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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 497

Paragraph Numbers 21 to 34

Volume 2

Chapter 6

Subsection 2

The crash

21 Of the thirty-four people on board the presidential aircraft at the time of the crash, only nine survived.

22 One of the survivors walked to a nearby house to ask for help. Arriving back at the scene, he found security force officers already there. Others who arrived to assist, including a nurse, told the Commission that they were chased from the site. They also reported that the security force officers were seen rummaging through the wreckage and confiscating documents. Foreign Minister Pik Botha and Mr Niel Barnard, head of the National Intelligence Service, admitted that documents had been removed from the scene for copying.

23 Mozambique was informed about the incident only a full nine hours after it happened, after a massive land and sea search. The Commission heard evidence that the Mozambican Minister of Security contacted the South African security forces as soon as the Mozambican authorities realised the plane was missing. They were not informed about the accident.

The Margo enquiry

24 The day after the crash, Mozambique and South Africa agreed that an international board of enquiry should be established with the participation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. According to the Chicago Convention, South Africa, as the state on whose territory the crash had occurred, would head up the investigation. South Africa was, however, obliged to work in partnership with the state of ownership (Mozambique) and the state of manufacture (the Soviet Union). These countries were not, however, taken on as equal partners, and withdrew their participation after the initial stages.

25 The investigation was delayed for several weeks by General Lothar Neethling’s refusal to hand over the cockpit voice recorder (the black box), which he had seized at the scene of the crash. Colonel Des Lynch, who headed the police investigation, told the Commission that it took a letter from a lawyer to persuade Neethling to release the box to the investigators.

26 The Margo Commission of Enquiry concluded that the aircraft had been airworthy and fully serviced and that there was no evidence of sabotage or outside interference. The board:

unanimously determined that the cause of the accident was that the flight crew failed to follow procedural requirements for an instrument let-down approach, but continued to descend under visual flight rules in darkness and some cloud without having contact with the minimum safe altitude and minimum assigned altitude, and in addition ignored the Ground Warning Proximity alarm.

27 The Soviet delegation issued a minority report, which stated that, their expertise and experience had been undermined. They advanced the theory of a false beacon, although Mr Justice Margo denied in his report that this charge was formally laid before the board.

28 The Soviet report focused on the 37 degrees’ right turn that led the plane into the hills of Mbuzini. It rejected the finding of the Margo Commission, saying that the crew had read the ground proximity warning as false since they believed themselves to be in flat terrain as they approached landing.

29 A former television journalist who was allowed to attend the on-site investigations by the joint Soviet, Mozambican and South African team told the Commission that the television crew was approached on the first afternoon by an investigator of the Directorate of Civil Aviation who was holding a device the size of a pound of butter. The investigator informed the television crew that this could have been a frequency scrambler.

30 During the Margo enquiry, members of the Margo enquiry team told a journalist that the device had been found to be harmless. However, an expert on mobile beacons told the Commission that the device could have decoded the aeroplane’s signal, locked onto it and been used to interfere in the direction of the aircraft.

The VOR beacon

31 The report of the Margo enquiry includes a reference to the fatal turn made by the aircraft, stating that it was following the signals of a VOR (very high frequency omnidirectional radio) which was not that of Maputo. Mr Justice Margo argued that the beacon at Matsapa airport in Swaziland, which had a similar code, might have led the plane astray.

32 The Commission received information that the Matsapa airport company, SASEA, had been run by a well-known alleged member of the Italian Mafia with close links to the South African security establishment. Intelligence reports provided by the National Intelligence Agency show that airport control in Maputo had fallen into the same hands. Control over the Matsapa airport and the Maputo control tower would have been essential to the success of a decoy beacon.

33 A South African Airways (SAA) signal expert, Mr Paul Gelpin, was emphatic that “the only way that a rogue beacon could have worked was if there was an accomplice at the Maputo VOR who switched it off for the critical period of the plot”. This possibility is strengthened by allegations that Mr Cornelio Vasco Cumbe (alias Roberto Santos Macuacua), who worked at the control tower at Maputo airport, had been recruited by the South African security forces. Moreover, Dr Abdul Minty revealed that the tapes at the Maputo airport had been lost.

34 Regarding the existence of a mobile decoy beacon, a South African Air Force flight sergeant, who was at 4AD Snake Valley near Pretoria during 1986 told the Commission that he had seen a friend building such a beacon in the month before the crash. He described the assembly and workings and provided technical sketches and background to illustrate the beacon’s appearance and operation. It had left the base with its builder during the weekend of the crash and was returned the following week.

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