September 17, 2021, will be the 60th anniversary of the plane crash that killed our uncle Vlado, Dag Hammarskjold, and 14 of their brave colleagues while flying on a peace mission to Ndola, and we continue to wait for justice. For this reason, I am especially grateful to those who have no direct connection to the crash, who have made it their mission to help us uncover the truth with independent research and inquiry.
In July of this year, Joseph (Joe) Majerle III shared his own analysis of the crash with all the relatives, and it is an incredibly thoughtful and moving effort to support us. The points he makes deserve serious examination, and I want everyone to read it, so I am publishing it here in full – it offers a new perspective that was eye-opening for me, and lifted my spirits. Thank you, Joe!
AN ANALYSIS OF THE EVIDENCE CONTAINED IN RHODESIAN REPORT’S
ANNEXES II AND III AN D THE U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY REPORT A/5069 PERTAINING TO THE CRASH OF DOUGLAS DC-6B SE-BDY S/N 43559 ON SEPTEMBER 17-18, 1961
By Joseph Majerle III
I AM NOT a professional aircraft accident investigator. I am writing this account because
after reading the reports of the crash, the professional aircraft accident investigators
that were tasked with determining the facts of this tragedy, or for that matter, anyone
else that has viewed the evidence contained in the above–mentioned files, have not
come forward and pointed out the glaring misperceptions, dismissiveness of obvious
real evidence, and inappropriate focus on irrelevancies that shaped the conclusions of
the reports. In addition, there is at least one aspect that I can only describe as a
deliberate inaccuracy that I consider to be of decisive importance. The Annex III and U.N. A/5069 reports, following the original Board report, did not effectively question the
basic premises of the Investigating Board report as presumably would have been their
purpose; which is why nearly 60 years after the crash this subject is still very unresolved
for a surprising number of people.
I AM PRIMARILY, an aircraft mechanic. But, I earned a private pilot’s license and
had begun commercial and instrument flight training before earning any of my
mechanics ratings. Before I had any ratings at all, I had already built and flown my first
airplane out of salvaged, crashed, repaired and new parts. At this point, I was already
self-employed in the aircraft maintenance, salvage and rebuild business.
I started salvaging airplanes from crash sites in 1974, studying whatever evidence was
left at the scene in an effort to understand what and how the accident happened. With
the advent of the Internet and the posting of Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports online, I have been able to read
many reports going back to at least to the mid 1930’s because I was interested in
learning what was known about particular incidents that I had heard about as a
youngster, and for well into adulthood.
I decided to abandon thoughts of becoming a professional pilot because at the
time there were probably ten newly qualified commercial and airline transport pilots
competing for every available job opening, and operators had their pick of the best. In
the maintenance field, however, it was the opposite story; at the flight school there was
only one mechanic, recently licensed, and not very confident at all in his abilities. As an
experienced, but not yet licensed mechanic, I assisted him in getting the flight school’s
grounded aircraft operational again. For all intent and purpose, I have never been
without work since.
I do not think it is inappropriate that I should be the person to write this report.
What is required here is a broad-based, general knowledge of aviation, aircraft, their
operations. I do not think an investigator has to have a DC-6 type rating to know how they are operated; provided one consults pilots with the rating to confirm what published documents like airplane flight manuals and Approved Type Certificate (A.T.C.)
specifications say. Here in Alaska, it is very possible that we currently have the largest
base of DC-6 experience operating, on a daily basis, in the world. I have known a great
many DC-6 type rated pilots in my lifetime, to say nothing of having been related to one
Any reader who wants to challenge what I state in this document is urged to
consult with their own “expert(s)”. I do not claim to be an expert on any aspect of this;
however every DC-6 expert that I consulted throughout this process confirmed readily
what I thought to be the case when I presented them with the evidence. So that is why I
think that it is time to reexamine what actually happened during the crash, as opposed
to what most of the world thinks happened. Because, the two are very different.
It is not within my area of expertise to speculate on the “why” of what caused the
precipitating action of this accident. I have read a number of reports and books over
recent years that attempt to tackle that subject, but I have nothing to contribute to what
other researchers, with apparent objective credibility, have amassed.
I am, however, bothered enough by the acceptance of the original Rhodesian
premises by the world at large and former U.N. officials, and the effect these
misconceptions have had on the descendants, relatives, and friends of the victims, crew
and passengers, that I am submitting this document to whom it may concern.
The Annex II report sets a number of premises that have gone unquestioned. They are,
and I will attempt to order them in terms of occurring chronology, as follows:
- That the aircraft crashed during the course of making a “normal instrument
- That the aircraft was not on fire prior to its collision with the anthill on the
- That the crew could be faulted for not having transmitted a declaration of
emergency during the approach.
- That the crew could be faulted for the wreckage being found with the landing
lights in the off position.
- That the captain could be faulted for not having broadcast all of his intentions to
the destination airport, especially in an area known to be hostile to U.N.
These points, in addition to others, are where I will begin.
THE INSTRUMENT APPROACH
Annex II, part 3, par. 12.6 “. . .hit trees and the ground at a shallow angle of 5 degrees or
less, at what appears to have been normal approach speed, at an altitude of 4357 feet
MER (?) with its undercarriage locked down, flaps partially extended, and with all four engines developing power and all the propellers in the normal pitch range, heading
towards the Ndola radio beacon on a landing approach.”
There are four main parts of this statement to be addressed. They are to be
considered in light of the aircrafts position in relation to the Ndola airport, which
according to Annex II Part 1 par. 1 item 1.1 was “From Ndola aerodrome control tower
8.05 nautical miles on a true bearing 279 degrees.” 8.05 nautical miles is over 9.25
statute miles, from the airport at which it was intending to land.
01. “Normal approach speed” in my experience is based upon the aircraft’s stall
speed, landing speed, and minimum control speed in multi-engine aircraft. It varies with
combinations of all of the above and is normally calculated in percentages above the stall speed, which itself varies with differing weights, centers of gravity, bank angle,
flap/high-lift device deployment, etc. In standard airport traffic area there is also a
speed limit of 156 knots (180 mph.) Since the beginning of the age of the jumbo jets and
the airports from which they operate, the speed restrictions have been raised because
many of that class of aircraft have higher stall speeds than 156 knots (180 mph.), so for
them, there is only the 250 knots (288 mph.) below 10,000 feet rule, which I believe
applies to all airspace complying with ICAO rules.
Normal approach speed, at that stage of the approach, should have been 160
knots (184 mph.) or even more in this case, with this captain concerned about the
possibility of armed, hostile aircraft in the general area. In consultation with a DC-6
captain, he said except in very unusual circumstances the standard instrument approach speed up to the final approach fix, which in this case was the Ndola NDB, 2.5 nautical miles, 2.875 statute miles from the runway end, would be 160 knots (184 mph.)
Maximum flap extension speed is 139 knots (160 mph.)
The point that needs to be made here, and clearly with no ambiguity, is that there
would have been no reason whatsoever in a normal instrument approach, especially in
good weather conditions, to have had the aircraft slowed down to landing configuration
while over 9 miles away from the airport. Standard procedure would be to begin
deploying landing flaps and landing gear upon reaching the final approach fix, which in
this case was the Ndola NDB (non directional beacon), approx. 3 miles from the runway,
which is a fairly average distance for an NDB or a VOR (very high frequency omni-directional range) to be situated to a runway. That the aircraft was found configured for
landing at the farthest point it was going to reach away from the airport during its
instrument approach, means that the pilot would have had to slow-fly it throughout all
of the rest of the approach procedure to a landing at the airport. There is absolutely
nothing normal about that. This was the very first thing that struck me when I initially
read the report. It is indicative, however, OF A LANDING ATTEMPT AT THE LOCATION
WHERE IT CAME TO REST.
02. “. . .with its undercarriage locked down, flaps partially extended, . . .”
The DC-6 series aircraft have a stall speed of approximately 80 knots (92 mph.), and
consequently a lower approach speed than the jet airliners that replaced them beginning in the 1960’s. The closest replacement is the Boeing 737 series, which like the DC-6 have an approximately 30,000 lb. payload and were generally intended to operate from the same runways that the DC-series used. While the Boeing will neither take off or land and stop in as short a distance as a DC-6 due to its higher stall and approach speeds, the differences are not gigantic. For this project I consulted a Boeing 737 captain whose career spanned the 737-200 series thru the 900 series, and was told, again, that landing gear and landing flap settings were deployed upon reaching the final approach fix, which is generally approximately 3 miles from the end of the runway. This, in an aircraft with higher approach and landing speeds.
Wing flaps increase both lift and drag, and were originally developed to enable an
aircraft to make steeper approaches to land without increasing speed that would need to be bled off during rollout after touchdown, in other words to shorten the landing to a
stop distance. That they would also reduce the takeoff distance and improve the climb
performance was a secondary consideration. Annex II part 10 par. 10.3.4.2 states that all indications were that the flaps were in the 30 degree position. I would estimate that this is approximately optimal for lift and slow flight which would be desirable for the lowest approach and landing speed based upon experience with numerous different types of aircraft; I have flown a number of different airplanes with flap deployment angles beyond 35 degrees and noticed that at angles much beyond 35 resulted in much higher drag components than lift components and engineering books generally support that observation based on wind tunnel testing. The higher angles of extension were generally useful only for bleeding off excess altitude quickly in situations where a pilot wanted to get a lot closer to the ground in a hurry. To my experience, 30 degrees was optimal landing flap in many, but not all, types. Again, it is indicative OF A LANDING ATTEMPT AT THE LOCATION WHERE IT CAME TO REST.
03. “. . .with all 4 engines developing power . . .”
10.1.4 states “. . . the four engines were broken from their mountings and severely
damaged by impact and subsequent fire . . . .” Examination of photographs in the
appendix reveals that engines #1, 2, and 3 had fallen to the ground after the aluminum
nacelle structures melted away in the fire subsequent to coming to rest, and the straight steel tube struts of the actual engine mounts are still straight and attached to the engines. Furthermore, the above mentioned engines are all still in the approximate
positions they would have occupied on the wing with only the #4 engine having
detached in the crash sequence, and it is laying in probably very close proximity to
where it was wrenched from the wing during the cartwheel arc.
The second thing that struck me upon first viewing the wreckage plan is that almost
the entire aircraft is still in one place.10.2.1 “The main wreckage was contained in an
area approximately 60 feet by 90 feet . . . .”
The DC-6 is almost exactly 100 feet long with a 117’6” wingspan, which means after
it came to rest and cooled down the whole of the main wreckage would fit within the
same rectangle as its original size. The wreckage plan, as surveyed, indicates that the
vast majority of its original parts ended up oriented in the approximate positions that
they occupied prior to the crash. In other words, throughout the crash sequence, very
little of the aircraft was displaced from itself until very close to the end of its movement.
This indicates a low energy crash with a very slow speed impact, at least relative to even
minimum flying speed, to say nothing of a 160 knot instrument approach speed. 160
knots (184 statute mph.) is a velocity of almost exactly 270 feet per second. The wreckage plan length of 760 ft. from first point of treetop contact to ground strike of the fuselage nose (10.1.1) is approximately one half of what I have observed to occur in
unintentional controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) crashes during my time in this
business. It is, however, in addition to viewing the appendix photographs of the site that
were taken from the ground and from the air, completely consistent with the path of an
aircraft with an 80 knot stall speed being intentionally landed.
Aircraft that are only capable of even 120 knots in unintentional CFIT crashes
generally never resemble an airplane by the time all of the parts come to a stop, their
propellers are almost never still attached to the engines, their landing gear are almost
never anywhere near where they were originally attached, and their tail groups when
broken off have usually broken the control cables in overload displaying a “broomstraw” effect. In this case, when the tailcone broke off in the cartwheel there wasn’t enough energy left to pull the cables apart. If I had to estimate the minimum speed required to disintegrate the nose section of the fuselage such as is displayed in the wreckage plan and what can be seen of the remains in the photographs, I would say that it would require at most only about 50 to 60 knots to do that kind of damage. It was explained to me in 1986 by a good friend that was a DC-6 captain at that time, that the 4-engine DC-series had a somewhat fragile nose landing gear structure but not unusually so compared to other makes in it’s class; but when they tore out of the fuselage it often did a lot of other damage and could possibly make the incident beyond economic repair. I saw an example of that just last fall (2020) where a DC-4 had its nose landing gear torn out in a ditch at barely more than walking speed; the damage extended through both sides of the factory break joint where the nose (flight deck, cockpit) section attaches to the forward fuselage section and the operator decided that it was beyond economical repair, according to a conversation with his director of maintenance. This should reflect no discredit on the part of the designers; from personal experience repairing nose landing gear damage on many different types of nosewheel type airplanes it is generally a fragile part of all of them.
04. “. . .and all the propellers in the normal pitch range, . . .”
This statement stretches ambiguity beyond limits. The Hamilton Standard
43E60/6895A-8 propellers such as were installed on SE-BDY (of which I have owned
several sets and still possess a crate full of hub and dome parts) has a normal pitch
range of approximately 90 degrees from neutral for feathering and forward thrust and maybe 20 degrees aft of neutral for reverse thrust. 10.3.4.4 states: “Inspection of the propeller stop ring assemblies confirmed that the angular setting of all propellers was in the constant speed range.”
First, the stop rings do not determine the constant speed range; they are only the
outer limits of the blade travel, at full feather and full reverse. The constant speed range
is a function of the engine driven governor and the distributor valve assembly housed
within the hub and dome and is sensed with electrical switches attached to the blades
and actuated with an electric motor driven oil pump mounted on the engine reduction
gear nose case immediately behind the propeller hub, with a rubber/spring lip seal
interfacing the parting surfaces. The only way to determine the angular setting of the
blades in this installation is to measure with a propeller protractor against the rotational axis.
Second, the constant speed range is also a function of the engine turning at a high
enough RPM for the governor to supply enough boosted oil pressure to operate the
distributor valve to keep the blades off of the low pitch stop, which in reversing
propellers such as these is again a function of the distributor valve. But for the purposes of this analysis, that is not important.
Third, the photographic evidence, is what is important. The U.N. report appendix
contains photographs with 16-digit letter/number codes, of which I saved fifteen to a
file, beginning with S-0727-0004-01-00002, and following will be referencing the last
two digits. I will reference the individual blades in clock face numbers, as viewed from
the rear of the engine looking forward as is standard practice.
It is difficult to differentiate between engine#1 and engine#4 because there were
fewer views of #4, but both could be identified by orientation with the wreckage plan. It
is readily apparent that both of these had almost identical damage to their blades, except that the third blade on #4 is not visible. Photo 07 shows #4 with the 10 o’clock blade in standard reverse thrust position. The 2 o’clock blade has had its spring pack drives sheared in overload during the ground strike and has rotated on its pivot axis into an approximate reverse feather position, with its trailing edge forward instead of its leading edge when in standard feather mode. This indicates that its leading edge struck the ground hard enough to shear the spring packs while the leading edge of the blade was rotated aft of its plane of rotation, in other words while at a reverse thrust angle. With 2 of the 3 blades coming to rest in a reverse thrust angle, I think it’s safe to assume that the propeller was fully operating in the reverse thrust mode at time of impact.
The #1 engine is well represented in the photographs, with all blades visible.
Photo 16 shows the 10 o’clock blade in standard reverse thrust position, spring
packs intact. The 2 o’clock blade is in reverse feather position, spring packs sheared
as per the same blade on the #4 engine, and the 6 o’clock blade is also in standard
reverse thrust position, spring packs intact, but has bent aft throughout its length
progressively to the tip which is common when rotation is coming to a stop while the
engine and airframe behind it are still moving forward. That the propellers on
engines #1 and #4 are far less damaged than the ones on #2 and #3 is partially due
to the fact that they were mounted higher on the wings due to wing dihedral, and
didn’t penetrate the ground as deeply when they struck.
Photo 07 shows #2 engine with its 2 o’clock blade rotated into a reverse feather
position also, spring packs sheared. The broken off shank of what would be the 10
o’clock blade is in standard feather position, spring packs intact. What would be the 6
o’clock blade is not visible in this view, and I haven’t found any other photos showing it,
but based on its proximity to the ground I think it’s reasonable to assume that it also was sheared off during its ground strike.
Photo 33 shows #3 engine, which reveals its 2 o’clock blade broken off at what I
would estimate at most to be its 25” station, which is measured from the propeller shaft
centerline. It is clearly in a standard reverse thrust position, spring packs intact. The 10
o’clock blade is broken off 1.5” to 2” outboard of the hub clamp halves, so close to its
round shank section that its angular position is inconclusive. The 6 o’clock blade has
broken off inside of the hub clamp halves through the blade bushing bore; it obviously
fragmented into a number of pieces. As with all three of the other engine’s propellers, I
think it is reasonable to assume that the #3 propeller was fully in the reverse thrust mode when the blades struck the ground. I would deduce from the condition of the #3
propeller that it was positioned to penetrate the ground the deepest and most solidly of
the four. The #3 engine also received by far the most fire damage after coming to rest
most likely due to its proximity to the most remaining fuel in the right hand wing. I will
discuss this in more detail later.
I have thought long and hard about how to estimate how much power the engines
were developing at the moment the propellers struck the ground, and it is a difficult
question. The propeller blades were group 4, an early post-war development and were
the strongest of all the Hamiltons ever built for piston engines, generally used only on
the latest and most powerful post-war radial engines. I am not aware of any empirical
strike strength tests, which is not to say that Hamilton Standard didn’t conduct any, I
just haven’t heard about them. If I had to guess I would estimate that it would require a
high-cruise manifold pressure setting to shear them off and break them through the
blade bore bushing hole as is evident in the photos. The captain clearly had gotten the
throttles well forward and was making a lot of reverse thrust before the nose landing
gear collapsed and the nose and propellers hit the ground.
THE WRECKAGE PLAN
The Annex II wreckage plan and the photographs of the descent path appear to show a
deliberate, controlled descent with directional control maintained all the way to the
anthill, as though it was intentional, and I am suggesting that it was.
I had difficulty scaling the exact measurements of where the small parts that
were torn from the aircraft came to rest relative to the initial tree contact, and varying
figures are given for the height of the anthill from 9 to 12 feet, which I would have
thought would be consistent with the whole site having been charted by professional
surveyors, but in reality this is not important.
What is important is to realize that only 760 feet from initial treetop contact the
aircraft was rolling with all three landing gear on the ground, right side up, travelling in
a straight line, directionally under control.
At some point not far from the anthill the left wing bottom skins were breached,
presumably by a tree trunk, the top of which would have been broken off by the wing
leading edge and spar(s), opening up one or more fuel bays and dumping their contacts
to the ground in a concentrated area, which fueled the incinerated area shown at that
location in the wreckage plan. As stated earlier, this would contribute to the reason that
the #1 and #2 engines on the left side of the aircraft were less heavily fire damaged post-crash than the engines on the right side. However, the overall strength of the main wing box structure remained sufficiently adequate to retain its basic shape to provide the arm about which the entire aircraft would pivot upon striking close to the base of the anthill, leading edge down, and not be sheared off at that point. Obviously, the wing leading edge outboard of the engines is what actually contacted the anthill, and initiated the cartwheel, as both of the left hand engines stayed with the wing and came to rest close to their original positions on the wing.
At some point close to the anthill, (and somebody could probably do a better job
of quantifying the actual measurement from the wreckage plan), but it is not marked as such, the nose landing gear structure was overloaded in the undisturbed forest terrain
and collapsed. Which is to say that the oleo strut and its retraction/extension linkage
was torn from its mounting structure and its broken pieces were spread along the
ground from forward movement of the rest of the aircraft behind it. I looked long and
hard in the wreckage plan to find the exact point where the nose gear departed, but
could only find reference to a “steel shaft” alongside the base of the anthill, and couldn’t
find it in the photos. Presumably, the “steel shaft” was the nose strut piston tube, which
is a steel tube approximately 5” in diameter, and it was about where I would have
expected it to be in this case. Other associated parts of the nose gear system were a little farther along the path, again where I would have expected them to be. I could find no reference to where the nosewheel and tire came to rest, which is important from the
standpoint of knowing how long it was on the ground before failing, which was in some
measure the fate sealer for the crew and passengers. I did find reference to an
unidentified portion of wheel rim on the right hand side of the path and well before the
anthill, but whether it was from the nosewheel or one of the dual main wheels may
never be known. Photo 19 shows one of the main landing gear assemblies with the
remains of both tires and wheels in place and another photo shows the same for the
other MLG, so it is certain that all of the main wheel tires stayed in place throughout.
While on the subject of the main landing gear, the DC-6 MLG units retract forward into
their nacelle bays, and their retraction/extension links for normal operation on the
ground loads the links in tension, which for metallic structures allows them to be at their strongest, especially in terms of retaining their shape when loaded. The photos show that the links had failed in compression and had bent, which would be expected to happen upon the main wheels striking the ground while traveling backwards during the cartwheel, and partially retracting back into their nacelle bays. But, effectively, they
stayed in place throughout the crash, again indicative of a relatively low speed
As stated above, shortly after landing with all three landing gear on the ground,
close to the anthill, at probably the worst possible location and time, with all four
engines evenly at fairly high power settings in reverse thrust in what would have been a
desperate attempt to slow the momentum of the aircraft and get it stopped, (but what is in reality standard operating procedure), the nose landing gear collapsed, instantly
dropping the nose section of the belly and fuselage to the ground, pivoting on the main
wheel axles. When this happened, the propeller blades began contacting the ground,
bending and breaking them off, and the wing leading edge from end to end rotated
downwards, drastically lowering in height. As the fuselage nose belly skins, stringers,
formers etc. began crushing and tearing away it allowed the wing leading edge to get
even closer to the ground, until the left side contacted the anthill nearer the base than
the top, which initiated the cartwheel. Had the nose gear remain in place, there is at
least a chance that a relatively level wing might have been able to ride up and over it and the aircraft’s momentum to remain linear, and with even a few more seconds of reverse thrust as braking action, the survival odds would have increased dramatically.. The noted fragment of wheel rim found along the glide path, if from the single nosewheel, and if large enough to have allowed the tire to depart from the wheel, I think in this terrain would have guaranteed the failure of the nose gear assembly.
I think a further word here about center of gravity is appropriate. SE-BDY as it
departed Leopoldville was handicapped with a forward C.G. (center of gravity), with
little or no aft cabin load. The DC-6, as with all large airliners, was designed to carry its
nominal 15-ton payload distributed throughout the cabin from end to end and as with
most aircraft have the load approximately centered on the wing, since that is what is
supporting everything. In this case, with the passengers and their gear in the forward
part of the cabin, the C.G. would have been well toward its forward limit, known as nose
heavy. This means that the pilot, under any circumstance, would have a harder time
holding the nose off the ground with the elevators than if there was weight in the
fuselage behind the main wheels assisting him with the balance.
I have flown airplanes with only the pilots in the front seats and nothing in the aft
cabin where the nosewheel could not be held off the runway whatsoever upon landing.
With power at idle, when the main wheels touched the nosewheel slammed to the
runway instantly because the C.G. was well forward of the mains. At least three different DC-6 pilots I have known over the years have told me that they much preferred flying them with a somewhat aft C.G. because of the better balance. In this case however, I think it could be listed as a contributing factor to the deadliness because after getting the main wheels to the ground, with the propellers in reverse and no accelerated air flow over the elevators, the captain was unlikely to have been able to keep the nosewheel from slamming to the ground immediately and beginning the sequence of breakup of the forward fuselage structure.
ABOUT THOSE ALTIMETERS . . .
There are numerous references throughout the reports about the barometric altimeters, three each, forming one of the major premises upon which the reports conclusions are based. So many, in fact, that I am not going to bother referencing them here. The Board (Annex II) and the Commission (Annex III) both spared no expense to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that the their Air Traffic Control (ATC) had properly informed the crew of the altimeter setting and that Transair had properly maintained their instruments and aircraft, as well, and that there should be no discredit reflected upon the servants of and the country hosting the visitors. If those visiting aircrews could not pay attention to their altimeters and keep from flying into the ground while executing an otherwise exemplary instrument approach it was not the host’s fault..
There is one very major problem with this.
There were four altimeters installed in this aircraft. The fourth altimeter was an
“AVQ-10 Receiver Transmitter (Radar) “, per Annex II Par. 6.2 Page 15, line 3. That, and a
reference on the “Enlarged Portion of Wreckage Plan” to a “Radio Altimeter” on the
extreme left hand side of the page are the only times throughout all of the original
reports that its existence was ever mentioned.
And it was decisively important.
Mankind had long awaited a means to know exactly how far the ground was
below you and how far away an obstacle was in front of you while making instrument
approaches. Barometric pressure gauge instruments were reliable but didn’t give you all the information you really wanted and needed for making truly blind instrument approaches. With the WWII British development of the cavity magnetron, which made
radar small enough to be carried aboard aircraft, it was a short step away to build an
accurate radar altimeter. The DC-6 was among the very first of the postwar civil aircraft
to be fitted with them. By then, airlines couldn’t afford not to have them. And all of the
pilots that I have ever known use them when they have them during instrument
approaches especially when near the ground. They tell me that they are a very
reassuring and confidence-building device.
It is inconceivable that captain Hallonquist was not using the radar altimeter, if
he needed an altimeter at all, throughout the portion of the instrument approach that
the aircraft completed. Barometric altimeters are fine for flight where there are large
safe heights above ground level and sufficiently accurate for keeping airplanes at known levels relative to each other but when you start getting close to the ground in conditions of poor or no visibility the radar altimeter is what is going to tell you where the ground or a solid object is in front of you.
I mentioned above about needing an altimeter at all. In the USA, in order to
qualify for a private pilot certificate, a student must accomplish a certain number of
landings and fly a certain number of hours at night during official after-sunset periods,
(night time). This must be accomplished visually, under official VFR (visual flight rules)
conditions. I am fairly certain that the rules to qualify for airman certificates in Sweden
or the UK would be pretty similar, and in fact for all ICAO (International Civil Aviation
Organization) countries. Without access to his logbooks, it’s a foregone conclusion to
assume that with over 7800 flight hours captain Hallonquist was competent and
comfortable with night VFR landings. On the night in question, the weather 38 minutes
before the crash, per Annex II chap. 5 par.5.3 page 14, the visibility was 5 to 10 miles
with slight smoke haze, with ceiling not given, but presumably nil cloud cover from the
last prior routine weather observation, 3-1/2 hours before. So there is no reason to
assume that the crew couldn’t see where the ground was.
Prior to the advent of aircraft with auto-land capability, which was probably not
until at least the mid-1970’s and to my knowledge didn’t come into service until the
early 1980’s, all, at least all civilian airplane landings were made visually by the human
pilot. Even instrument landings were made visually, even when the approaches were
made coupled to an autopilot. If at some minimum height above the ground at some
certain distance from the end of the runway, and these numbers varied with different
airports and with differently equipped aircraft, the pilot could not see the end of the
runway to land the approach was called missed, power was applied and the aircraft
climbed away to either try the approach again or proceed to an alternate airport where
the weather was hopefully better. But all landings required the pilot, at some point, to
see the runway visually. And the pilot was only using the altimeter to know where to not
descend below. To this day, the vast majority of airplane landings worldwide are still
done this way.
Upon reaching Ndola, the aircraft established communications with the tower
informing them that they had the airport in sight. At that point the captain could have
made a VFR landing within the airport traffic area (ATA) without following the
instrument approach procedure. Transair company policy was that if the crew was
unfamiliar with an airport, and captain Hallonquist had never been to Ndola before, an
instrument approach was to be made. The captain could have ignored this but he was obviously the type of person that would rather follow the rules and go by the book than
ever have to explain in the future why he did not. I fully understand this philosophy, it is
how I’ve tried to live my own life. It can be well imagined that for an instant it crossed
his mind that he could just set up and land while he was right there, but he knew that an instrument approach was just a few minutes more, no big deal, we can see the ground, no appreciable weather. In other words, he didn’t really need an altimeter to tell him where the ground was. He could see the ground. And the radar altimeter told him exactly how high above the ground he was.
THE PRECIPITATING EVENT
To my observation, in the study of aircraft accidents throughout the course of my life,
there is almost always a precipitating event that sets off a chain of actions, reactions,
counteractions, etc. that results in the crashed aircraft somewhere on the surface of
earth. In this case, it is known from Annex II that the captain communicated to Ndola
tower that all was well and within minutes the aircraft was being incinerated with its
own wing fuel and that fifteen of the sixteen occupants lives had ended, and that the last would succumb in less than a week. That person, Sgt. Harold Julien, was the only
eyewitness to the crash.
To my experience, eyewitness testimony is considered evidence in a court of law,
at least in this country. I am unfamiliar with Rhodesian law in the 1960’s, but in the USA
in the 1960’s Sgt. Julien’s statements would have been considered evidence in a crash
investigation. Since there is no other actual evidence to the contrary, and testimony of
ground observers about the airport over-flight and entry to the instrument approach
procedure are insufficiently conclusive to determine externally what the precipitating
event was, it seems logical to me that Sgt. Julien’s statements, as brief as they are, are the only thing that can be considered as evidence in a search for the cause of the chain of events leading to the crash.
In the UN Commission report, par. 129., Senior Inspector Allen testified to the
U.N. Commission that he spoke with Sgt. Julien and asked him three questions; 1. “What
happened? He said: ‘It blew up’.” 2. “Was this over the runway? And he said ‘Yes’. “ 3.
“What happened then? And he replied: ‘There was great speed—great speed’.”
“It blew up—”
“—over the runway.”
I have read all three of these reports several times and still don’t understand the
reluctance of the investigators, including the U.N. and the Swedish observers, to not
make those six words the central point, the number one item on the list of where to
begin to find the truth about what happened. Especially from the standpoint of
determining whether or not there is fault to be assigned to the flight crew.
Assuming Sgt. Julien was belted into any seat in the forward cabin, looking out
the side window on whichever side he was sitting on, he may or may not have had a
view of the lighted runway and the town of Ndola but it is likely that the captain would
have informed the passengers that they had arrived overhead Ndola and would be
setting up to land there. It would have been the last thing he could identify location-wise and anywhere in that vicinity for him would be “over the runway”. I don’t know if Inspector Allen was deliberately trying to trip him up or why he asked him if it was over
the runway when he knew that the aircraft had overflown the runway and not blown up
there, but, it seems to me, it was an unusual question to ask a person in Sgt. Julien’s
condition. What I am getting at here is that Sgt. Julien knew where the runway was and
that the aircraft had blown up. They sound like lucid answers to me, and not as though
he was thinking about horses or submarines, for example.
In my view, in light of all of the data and evidence of all of the pages of all of the
reports and the information displayed in all of the images of all of the photographs in the U.N. file, the only thing I can see that qualifies as a precipitating event is Sgt. Julien’s: “It blew up”.
And he was the only one left that was there when it happened.
Airplanes have been blowing up for a long time, in fact for almost as long as
they’ve been in existence. There is a lot of video of it happening; I can think of footage
that I’ve seen going back to the 1920’s. And I’ve been on-scene to ones within seconds to minutes after the explosion. I’ve salvaged wrecks after the fact, and studied the effects of explosions on structures and materials.
To my experience and observation, on metallic structures, if some event ignites
the fuel vapors, it is the vapors that explode and the still-liquid fuel then burns, but the
explosive event is by then over. During the explosion some weak area in or near a seam
will give way and tear open, leaving, in effect, a chimney from which the burning fuel
would exhaust. In aluminum stressed-skin wet wing or bladder tank explosions, there is
usually a torn section of skin along a rib or a stringer or even a spar, (weakened because of the drilled holes for rivets) that has opened up and from which the the fire burned upward out. I have never seen an example where the fire burned downward; only upward. Presumably, because heat rises.
In viewing video of air combat, of which many hours exist of footage of most of
the combatant countries back to at least WWII, when an airplane being shot at catches
fire and smoke begins trailing behind, it is subtle but noticeable that the flames are still
burning upward and the smoke is trailing slightly upward.
Another thing that struck me when I was standing near a burning airplane at
night, while the fire department was trying to extinguish it with water, which was rather
ineffective, was how brightly a gasoline fire lit up the sky in the dark.
As stated earlier, aircraft fuel tanks have been blowing up resulting in the
destruction of the aircraft for a long time, for a number of reasons. The incendiary
(tracer) bullet was developed during WWI to ignite the hydrogen gas in enemy airships
and observation balloons, and was very effective, not only for that purpose but also to
ignite the fuel in airplane fuel tanks. As TWA 800 proved in 1996, chafing electrical
wiring after arcing long enough could blow a hole through an aluminum alloy sheet and
ignite fuel vapors that would explode the tank so violently that it initiated an inflight
breakup. About two weeks after that, right here in Alaska an engine failure on a DC-6 led to a chain of events that resulted in ignition of one of the wing fuel tanks which was left to burn long enough to result in the wing folding up and an inflight breakup.
Electrostatic discharge (ESD)(static electricity) igniting empty or only partially full fuel
tanks was known to have damaged or destroyed (I am going by memory here) about 25 civilian turbojet airliners and comparable heavy military aircraft (bombers, tankers,
transports) combined since the introduction of the jet age. For that reason, after an
airliner lands at an airport and taxis to its gate and shuts down, along with chocking the
wheels a ground cable is attached to a fitting in the structure to remove the static charge it has built up while flying through the air. An airline line mechanic colleague tells me that he has measured as much as 50 volts upon making that connection.
But ESD is unlikely to have been the cause of the explosion that SE-BDY
experienced. However, the explosion that Sgt. Julien described is most likely to have
been the precipitating event that caused captain Hallonquist to make the decision to get the airplane on the ground, now, immediately if not sooner.
Forced landings have happened throughout history for nearly countless reasons, but
several of the reasons account for the vast majority of the occurrences. Topping the list
would be engine failure; if your engine fails you have no choice but to put it down
wherever you happen to be. That would be in the involuntary forced landing category. In the voluntary forced landing category, and some statistical database could prove me
wrong, but to my experience inflight fire would be at the top. I have before me a list of
seven airplanes that I had some thread of connection to in some form or other that were force landed by their pilots into whatever terrain was below them at that moment
because it was the only chance they had to stay alive. One of the seven, the
aforementioned DC-6, technically doesn’t qualify as an attempted forced landing,
because of the captain’s indecision, but all of them resulted in aircraft that never flew
again, and in five of the seven all survived, but with some minor injuries. In the other
two, there were no survivors. The incidents I am referring to here all occurred in Alaska
since 1977, and it is likely that there have been others that never came to my attention.
All seven of them were due to inflight fires. One of the seven was a new customer of
mine, but the aircraft was one I had never and was destined to never work on.
After almost five months of examining these three reports, the conclusion I would draw
is that the case of SE-BDY fits into the category of a voluntary attempted forced landing
due to an inflight explosion and fire that was successful until its final seconds, and then
an unseen and un-seeable solid object ended its chance for a successful termination.
THE LAST ACTIONS
I will attempt to re-create the final minutes of the flight of SE-BDY based on the
information in the reports, as I would visualize it to have to have occurred. I want to
remind the reader that the largest airplane that I have ever steered through the sky was
a DC-3, which is for all practical purposes not all that different from a DC-6. The ancillary
control systems in the DC-6 were substantially different in being mostly electrical relay
controlled, it had two more engines, and there were more systems in general such as
anti-detonant injection (water/methanol) for the engines, reversing propellers, BMEP gauges for fine-tuning engine power and fuel mixture, etc.; it is a considerably more
complex machine. But for the purposes of understanding what actions were taken and
their results, it would have been basically as follows:
01. The aircraft has descended from the east toward Ndola from its reported
maximum cruise altitude of 16,000 ft. and establishes communications with the
control tower. It has just flown a long trip, far out of its way to avoid aircraft
hostile to U.N. personnel and has avoided radio transmissions as much as
possible to avoid detection. The captain states his intentions to enter the NDB
instrument approach and is told to report reaching 6000 ft. There are no further
communications with the tower.
02. It is likely that at last communication with the tower that the aircraft was already
at 6000 ft., based on airport personnel statements and the extreme likelihood
that the captain already had the Ndola approach plate in front of him, and had
based his descent rate into Ndola to arrive near the minimum descent altitude
(MDA) for the area.
03. The aircraft turns onto the outbound course leg and airspeed adjusted to at least
160 knots indicated airspeed. The Ndola approach plate in the U.N. report
appendix gave times for approaches at 180 and 200 knots in addition; there is no
way to ever know what speed was actually used. My best guess is that it would
have been 160 knots.
04. At some point approximately but probably more than half way on the outbound
leg course the precipitating event occurs. There is a bang, a flash of light, and
then a constant partial illumination of the night sky on the left side of the
05. The captain looks out the left cabin window and sees a section of the upper wing
skin torn open upwards, with bright yellow flames billowing rearward behind
that area. It is possible that he can feel some diminished lift component from the
spoiler-effect of the damaged wing skin on that side, and may have moved the
aileron trim to compensate.
06. Seeing this, the captain realizes quickly that they cannot expect the wing to last
long enough for them to make it the three or more minutes it would take to get
back to the Ndola runway; that they probably have only some number of seconds
to live. He determines that he is going to land the airplane onto the ground in
front of him, whatever that looks like, before the airplane breaks up. He is not
going to waste the time it takes to inform Ndola tower of the situation; flight
crews generally never do. Investigators wish they would.
07. With his right hand he reaches up and pulls the throttles back; with his left he
holds some back pressure on the elevators and with his right hand then starts
trimming the elevators nose up. Airspeed begins to decrease, heading toward
flap extension speed.
08. The captain has already told the first officer and flight engineer his intentions;
they are assisting him in the other physical actions necessary to configure the
aircraft for slow flight and landing. It’s possible that the first officer is also
assisting him in holding pressure on the ailerons to keep the wings level.
09. The aircraft is slowing down into flap extension range, beginning to descend, the
captain is trimming the nose up on and off, waiting to get down to landing gear
extension speed, for a large drag component to bleed off the excess altitude. The
captain is nominally staying on the turn-back arc of the instrument approach.
10. The aircraft has slowed enough for landing flap angle, then landing gear speed is
reached and the captain calls for gear down.
11. With the aircraft slowed well down, in an effort to speed the descent and get rid
of the excess altitude, the captain pushes the nose down with the elevators. The
wind noise increases, and with the nose down attitude the occupants get a sense
of “great speed”, but in reality the DC-6’s landing profile is comparatively steeply
nose down in normal conditions, opposite that of jet airliners, that land steeply
nose up. The large double-slotted wing flaps, and modest wing loading allow for
impressively steep descents at comparatively low airspeeds.
12. Seeing and sensing the proximity to the treetops, the captain begins putting back
pressure on the control column, judging the round-out with the experience of
1445 hours in DC-6’s, and rolls out of the procedure turn onto the return course
to the NDB. He is possibly helped in his depth perception sight picture by some
of the small campfires that the local charcoal makers have burning sprinkled
around the general area. He probably doesn’t need landing lights; they are useful
for illuminating reflective objects and lighter colored areas/objects, but can be
only distracting if there is nothing light to reflect.
13. Having leveled off just above the treetops, the captain retards the throttles to
idle and holds back pressure on the elevators and adds more nose up trim to
relieve the pressure, bleeding off more speed toward the stall. It is possible that
the thought occurs to him for a few thousandths of a second that if he makes it
through this, in the future he will insist on having some ballast in the tail on
these otherwise fairly empty charter trips. Now would be a good time to be a bit
14. The aircraft is gently settling, the treetops are beginning to brush the belly, the
propellers are chopping off twigs, there are probably some unfamiliar sounds
resulting from this.
15. The ever-increasingly sized tree branches are clattering off the sides of the
fuselage from the propellers now, the sounds of tree trunks snapping off beneath
the belly and wings can be heard clearly. A somewhat larger tree trunk contacts
the left wing leading edge a little inboard of the tip rib and shears through the
light skin, stringers, etc. and the wing tip falls away to the ground. That left wing
just can’t be held up quite level, but the aircraft is still traveling straight, into a
little darker darkness.
16. The captain throws the propeller switches into the reverse thrust position as a
group with his right hand and when the propellers start translating he reaches
for the throttles and begins advancing them forward.
17. The aircraft is halfway or more to the ground and the trees are breaking off
lower and lower. The manifold pressures are coming well up and the engines are
roaring, the propellers are chopping off ever-increasing sizes of limbs and
trunks. The reverse thrust in addition to the arresting effect of the bending and
breaking trees are having an effect; the aircraft is well below stall speed now. Landing gear doors are being battered and tearing off, as well as pieces of wing
skin, wing flap skin, and possibly horizontal stabilizer leading edge skin.
18. The aircraft has made it to the ground; all three landing gear are on the forest
floor. The burning left wing has not had enough time to shed molten sections of
skin yet, due to the occurrence at pattern height and the captain’s immediate
decision to get the airplane on the ground.
19. The left wing pushes over a larger tree, probably just outboard of the main
wheels that doesn’t surrender easily and tears a sizeable hole through the
bottom wing skins, instantly dumping a significant quantity of already burning
fuel onto the ground.
20. Some or all of the flight deck crew could possibly, for some very small fraction of
a second, think that this might turn out OK. They are on the ground, upright, still
largely in one piece, all still strapped into their seats, uninjured.
21. The aircraft at this time is effectively a 38-ton bulldozer, mowing down trees on
a forest floor that has probably been undisturbed for centuries, if not millennia; I
don’t know the history of that area. Except that it’s not built like a bulldozer, and
I doubt that one has ever been built that would move at whatever speed it was
going at this moment on its own. The nose landing gear at this time cannot
withstand the combination of ground roughness, imposed weight, speed,
possibly flat or even missing tire, and/or other unknown factors, and collapses,
tearing out and further weakening the surrounding structure. The forward
fuselage and nose section have pushed the nose gear down to its collapse, and
relieved of its resistance continue to plunge downward, crushing and tearing the
light aluminum structure to pieces as the forward shifting center of gravity
exacerbates the situation even further, as it is effectively standing what
originally was a 100 ft. long fuselage on its end.
22. Immediately after this, with the nose section disintegrating, the wing leading
edges rotated downward, and well powered-up engines and propellers slicing
the ground, the left wing leading edge contacts near the base of the anthill, and
the 38 ton mass with still considerable momentum rotates around it, side-loading the second fuselage section that attaches presumably to the front spar
section of the wing, ultimately severing it.
I don’t think I need to go any farther with this; I assume the reader knows the rest of the
For the aircraft to have been found as described and photographed in the reports, it
would have had to happen generally as I have described. A type-rated DC-6 captain
could certainly provide more and better detail of the specifics of operations and actions,
and a mechanic with a lot of DC-6 experience could provide more and better detail of
how things worked in this case, and here in Alaska there is and has been a lot of DC-6
experience, but to my knowledge none have researched this case and come forward with their observations. I suspect that most who are currently alive are unaware of it. I don’t think I had heard of it until maybe ten years ago at the most. But, those who were aware of it at the time, even as children, have kept the account of the crash alive, and rightfully so, as it is an injustice to the memory of those whose lives were cut short.
In my view, the flight crew did everything right. I can’t see a single place where I
wouldn’t have done the same thing in that situation. I can’t imagine that approach
through the trees and the touchdown on the forest floor to have been accomplished
more skillfully by anyone I’ve ever heard of, Eric Brown or Bob Hoover, anybody. I can
only hope that I would instantly swallow my fear and act decisively in a similar situation,
as this captain and crew did. They are as shining an example to all that it can be done, as others I have known and have heard of have done, as there is.
To me, it is really, and I mean really, obvious what happened there.
I have written this for the offspring, the relatives, and friends of the victims, in hopes
that the dark cloud of implication that has surrounded this crew, completely
unreasonably I believe, for some six decades now, can finally be lifted.
Joseph (Joe) Majerle III