Ask the Pilot

What caused the Kenya Airlines 737 to nose-dive just after takeoff, killing all aboard? We still don't know -- and neither does the press.

Published May 18, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 5, a Kenya Airways 737 bound for Nairobi crashed after takeoff from Douala, Cameroon, killing all 114 passengers and crew.

The wreckage of Flight 507 wasn't discovered until late the following day, found by a local hunter in a mangrove forest three and half miles from the airport. There were no survivors, and the wreckage pattern, or lack thereof, revealed a violent, presumably out-of-control impact. The plane had gone nose-first into the swamp, with only a small bit of wreckage visible at the surface. There was little else to go on, though witnesses spoke of the flight having departed toward an area of heavy rain and thunderstorms.

Reading the accounts from 6,000 miles away, it struck me that almost anything was possible: With those storms in mind, perhaps intense turbulence had caused some sort of structural damage. Perhaps torrential rain, or hail, had something to do with it. Or maybe the weather wasn't a factor at all. Who could say?

So imagine my surprise when, barely 24 hours after the accident, I came across an Associated Press wire story that included the following quote from an airline pilot: "Whatever happened must have happened very fast, which is usually a sign of catastrophic structural failure."

The line was attributed to "a U.S. based pilot and aviation expert." Maybe, but any of his colleagues who saw the story were spitting out their coffee, rightfully wondering what sort of idiot would say a thing like that, brazenly speculating on the cause of a mysterious crash before the first bodies had been pulled from the swamp. Catastrophic structural failure? Based on what? How the hell would he know?

He wouldn't. And that idiot, unfortunately, turns out to be yours truly.

If you're familiar with my columns, you know that I routinely take the AP to task for its notoriously shoddy, distortion-laden aviation coverage, particularly when crashes are involved. Why do they never come to me for quotes?

Well, this time they did. And judging from the tone and scope of the interview, there was scant reason to expect a hatchet job. The reporter I spoke with, calling from the AP's desk in Belgium, was surprisingly knowledgeable about commercial aviation and seemed duly interested in getting the facts right. We spoke for the better part of 20 minutes, discussing everything from wind shear to pilot training.

So how do 20 minutes of useful conversation turn into 16 badly misplaced words? I don't think the problem is one of laziness so much as the constraints of time and space faced by reporters. Working quickly, with deadlines only hours or even minutes away, they don't have the room for extended testimonials, and need to make snap decisions about which portions of text are the most valuable. Some do it better than others, but without a strong background in the subject matter they're covering, accurately splicing in quotes can be dangerous business.

To wit, I did indeed utter the "catastrophic structural failure" line, verbatim. Just not in relation to the disaster in Cameroon. As I remember it, the sentence had nothing to do with my thoughts on the Cameroon crash at all. During the interview, we'd gotten to talking about the crash of another 737 in Indonesia back in January -- one in which the aircraft inexplicably plunged into the sea from 33,000 feet. "Whatever happened must have happened very fast, which is usually a sign of catastrophic structural failure." I'm reasonably comfortable with that, incomplete though it is. The rest of what I said, speculating where that structural failure may have come from, was snipped away. Was it a bomb? A control problem?

Nor were you privy to the very first thing I told the reporter, reminding him that one of the worst things we can do so shortly after an accident -- any accident, no matter how revealing the circumstances might appear -- is start mouthing off about probable cause. Investigators never do that, and neither should I. Such disclaimers don't make for colorful copy, however, and tend to be ignored.

Moreover, the reporter in Belgium wasn't even the author of the finished story. I never spoke to Emmanuel Tumanjong, whose byline graces the article in which my words appear. Apparently the quotes were passed along, and in this case were plugged haphazardly into a markedly different conversation. I also noticed that different versions of Tumanjong's article appeared in different publications. Some of them, including a wire story that ran here at Salon, included a fuller account of what I'd said. Others, like the one featured in USA Today, made me sound foolish. Journalists can write what they want; editors have the final say.

In short, the onus is on the interviewee as much as the reporter. The trick is to speak as concisely as possible. There will not be space for elaborate technical explanations. Your articulate dissertation on the nuances of wind shear will be sifted down to a sensationalist passage or two. At the same time, try to slip in as many qualifiers -- "may have been," "probably wasn't," etc. -- as you can. Speculate cautiously, and keep all answers tightly glued to the specific questions asked. If you're asked about Cameroon, don't start talking about Indonesia as a point of comparison.

So what did happen in Cameroon? Well, I'll remind you that one of the worst things we can do so shortly after an accident -- any accident, no matter how revealing the circumstances might appear -- is start mouthing off about probable cause. If solving crashes were that simple, it wouldn't take months, sometimes years, for the final reports to come out. Rarely are things as clear-cut as the headline writers wish they were. In the majority of cases there is no single, definitive cause. Instead, we find a chain of errors and failures, innocuous on their own but fatal in combination.

Nothing is for certain, but the more we learn, the more it appears that weather did, in some way, play a role. By "weather" we mean thunderstorm. Few things are less friendly to airplanes than thunderstorms: those great caldrons of energy and wickedness. Although not every storm can kill you -- most, actually, are perfectly survivable, if uncomfortable to ride through -- pilots the world over give them as wide a berth as practical, judging their proximity with on-board radar. But storm cells can be fickle, their contours hard to determine, their power and range unpredictable, subjecting the unlucky trespasser to wind shear, hail, extreme turbulence, intense rain, lightning. Did one or more of those things bring down Kenya Airways?

Chillingly, the latest reports from Douala indicate that Flight 507 took off even as other flights elected not to, opting instead to wait out the passing storm. Why the crew made this decision I cannot say. Pure recklessness is tough to accept. Perhaps, based on what they saw on radar, they believed their assigned departure course would keep them out of harm's way. Other aircraft, maybe, were headed in different directions. We don't know. Neither do we know what happened next.

Whatever it was, I doubt it's as simple as the aircraft flying into rough air and being tossed to its doom. Yet that's exactly what a follow-up Associated Press story suggested. If you're a squeamish flier who gets nervous during turbulence, you likely gasped out loud at the following:

"Investigators said that a violent gust of wind within a thundercloud may have flipped the airliner over, throwing it into a fatal dive. Although modern jets can usually fly through storm clouds, storms in Africa are particularly violent at this time of the year ... The location of the wreckage also indicates the pilot was maneuvering at the time, banking sharply to the right. This would have exposed the raised left wing to the gust, investigators said."

Good grief. That's another coffee spitter, which thankfully I had nothing to do with. I haven't any idea who the source was, but based on my own experiences I'll grant him or her the benefit of the doubt. I smell a bad case of stripped context and/or misunderstanding, as no professional investigator, especially at this juncture, would ever volunteer such strange conjecture. Thunderstorms can be fierce, but I'm happy to vouch that gusts of wind do not, as a rule, flip airliners onto their backs and into fatal dives. It's not impossible, but it's extremely unlikely.

The plane was airborne for only about 30 seconds and never climbed higher than approximately 3,000 feet. With that in mind, one thing to consider is an encounter with a microburst. Microbursts are localized, downward-flowing columns of air found on the leading edge of strong storms. Picture an inverted mushroom cloud. As the air mass descends, it disperses outward in all directions, creating potentially hazardous wind shear. Microbursts aren't very common, but they're able to wreak havoc on aircraft low to the ground. At least three tragic crashes in the United States were attributed to microbursts: Delta Flight 191 in Dallas in 1985; Pan Am Flight 759 in New Orleans in 1982; and Eastern Flight 66 at JFK airport in 1975. (The latter is recounted brilliantly, and quite movingly, in my favorite-ever work of nonfiction, James Kaplan's "The Airport.") You'll notice the most recent of those catastrophes took place more than 20 years ago, which will provide some insight into how good we've become at forecasting and staying clear of microbursts. But the airport in Douala is not outfitted with the kind of warning system found elsewhere in the world, and although the 737-800 is equipped with both weather radar and high-tech wind shear avoidance equipment, that's never an absolute guarantee.

Then again, microbursts aren't usually dangerous unless a plane is very close to the ground. Three thousand feet would be abnormally high. So, here's an alternate scenario: First, looking at their radar as they sit on the runway, the crew misjudges the plane's proximity to the nearby storm cell, as well as the storm cell's strength. They depart. Almost immediately, on climb-out, they're getting slammed by heavy turbulence and shearing winds. Suddenly hail begins pelting the windshield. Moments later, an engine fails because of hail ingestion. Yes, it can fly perfectly well on the remaining engine, but then a powerful lightning strike knocks out both main electrical systems. The primary instruments go dark. Now the pilots are relying on backup instruments, with one engine failed (maybe both?), seconds after takeoff in the midst of a heavy storm. Before they have the chance to troubleshoot the electrics and restore power, they become disoriented. The aircraft stalls and crashes. All of that in less than 30 seconds.

Purely theoretical, but I use it to illustrate the complex, perfect-stormishness (pardon the pun) of many accidents. It's the kind of thing you're liable to be reading about months from now, when the findings are released. (It's also the kind of thing that, once newspapers get ahold of it, becomes a lurid headline: "Lightning Strike Downed Plane.") We have five factors -- a hail encounter, an engine failure, lightning, an electrical failure, together with the poor judgment of taking off into a thunderstorm. None of those things, alone, should kill anybody. Once they start compounding, it's another story. (If you're concerned about lightning specifically, as many passengers are, click here.)

Meanwhile, it's hard not to feel bad for Kenya Airways. In a continent much maligned for allegedly unsafe flying, the carrier has a proud history and is highly regarded for running a tight ship. Established in 1977, Kenya flies a new, all-Boeing fleet throughout Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It had suffered only one prior accident, seven years ago off the coast of Abidjan, in Côte d'Ivoire. (It's ironic too that the accident comes only a few weeks after my piece on the myths and misconceptions of air safety in Africa.)

Last week, at a meeting in Ethiopia, Christian Folly-Kossi, secretary-general of the African Airlines Association, a trade group based in Accra, Ghana, said that safety remains a primary threat to the viability of Africa's airlines. Folly-Kossi blames "brain drain" for many of the industry's woes, pointing out that carriers in Asia and the Gulf region routinely poach pilots, cabin crew and management staff from Africa. "Brain drain is seriously depleting our industry of its most experienced and qualified human resources," he said, arguing for "vigorous governmental, political and diplomatic interventions that can help stem the hemorrhage."

Be that as it may, and readily conceding that Africa's safety record is not on a par with that of North America or Europe, it would nonetheless be unwise to view the crash of May 5 as an automatic indictment of Kenya Airways -- or of African carriers in general. No single airline, or region, is immune to occasional tragedy.

Eventually we'll know what happened. Until then, all I can tell you for sure is that I now have a better understanding of why many people are reluctant to speak with the press. For readers, the rule of thumb hasn't changed: Sprinkle those media reports liberally with salt.

Africa's Largest Airlines

1. South African Airways
Annual passengers: 7.1 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 1

2. EgyptAir
Annual passengers: 5.3 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 3

3. Tunisair
Annual passengers: 3.8 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 0

4. Royal Air Maroc
Annual passengers: 3.6 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 1

5. Air Algerie
Annual passengers: 3.1 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 3 (includes one cargo-only flight)

6. Comair (South Africa)
Annual passengers: 3 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 0

7. Kenya Airways
Annual passengers: 2.4 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 2 (founded 1977)

8. Ethiopian Airlines
Annual passengers: 1.7 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 2 (includes one hijacking)

9. Nationwide (South Africa)
Annual passengers: 1.3 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 0 (founded 1991)

10. Air Mauritius
Annual passengers: 1.2 million
Fatal mishaps since 1970: 0

The list excludes Virgin Nigeria Airways, which does not publish passenger totals and has been operating only since 2004. Africa as a whole accounts for less than 2 percent of global air traffic. For comparison, the largest U.S. carriers transport anywhere from 45 million (Continental) to 100 million (American Airlines) passengers every year.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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