Whiskeyflyer - actually, it was the Helderberg
not the 'Heidelberg'!
In November 1987, a Boeing 747-244 Combi ZS-SAS belonging to South African Airways crashed some 270km off Mauritius following a fire. The cause of the fire has remained a mystery and there has been much speculation as to the nature of an illicit cargo that was allegedly being carried.
I posted this about a year ago:
I've put together about six pages that I will have posted on the IASA web-site tomorrow after proof-reading (and I will then pass on to you the URL's). Much of it will be familiar to you - but some of it may not. I've reproduced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings and Transcript so that anyone who comes across it on the IASA site can put their own opinions in context. But I would guess that you are familiar with that. Let me make a few observations about why this crash was destined to be confusingly tainted by plot/counter-plot and ongoing intrigue.
a. In the climate of fear and suspicion that prevailed at the time under PW Botha's apartheid goverment and with the hostilities in Angola and Namibia, people could be forgiven for naturally assuming that there was more than met the eye regarding the Nov 87 Helderberg crash. In fact it became a signal example of how hard it is to keep secrets under wraps.
b. Armscor was shipping in all sorts of munitions (explosives and propellants) via SAA because of the arms embargo, the war and because they had tacit support from the US (because of US political opposition to Soviet supported Cuban troops fighting in Angola against South African led forces). This Armscor shipping secret was shared by enough people that it eventually had to become public property, as it did.
c. On 22 Sept 79 (as a reward for helping the Israelis test their own weapon) South Africa had acquired nuclear weapons status when their first low yield weapon was detonated in the South Atlantic. Like the Israelis, SA politicians thereafter saw the possession of their semi-covert tactical nuclear capability as another factor in being able to wield greater political and military influence in Africa.
d. Helderberg was a 747 Combi (i.e. a hybrid freighter by design). As such it was one of the last designs preceding the 747-400 and 747-400F and likely had the Kapton wiring that the -400 had introduced in it, just a little later (rather than the poly-x wiring of the early 747 Classics - that was later found to age poorly in the TWA800 investigation). The Helderberg had a significant cargo-carrying capacity and that is why it was only carrying 159 passengers. The cargo was likely to have included much highly combustible material. This was reflected in the Captain's remarks and the crew's derisory CVR comments - once they heard what they were carrying.
e. The first Helderberg investigation was conducted with an acute awareness by SAA, Armscor and the SA Government that Lloyds would likely deny any claims pay-out - if it were to emerge that SAA had been regularly shipping munitions covertly . This was later admitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Inquiry by the SAA CEO.
f. Suspicion surrounded the Tupolev crash that caused the death (in 1986) of Samora Machel and complicity by SA was universally assumed. This extrapolated into similar suppositions regarding the later crash.
g. So if it was to happen that the Helderberg had developed a wiring-initiated fire beneath the cabin floor - which (like Valujet 592) propagated into its cargo and brought the plane down, was it likely that such a simple, straightforward explanation would or could ever be accepted in the climate of suspicion that existed at the time? If it ever was, this was later quashed by the later technical breakthrough that managed to decipher the unreadable portion of the CVR - wherein the Captain unmistakably informed others on the flight-deck (shortly before smoke was first smelt in the cabin) that they were carrying a nuclear weapon (Boy George).
So to answer your query about whether it possibly was a wiring-initiated fire, I would have to say it was more likely than any other cause put forward. The reason why other theories fail is that they offer no initiator, just the combustibles. The only exception to that was the supposedly spontaneous combustion abilities of the ammonium perchlorate rocket propellants. However I would suggest that it would have been appropriately packaged simply because of this. The Red Mercury and Lithium batteries are also dangerous cargo from a flammability point of view. The reason why cargo area fires start and burn well are twofold:
1. Cargo areas get knocked around a lot (because of the amount of traffic and the manhandling that goes on in them). The wiring can suffer disproportionately.
2. Fires that start out of sight (in a remote unmonitored cargo area) have a far greater chance of taking hold than one that starts in the flight-deck, toilets or galleys.
The reason why the CVR recording was curtailed early (around dinner time, just 2 hours out of Taipei on their 9 hour journey) is that the fire may have started early on, an electrical malfunction perhaps and started the crew querying Springbok Control. However it's likely that they were ordered to continue (rather than divert) when nothing further then manifested itself. Sometimes a fire in an enclosed area can become smoulderingly quiescent for long periods simply due to low oxygen levels in an unventilated compartment. The later outbreak near to top of descent was probably caused by the ammonium perchlorate shipping containers being breached (this propellant being an oxidizer that would then have rapidly promoted the fire). It is likely that the earlier problem was simply manifested as an electrical problem, not a fire, and that they then secured some electrics that were later restored (after the fire outbreak, or possibly that then re-initiated the fire). i.e. As they approached the descent-point for Mauritius, the captain would have been anxious to restore electrics for weather radar, NAVAIDS, comms etc - and that re-powering of the wiring may have rekindled the fire by provoking the original fault. It also explains why the CVR started up again (and is the only explanation for the CVR being in two distinct periods of the flight, within the first two hours and then continuing straight in and recording the final moments - all on a 30 minute looped tape). I belong to the school that refuses to believe that Captain Dawie Uys would have agreed to carry on, notwithstanding SAA radio'd or standing orders, if there had been an identified fire on board. However the fact remains that SAA was likely to have been very apprehensive about the aircraft going anywhere but Mauritius, even back to Taipei - simply because the contents of the cargo holds would have become common knowledge. The evidence for what was said and what was done and any orders or decisions made via ZUR (Springbok Control) was likely to have been on that purloined ground station tape. That tape had to disappear because it would have contained clear evidence about the munitions being carried - and the orders to carry on to Mauritius. And they even know who disappeared the ZUR tape - and that he later met an untimely death. The man who knew the truth, but kept quiet, was rewarded by being upgraded from a lowly radio operator in 87 to the SAA Area Manager in Miami in 1991.
So the existence of a cover-up is almost without question - and a judicial cover-up by Judge Cecil Margo at that. However don't confuse this aftermath intrigue and threats to persons with the cause of the accident itself. It could very likely have been a wiring-initiated fire but the ramifications of it having brought the plane down necessitated an emergency concealment of not only the type of cargo, but the fact that SAA had been sanctions busting for years in this way. If this had been publicly revealed, then SAA would have lost many of its routes and destinations. A very similar cover-up was carried out by Air NZ after the Mount Erebus DC-10 disaster - simply because they quickly became aware that the accident had been caused by the airline's latest navigation software upload.
I hope this agrees with the other facts (as you know them) and accords with simple logic. The fact that a cover-up was instigated by the crash simply does NOT mean that the fire on board could not have been fairly straightforward in its origins. Because it was a Combi carrying dangerously flammable cargo, any fire on board was going to be that much harder to handle, particularly if it developed sight unseen.
Now onto the likely candidates for the 'illicit cargo' that was alleged to have been carried:
The principal cargo theories are as follows:
1) a complete nuclear device
2) ‘red mercury’
3) ammonium perchorlate
4) proximity fuses or other munitions of war
5) guidance systems for South Africa’s nuclear missiles
Let’s examine these.
1) A complete nuclear device
This is the least likely of all of the cases, as at the time South Africa had six completed warhead systems (plus a further one under construction) lying in storage at the National Accelerator Centre near Stellenbosch. The delivery systems (Jericho-2 SRBM surface to surface missiles, jointly developed by Armscor and an Israeli Aircraft Industries subsidiary) were in storage at a SAAF base ready for transport to the launch site in the Caprivi Strip.
There would have therefore been no need for another device. However, it one had been on board, it would most certainly have merited the level of response that occurred immediately following the loss of the Helderberg from the US Navy.
2) Red Mercury
Despite much investigation and constant rumours of its existence, none has been produced. There is however an interesting Weekly Mail & Guardian article here: http://www.sn.apc.org/wmail/issues/950120/wm950120-36.html
which links the SADF to red mercury. The flammability of such material would be questionable – certainly mercury is extremely corrosive.
The very high alleged value – coupled with its alleged strategic uses – would merit the level of operation that happened immediately following the loss of the aircraft.
3) Ammonium Perchlorate
This is the theory introduced by Dr Klatzow at the TRC inquiry held (in-camera) into the loss of the Helderberg.
This has been described as an accelerant used in explosives technology. Certainly, it’s defined as a powerful oxidising agent by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), a part of the United States Department of Labor. http://www.osha-slc.gov/dts/hib/hib_data/hib19910925.html
They also acknowledge its explosive characteristics.
Somchem, an Armscor subsidiary located near Somerset West was already producing large stocks of AP as early as 1985. It is therefore unlikely that they would need to import more – and if they did, it would be in the mass-production quantities they would require for their munitions work. These sorts of quantities would have been sent by sea or if urgently required, by dedicated cargo aircraft.
Water damage would render it useless and would effectively dissolve away any traces. There would be no need for the level of response that occurred.
4) Proximity Fuses or other Munitions of War
Again, these would generally be carried on dedicated freight aircraft. Passenger aircraft operated by SAA and Trek Airways/Luxavia were used to carry materials that contravened UN and other sanctions; but anything that was deemed to have too significant a risk would be conveyed in military or contracted aircraft, usually described as ‘agricultural equipment’ or ‘machine spare parts’.
Munitions of war, whilst imperilling a successful insurance claim, would not generate the level of response by a major power that occurred.
5) Guidance Systems for South Africa’s Nuclear Missiles
Whilst South Africa had developed jointly with the Israelis the warheads and the delivery systems (the Jericho-2 SRBM, known as the Arniston in South Africa), in 1987 they did not have a suitably accurate and reliable guidance and telemetry system to get the missiles to their target. The Israelis had been provided with suitable packages (which are sizeable) for their deterrents developed and built at Demona, in the Negev Desert. They agreed to provide two of those to South Africa, as part of a secret deal agreed in late 1987. As a back-up plan, an SAAF Buccanneer was modified to allow the 'lobbing' of a nuclear device.
First, though, we need to look at the regional geopolitics of the time – November 1987. Between October 1987 and June 1988, in the fiercest conventional battles on African soil since Erwin Rommel was defeated at El Alamien, the South African Defence Forces (SADF) fought pitched tank and artillery battles with the Angolan army (FAPLA) and its Cuban supporters at Cuito Cuanavale (Operations MODULAR and HOOPER). This small base located in southeastern Angola became important in the military history of Africa, for there the South African army, supposedly the best on the continent, was trapped with its tanks and artillery and held down more than 300 miles from its bases in Namibia. Failing to take Cuito Cuanavale with over 9000 soldiers, even after announcing that it had done so, losing air superiority, and faced with mutinies among black troops and a high casualty rate among whites, the South Africans reached such a desperate situation that President Botha had to fly to the war zone when the operational command of the SADF broke down.
Against this background, President P W Botha, through his Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, issued the Government of Angola an ultimatum – remove the Cubans; the East German and Soviet ‘military advisors’, pilots and aircraft by midnight on December 31 1987 or South Africa would use tactical nukes against them on a 'first strike' basis. The South Africans were terrified that if they did not tip the military balance once more in their favour, then an invasion by East bloc forces spearheaded by Cuban and Angolan troops would be likely by Easter 1988.
The link here gives a detailed summary of South Africa’s nuclear capabilities and the status of events at the time. http://www.geocities.com/sadf_scrapbook/sanuc.htm
with another site here: http://www.bullatomsci.org/issues/1994/ja94/ja94Albright.html
The systems would not have been shipped directly from Israel as that would have been politically disastrous both for them and for the Americans. The only viable solution was to use a friendly third country – and fellow pariah state – Taiwan as the transhipment point.
To me, this is the most logical nature of the contraband cargo being carried – and pretty much the only thing that fits in with the known facts; as well as being sufficient to cause Captain Uys to continue to Mauritius – which at the time was under effective control by South Africa; and to create the rapid response on the part of the Americans. It is obvious that neither the South African government nor the American government wanted the aircraft to land anywhere that would result in the inadvertent exposure of the systems to the eyes of third parties – nor, since sanctions were in force in the USA against South Africa, did the US want the aircraft landing in one of its military bases where the presence of the systems may be picked up by Soviet spy satellites, intelligence officers or even US military personnel who were not ‘in the know’ and opposed to South Africa. It would have brought down the Reagan Administration.
The morning of the loss of the Helderberg, Plaisance Airport was closed and sealed off when a USAF C141 Starlifter brought in one of the latest mini-submersibles. At the same time, South African Airways and Boeing jointly chartered a German oceanographic research vessel which initially headed directly for the wreckage site and then veered away – presumably to give the Americans time to finish locating whatever they were after.
I personally have little doubt that, had the guidance systems been delivered, they would have been installed on the nukes and in all probability used. Their non-delivery caused the people at the top of the South African government to take stock and realise the awful consequences of what might have happened – and I have hearsay evidence to show that this was indeed one of the things that FW de Klerk used against PW Botha’s supporters during the leadership battle for the National Party the following year. Indeed, this was probably one of the reasons that he was so keen to dismantle the nuclear programme on his assumption of power in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the ANC – and more importantly - their erstwhile backers such as the Libyans.