced at the time by investigators, the cockpit voice recorder proved to be of little use. They found that the fire cut out the recorder 81 seconds after the crew first received an alarm about the fire.

The initial investigation found that the aircraft crash was caused by a fire in the main deck cargo compartment. However, they were unable to find what caused the fire. None of the cargo was marked as hazardous, and nothing on the manifest was found to be suspicious. The only thing that was noted in the report was the presence of computers onboard with lithium-ion batteries.

The Search for a Cause

In 1992, the first hints of controversy began to appear in South Africa. Reports began to surface that South African Airways carried illegal arms for the South African Department of Defense. Other theories emerged that the airline also had been carrying red mercury for a South African nuclear program. Even more extreme are theories that the government placed a rocket system in the aircraft that ignited due to aircraft vibrations.

The same theory postulates that the fire actually began shortly after takeoff, and the captain pressed on due to the damage that an emergency landing would cause to South Africa. Theories such as this ran rampant in apartheid South Africa, as a majority of the population distrusted the government at the time. Another investigation was ordered after South Africa was freed from apartheid. However, just as in the first investigation, no cause for the fire could be determined.

To this day, the crash of South African Airways flight 295 has causes intrigue and controversy. The general distrust of the government at the time helped to fuel this controversy. Investigators may never know what caused the fire that November night 30 years ago. The disappearance of the ‘Helderberg’ is likely to remain one of the few unsolved mysteries of aviation.

Daniel Morley

Daniel Morley

Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.
Daniel Morley