Lessons from Sun-Air Boeing 737 Carrying Sudan Presidential Advisor Involved in Near Mid-Air Collision during Landing in Khartoum Airport
On Friday 26 February 2010 I was in Juba International Airport when I waved a colleague off as he boarded Sun-Air Boeing 737. About 20 minutes or so later I watched the Boeing 737 speeding across the runway before taking off gracefully into sky with a banging roar of a distance thunder.
For less than half a minute I held my breath as the technological wonder, the Boeing 737, penetrated the clouds over East of Juba city; twisting as it went in North Easterly direction with its nose pointing upwards to avoid coming close to Jebel [Mount] Lado. I could not help but admire human ingenuity and fine engineering that has allowed man to navigate the treacherous skies with such confidence so that he can get to destinations thousands of miles away in matter of hours instead of days, months, even years.
Beside internet and mobile phone, aviation industry is one of the prime enablers of globalization. However, there is a flip side to it. Safety rules must be adhered to religiously by all concerned from passengers to pilots, from ground crew to flight engineers and air hostesses in order to continue to maintain high reliability required of air travel where accidents are rare but costly when they happen. This is easy said than done, especially in the third world countries like Sudan. And here is one scary tell-tale sign of poor safety in Sudan aviation services.
On following morning (Saturday 27th Feb 2010) the colleague whom I waved off at Juba International Airport phoned to inform me how close their flight on Friday came to the brink of disaster during the landing at Khartoum International Airport. As the Sun-Air Boeing 737 was about to land, he narrated, another plane was taking off. Realizing that, the pilot of Sun-Air Boeing 737 pulled up to avoid colliding with the plane that was taking off. He then quickly dived downwards to resume the aborted landing. As a result, the aircraft’s front underway carriage hid the ground before the back carriage. The pilot struggled to control the aircraft until it came to a standstill. The passengers were shocked and scared out of their wits.
Later on the day, the passengers learned that the pilot of Sun-Air Boeing 737 was instructed by the aviation control to delay landing for 10 minutes in order to allow another aircraft to take off on the same runway. However, according to this source, the pilot ignored the advice and attempted to land, narrowly missing coming into mid-air collision with the aircraft taking off. Instead of aborting the landing, the pilot resumed landing in the middle runway, almost loosing control. By these actions, the aircraft and passengers where exposed to a double risk.
On board the Boeing 737 was Dr. Mansur Khalid, a leading member of Sudan People Libration Movement and Sudan presidential advisor, and other notables including Khartoum University law professor, Akolda Mading Tier, who is also a member of National Election Commission.
At the time when international aviation safety experts have warned of treacherous African skies, Sudan has had a fair share of aviation disasters involving passenger planes in recent years.
On July 8th, 2003, Sudan Airways Flight 139 (Boeing 737-200) crashed in Port Sudan, with exception of a 2-year old, all 117 passengers on board died. On June 10th 2008 Sudan Airways Flight 109 (Airbus A310-324) crashed during landing in Khartoum International Airport. About 30 passengers died and 178 survived. It was on its way from Amman in Jordan. Bad weather was blamed. There were numerous accidents involving crash of cargo planes in 2008 that lead to dismissal of director of Aviation in Khartoum International Airport by presidential decree.
In South Sudan, South Sudan Air Connection Beechcraft 1900 crashed near Rumbek in the morning of 2 May 2008, killing 21 passengers including South Sudan defence minister and South Sudan presidential advisor.
Sudan internal aviation industry has expanded markedly in recent years as demand for air travel increased due to rising spending power attributable to oil-driven economic boom. The airliners currently operating in the East African country include: Sudan Airways (the ailing national carrier that has been privatized with barely noticeable improvement in operating performance), Air West, Azza Transport, Blue Bird Aviation, Dove Air Service, Feeder Air Line, Marsland Aviation, Mid Airline, Bentiu Air, Nova Airline, and Sun-Air, among others.
One significant problem with Sudan aviation industry is that many of the airliners own old and creaky aircrafts, many of which have origin in countries of the old Soviet Union. Security is lax in some smaller airports due to lack of x-ray and other scanning equipment. Moreover, passengers can carry as much hand luggage as they can muster, in contrast with recently internationally adopted limit of 2 (one of which should be a laptop).
On the positive side, the newly formed privately own carriers are serious to make money and hence try to be punctual, unlike Sudan Airways which is still dodged by problems of punctuality and arbitrary cancelation of flights. This has eroded passengers’ confidence in Sudan Airways despite being regarded as more safe.
Amongst airliners serving Juba are Marsland Aviation, Feeder Airline, Sudan Airways, and Sun Air. Marsland Aviation and Sun Air are close competitors, offering flights to and from Khartoum on a daily basis. The former (Marsland) is famed for economy and availability, but perceived by passengers as less safe because of its ailing aircrafts. UN personnel have been advised not to fly on Marsland. The latter (SUN Air) is known for higher quality aircrafts, tight punctuality, and higher fares. Because, it has relatively new equipment, those who can afford choose it for safety reasons. The latest incident involving Sun-Air on Friday will undermine this hardly earned safety image of Sun-Air.
Was the Sun-Air pilot being diligent or negligent? We can never know unless a thorough investigation is carried out and results made public. It is highly likely he was being careless and irresponsible, having decided to acquire the same attitude as motorists in the streets of Khartoum who are fond of cutting corners and flouting road traffic rules. Air aviation cannot afford this sort of lax attitude to aviation traffic rules. On the other hand, there could be serious problems with aviation control service in Khartoum International airport that has let to pilot’s confusion.
Whatever the reasons, this incident will do nothing to alley fears of Sudan poor aviation safety records. Aviation decisions-makers need to move quickly to close up the hole. And Juba government needs to be concerned in regards to these developments and take steps to investigate the incident to determine the cause of the confusion against the current aviation control practices in Khartoum International Airport.
For South Sudan, it is high time for the government of the autonomous region to come up with clear vision regarding the future of aviation industry in our region. How to create safe skies and attract investment to the sector must be a top priority of such a vision.