South African Airways (SAA) is under investigation after a flight crew miscalculated the weight onboard a cargo flight and nearly stalled the aircraft during takeoff. While automatic safety features onboard saved the day, the close call raised many concerns, including the fact that it took over three weeks for SAA to report the incident to South African civil aviation authorities.
An “Extraordinarily Dangerous” Takeoff On SAA
The incident took place on February 24, 2021. A South African Airways Airbus A340-600 (ZS-SNG) was scheduled to fly from Johannesburg (JNB) to Brussels (BRU) in order to pick up COVID-19 vaccines and other medicine and supplies.
SAA has not operated regularly during the pandemic and as a result, some pilots are out of training. South Africa’s BusinessDay reports the pilots on this flight fell into that category and had to be granted a special waiver by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) to even operate.
For reasons that are still unclear, the takeoff weight was off by 90 tons, which was enough to nearly stall the aircraft during the takeoff. The Airbus A340-600 has safety features in place, however, which kicked in, adding more power and lowering the nose of the plane.
The plane continued to Brussels without incident and returned home safely.
The Aviation Herald claims it spoke to the flight crew of the flight question and they deny it even happened. Rather, they claim there is a “well known” computer error on the A340 which displays an incorrect weight (adds 90 tons) and the aircraft was never in danger.
However, SACAA called the event “extraordinarily dangerous” and is now investigating. SACAA was also not notified of the February 24th event until March 17th.
There’s mystery surrounding this incident, especially considering the actual takeoff weight. Pilots being rusty is not a problem unique to South African Airways, but raises more questions about the beleaguered carrier and why it keeps receiving exceptions and lifelines despite being bankrupt.
image: South African Airways
Yes, Matthew, I agree that this could have been a lot more serious. In April 2013 at an airbase in Afghanistan, a civilian cargo 747 carrying supplies for the U.S. military crashed after taking off, which was caused by improperly securing 200+ tons of cargo. All crew were killed.
The crash was caught on video. It’s horrific to watch, as you can see the pilots trying to correct the weight imbalance but couldn’t.
If SAA presents an equal safety risk, then airline management must be held accountable to protect the public.
If this is a well-known computer error on the A-340 as the pilots claim, then Airbus should take prompt corrective action. In the interim, air safety boards should issue warning bulletins.
This was not a cargo flight. It was a ferry flight from Johannesburg to Brussels en route to pick up one pallet of vaccines. Total load on board was 3 pilots, 5 cabin crew and nil cargo.
How could the weight possibly be off by 90 tons? Is it a software glitch, as the flight crew told the Aviation Herald?
The crew had to do manual loadsheet calculations for this flight as the software subscription had supposedly not been renewed, so it is possible that there was a human error that was not cross checked. Takeoff data is a checklist item so this should have been caught regardless of the original error though. I’m sure the investigation (assuming there is one) will figure out the root cause.
We all have our “armchair expert” opinions. The real experts, the investigators, will determine the cause.
What a terrible airline.