A 2010 plane crash in the Congo that killed 20 people may have been caused by passengers surging toward the flight deck to get away from an escaped crocodile, causing the plane to stall, a UK coroner’s court heard Friday.
The deadly incident occurred four years ago, on August 25, 2010, when the plane was en route from Kinshasa to Bandundu and crashed 1 kilometer short of the runway, killing all three crew members and 17 passengers. There was one survivor who became a crucial witness.
The aircraft was piloted by 62-year-old Belgian Danny Philemotte, who also owned the airline, and co-piloted by 39-year old first officer Chris Wilson from Cheltenham, England.
Wilson died instantly alongside his fellow pilot. No cause for the crash has been officially established so far, but local media almost instantly started circulating the version that one of the passengers had taken a crocodile onto the plane to sell it.
On Friday an inquest into the British citizen’s death taking place in the UK city of Gloucester heard that the plane nosedived as panicking passengers stampeded in the cabin after the crocodile managed to gnash its way out of a bag. The reptile also apparently survived, according to the only surviving human eyewitness.
Timothy Atkinson, an air crash investigator working on the case, said he could not come to any definitive conclusions because the Congolese authorities had not given him the black box flight recorder.
“The most likely explanation I can find is that the aircraft stalled, or was in a spin prior to impact, which may have been from a variety of causes. Essentially, it fell out of the sky,” he said.
The coroner at the inquest, David Dooley, said he was presented with a number of possible causes, including fuel shortage, overloading, engine failure, pilot error, poor maintenance and sabotage.
“Problems with direct witnesses and problems with the black box have only resulted in vague guesses as to what happened with this crash. All we have are possibilities rather than probabilities,” Dooley said.
Dooley read out an email from Chris’s father, Rob, to Congolese officials. Rob said that he had spoken to the original investigator who said, “There was a gentleman who came up with a story about a crocodile. There is apparently a video of the crocodile being taken out of the plane,” he said.
However, it appears the crocodile did get its comeuppance – after the crash it was apparently killed with a machete.
Wilson had ditched his job as a cabin crew member with a British airline and moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to follow his dream of becoming a pilot.
He joined the Congolese company Filair to clock up the 1,000 hours needed to get a commercial pilot’s license.
But Wilson told his brother Martin that the airline was unreliable to the point of being dangerous and his Belgian copilot, Philemotte, was so incompetent that Chris had no idea how he was flying at all. Matters were made worse by the fact that Philemotte also owned the airline.
Chris also said that it was normal for passengers to walk around and stand up when they were meant to be sitting down, making the plane unstable.
It was also the norm for passengers to take animals on board, as if it was a taxi and not an aircraft.
The Czech-built Let 410 had been flying from the capital Kinshasa to Bandundu when it crashed into a house less than 1 kilometer from the runway.