‘Rietbok’ plane disaster: ‘We will not forget’

Henry

It is exactly 57 years ago today that a tragic plane crash – one of the most controversial plane disasters in South Africa – rocked the entire country.

After almost six decades, the mystery of what exactly happened that day may finally be solved when a team of researchers will try to recover parts of the plane’s wreckage.

The reed goat – A Vickers Viscount passenger plane of the South African Airways (SAA) – disappeared into the sea near East London on 13 March 1967, with a total of 20 passengers and five crew members on board. However, the real cause of the disaster remains a mystery to this day.

Wouter Botes, pilot, investigator and producer of the TV series Flights to Nowhere, Plane Wreck Hunter and Dead ends, however, says that the most likely cause of the disaster may have been an error of judgment on the part of the pilot in command, Capt. Gordon Lipawsky, and the poor weather conditions were.

It is thanks to Botes and his team’s hard work that the reed goat ‘s wreck was found after years of searching in August 2022 at a depth of 65 m in the sea, not far from where it crashed.

He hopes that the weather will cooperate.

“If the weather conditions are not right in April and May, we will have to postpone the recovery effort until September.

“Our main aim for April is to do decent surveys of the wreckage fields using very good 3D equipment so that we can determine exactly what lies where, how big it is, and what we can or cannot recover. So we would like to see if we can get decent photos of how the wreck is spread out on the seabed.

“You can hardly see your hand in front of you at that depth in the ocean and we will have to provide specific coordinates to the divers to eventually recover some of the wreckage.”

Regarding whether the wreckage will be recovered, Botes says, “it will and will happen this year, the exact time however all depends on the sea currents and weather”. Flight 406 from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg via East London and Bloemfontein left late on Monday afternoon in bad weather. Capt. Lipawsky was in command with four crew members and 20 passengers on board. Lipawsky left the plane with more fuel than usual because he realized that he might not be able to land in East London due to the prevailing unfavorable weather conditions.

The plane later crashed into the sea near Kayserstrand, around 19:15.

“The cause of the accident was most likely that Lipawsky flew lower than he thought. Due to the bad weather, the air pressure at sea level was lower than usual and this caused the plane’s altimeter, which determines the height by barometric pressure, to not show the correct reading.”

The search for survivors was extremely challenging due to the poor weather conditions and visibility.

“The sea currents were strong and the waves high, which made the rescue operation almost impossible. Unfortunately, the attempt was in vain and everyone on board perished in the accident.”

Botes says it is extremely important for him to recover the wreckage because the families of the deceased have not yet been able to find closure.

“The families had no one to bury and the chances of finding human remains are basically zero, but if we can recover the wreckage, we can in a way bring closure to the families of the 25 victims.

“I would like the families to know that we will never forget this tragic accident. We will commemorate it every year on the 13th of March – we will do something special every year to remember the victims of this plane disaster.”

He says that although there were claims that certain individuals discovered the wreckage in later years, no public announcement was ever made about it.

“According to the official report at the time, the wreckage was never located and no attempt was made by authorities to recover any artifacts or wreckage.”

However, in 2019, with the help of modern technology, Botes began to put the puzzle pieces together one by one. Among other things, he worked with the University of Port Elizabeth and put together a team to help determine the exact location of the wreck.

RNews will accompany Botes and his team in April where they will make an effort to recover parts of the plane.

“If we can recover the plane and locate a certain piece of the plane, we will be able to put the last piece of the puzzle together.”

Botes says that when some of the wreckage is recovered, it will be taken to the museum in East London to be treated in specially equipped chemical baths.

“We are also already engaged in negotiations that some of the wreckage will be exhibited in Gauteng and East London so that people from the Cape and from the north of the country will be able to see it.”

Botes says the fact that the reed goat was the only SAA plane ever to go missing was the main reason why he launched the search for the wreckage.

“This accident happened at a time when the technology was still very limited. With the modern technology, I knew I stood a chance of finally finding the wreck.”

Long, drawn out process

Botes says it was a very long and protracted process to determine the exact location of the wreck.

“I did an incredible amount of research. It was extremely difficult to determine exactly where the wreck might lie, especially due to the size of the ocean and the rough sea conditions off East London.

He started with the coordinates of the official report, but couldn’t find anything. “I then reconstructed the flight from a pilot’s point of view and the puzzle then began to make more sense.”

He later received secret documents following a newspaper report of a large ship that was conducting geological surveys and happened to come across the wreck without them realizing it.

“This confirmed our suspicion about where the wreckage lies. I then approached individuals to perform specific functions to assist me in my effort to locate the wreckage. For example, I had to hire a boat and divers and I had to find sponsors to finance it.”

Botes and the team he assembled soon after found the wreckage – which is spread over two wreckage fields.

“There were other indications as well, for example pieces of the wreck began to wash up on Kayserstrand, after which I was later able to determine – with the help of records compiled by the University of Port Elizabeth on the strength of the sea currents – where the pieces that washed up on the beach, come from.”