The investigation into the causes of this week’s air crash close to Tripoli’s airport is in full swing. According to the Libyan authorities, the pilot didn’t report any technical problems.
But there are reports that inadequacies at the airport could have contributed to the crash. Our reporter Hans Jaap Melissen talked to an expert eyewitness and was given access to a number of documents.
When Juan Wolmarans arrived at the airport, just before the crash, he was surprised by the poor visibility. “Look, I was standing here and I couldn’t see that pole over there.” He points to a pole some 300 metres away. “There was a combination of mist and low cloud cover,” he says a weather type which at a normal, modern airport would not cause immediate problems.
Wolmarans, a former pilot, is currently a manager at Global Aviation, a small airline. That fatal morning he was at the airport to pick up a colleague who was on board the Airbus A330. In pilot circles, Tripoli airport is known to have shortcomings.
“This airport has a good side and a bad one. On runway 27, planes are guided by an ILS [Instrumental Landing System]. Technology actually guides the plane to the ground. But runway 09 lacks such a system. I’m amazed the pilot nevertheless chose to land there – unless he had very pressing reasons to do so, such as an emergency situation on board. Otherwise, it’s crazy to do such a thing.”
Runways 27 and 09 are in fact the two opposite ends of the same runway. The numbers merely indicate whether you are landing from an easterly or a westerly direction. “But there is something else,” Wolmarans says, showing a ‘Notam’, a message for all pilots. “It says here that cranes around the airport’s new terminal can interfere with the radio beacon that indicates how far the plane is from the airport.” If the radio beacon doesn’t work properly, the pilot may be led to believe he has arrived at the runway when in fact he still has some metres to go.
According to Wolmarans, when weather conditions cause poor visibility, even the most modern planes still require a modern airport. “Things here are in part still pretty primitive.”
According to the official version, there was no bad weather. “Libya’s weather service refers to a visibility of 2000 metres. But I myself saw that morning it was far less. The service is known to have provided incorrect messages on several previous occasions,” says Wolmarans.
“The most likely version is that the pilot, unable to use the ILS system, was startled when he descended through the cloud cover and saw he wasn’t lined up correctly in front of the runway. He may have tried to accelerate, in order to fly away or to correct his course. But the plane may have already hit the ground at that point.”