Fernelmont: a crash still beyond comprehension

Unknowns abound after the Fernelmont tragedy.

The aircraft had been damaged in 2002.

Any relation to Saturday’s crash? No one is sure.

One of the worst tragedies in Belgian aeronautical history played out on Saturday in the Namur region. A tragic accident plunged eleven Belgian families into agonizing grief. It has also raised many questions. Parents, wives and children are now mourning while the experts attempt to determine the cause, which on Sunday still seemed inexplicable to all those involved. An update on the investigation:

Circumstances surrounding the accident: some things are certain…

A little before 4 p.m., ten experienced skydivers and their pilot take their seats in the Pilatus parked on the Temploux airport tarmac in Namur. The aircraft is scheduled to take off and drop the skydivers in the Fernelmont region where their families and friends await them on the ground. They don’t want to miss out on any of their jumps. Minutes go by, but no parachutes appear in the sky. A few kilometers away in a field in Belgressée, close to Fernelmont, rescue units quickly locate the aircraft’s burning wreckage. Emergency procedures are started, but it’s already too late. The eleven occupants, ten men and one woman, perished in the accident. “When we arrived, the aircraft was on fire and completely broken up. The victims were scattered all over the ground,” explained Lieutenant Michel Doumont of the Namur firefighters on the night of the tragedy.

After receiving the news of the death of their loved ones, the families went to the site of the accident. In the early evening, they travelled to the Temploux airport where the bodies had been taken prior to being transported to Gilly. There, the judicial authorities would identify them. A little after 7 p.m., the king, Elio Di Rupo, Joëlle Milquet and mayor of Namur Maxime Prévot went to the airport.  “The worst part was seeing these people pursue their passion for skydiving, and then, seeing people in despair who just lost their loved ones,” Di Rupo said to the press.

…and the unknowns

A double investigation was opened to determine the exact circumstances of this tragedy. The Namur prosecutor is leading the first one. They need to find out if the aircraft had been thoroughly and correctly inspected and if the flight had been correctly prepared. SPF Mobilité is directing the second one through its Air Accident Unit (AAIU) to establish if any anomalies had ever been detected in the aircraft’s records. On Sunday night, the wreckage was taken to Beauvechain where the experts could continue their work.

The left wing seems to have separated shortly before the crash while the craft was gaining altitude. Pieces of metal were found near wind turbines located two kilometers from the crash. The first analyses demonstrated, however, that this was a simple coincidence. Why did the craft lose a wing, then a door? “Technically, it’s very hard to understand”, explains Maurice Hoex, President of the Walloon skydiving club federation. “This makes no sense on two levels. First, the aircraft was climbing. The forces involved are weaker when gaining altitude than during descent. Two, a stalled engine can happen…but a wing tearing off as well as a sliding door? I’m puzzled.”

A small plane like the Pilatus doesn’t have a black box. However, voice recordings could exist. The Temploux airport uses the local frequency and Belgocontrol is responsible for national air traffic. The former did not wish to give out any information. No one can tell if the pilot’s voice could have been recorded through the local radio frequency. Arnaud Mouqué, an independent skydiving trainer and member of the not-for-profit organization Skydive states, “There are no guarantees. I don’t think that the local frequencies are consistently recorded.”

Since skydiving takes place at 4,000 meters in altitude, it’s possible that Belgocontrol might have a recording from the Pilatus:  “If this aircraft was in an air traffic control zone, there would be a recording. We do this systematically,” explains Nadine Meetens, the group spokesperson. The plane’s exact altitude remains to be determined. Belgocontrol becomes involved only when an aircraft reaches the commercial airline air corridors. This altitude varies from one geographical zone to another.  “I think there could be a recording,” she continues.  “Even if it exists, there’s a chance that the pilot didn’t have the time to say anything.”

Main issue: the aircraft’s maintenance

The Pilatus aircraft must undergo maintenance every hundred hours. “There are two criteria: the number of takeoffs and total flight hours,” explains Arnaud Mouqué.  “The Pilatus turbine must be inspected when it reaches the hundred hour mark.  We then take the opportunity to perform all the maintenance. It’s really very exacting,” he continues. These inspections become more rigorous once the aircraft reaches a set number of flight hours.

Maurice Hoex affirms: “Each part of the aircraft undergoes regular inspections. In this particular case the investigation will determine the date of the plane’s last inspection. If it occurred at its scheduled time, the craft was cleared for flight. A pilot never boards a plane if there’s something wrong.”

Frequency of use must also be considered. The Pilatus was usually flown several times in rotation. This Saturday, though, the plane was only on its second flight. “It’s true that they’re used pretty intensively,” maintains Hoex. “As far as I can tell, there is no thought that a repair issue may have been responsible in view of the maintenance frequency. In addition, the high flight frequency keeps an aircraft from being used after having sat idle for too long in a hangar. That would be a real problem.” “These planes are made to carry a heavy human payload and for intensive use. They can perfectly easily manage fifteen rotations per day”, explains Mouqué.

Finally, this terrible question: Is it possible that human lives were needlessly put at risk by using a plane in Temploux that had been damaged in Moorsele in 2002, an accident that caused a casualty? In Mouqué’s eyes, this does not present a problem: “A car that hit a pole can still be driven once it’s been repaired. The same goes for an aircraft except it’s even safer since almost all the parts are replaced.” And an even more concrete example: “When I took up skydiving, I started with a Pilatus that flew in the Vietnam war. It was the same plane except it had been reconditioned. It’s still flying. The Pilatus involved in the Temploux accident had flown for about a decade without any issues since its accident in 2000. I think that the mechanics are not at all the issue here.” 

ANN-CHARLOTTE BERSIPONT

LUDIVINE PONCIAU

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