A Brief History of SAA Vickers Viscount Flight 406


Captain Lipawsky's day started with a flight departing from Johannesburg in the afternoon on a flight to Port Elizabeth with stopovers in Bloemfontein and East London. After take-off from Jan Smuts Airport (now O. R. Tambo International Airport), the front nose wheel would not retract due to mechanical malfunction. The aircraft returned to the airport and repaired, and the same plane was used to continue the flight.

At 4:41 pm GMT, Flight 406 took off from Port Elizabeth, and a 4:58 GMT, a weather report for East London was given. Acknowledgement of receipt of the weather report was given a minute later, and the pilot further requested descent clearance from flight level 90 (about 9,000 feet), which was granted. Air traffic control at East London requested the pilot to radio when he passed 4,500 ft. The pilot was recorded at Port Elizabeth tower saying that he was descending through 4,000 ft, seaward of the coastline and about 20 miles away from landing at 5:06 pm GMT.

The pilot was made aware that lights for both runways were on, but runway 10 was not available due to poor visibility. At 5:09 pm GMT (estimated), the pilot radioed to say he was at 2,000 ft and had the coast in sight. After this transmission, the plane was not heard from again.

The rescue attempt and later investigation were complicated by the plane crashing into the sea at night. The investigators were unable to recover the plane or the bodies of the passengers. The official investigation believed the plane was airworthy at the time it hit the water. Since the aircraft was airworthy, the investigation concluded the accident had two possible causes. The most likely cause was the pilot having a heart attack and the co-pilot being unable to recover the plane before it crashed.

The original report admitted the accident could have occurred due to spatial disorientation of the pilot, but believed that this was unlikely due to the pilot's experience level.

Judge Cecil Margo, one of the original investigators, later stated in his memoir 'Final Postponement' that he believed the plane crashed due to separation of the wing. At the time of the crash four Vickers Viscounts had been lost in crashes, two due to structural failure, and two over water with unknown cause. Another Viscount was lost over the sea on its way to Ireland, and yet another was lost over land in Australia. The crash in Australia allowed investigators to find the cause of in-flight disintegration, a failed wing spar.

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