Thursday, August 5, 2021

No specific requirement that aircraft taking off from Matsieng Airstrip should notify air traffic control

Why, some have asked, did the pilot of the helicopter that crashed and killed a popular female rapper not notify the air traffic control at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport about its flight?

The answer, from a veteran pilot with decades-long flying experience in Botswana and South Africa, is that there was no specific requirement that pilots flying from Matsieng Aerodrome should do so. He adds though that local operators do so for practical purposes. The other thing that they do for the same reason is making what are called “blind announcements” in aviation. The latter refers to pilot-to-pilot communication to alert those flying in the same area know about one’s own aerial presence, location and altitude in order to prevent accidents from happening. Matsieng has an ambiguous status with regard to control by the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. The airstrip is on the edge of local airspace that is controlled by SSKIA but is not under the airport’s full control.

The destination of the chopper that crashed, killing Sarona “Sasa Klaas” Motlhagodi, was a Kgalagadi Desert farm owned by the pilot, Leonard Matenje. The farm is within uncontrolled airspace but the altitude at which choppers fly put this flight within the uncontrolled-airspace category. All in all, the chopper was flying from an uncontrolled airspace to another, obviating need to notify SSKIA about its flight.

However, the issue is not that black and white because there is another layer of ambiguity. In terms of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules, pilots are required to file what is called a flight plan, being a written account of the details of a particular proposed flight. The plan includes basic information such as departure and arrival points, estimated time en route, altitude aircraft will be flying at, alternate airports in case of bad weather, type of flight, the pilot’s information, number of people on board, information about the aircraft itself as well as a search-and-rescue plan. A flight plan is opened by calling the control tower or submitting a hardcopy flight plan form to the local flight service station.

Contacting air control upon approach of an airfield (“I have destination in sight”) or actually landing at an airport upon arrival automatically closes the flight plan. Our pilot source says that a flight plan comes in handy when an aircraft doesn’t arrive at its destination at the time stated in the flight plan. When that happens, a search-and-rescue (SAR) operation is immediately activated. By way of example, a search-and-rescue plan can be expressed as SARNML, meaning that search and rescue is normal, meaning that the pilot will land at an airport within controlled airspace.  It can also state when a search and rescue operation should be activated – as in SAR ETA + I hour, meaning that search and rescue should begin if a pilot doesn’t close the flight plan after one hour of the expected time of arrival. In the particular case of Matsieng, there used to be strict requirement that pilots using the airfield should file flight plans with SSKIA.

However, down the road, some felt that because of the distance and flight activity at the airport, such requirement was unnecessary and cumbersome. By and by, the flight plans stopped coming – which development was met with all but a wink and a nod from SSKIA. While there was never any formal communication from SSKIA, this requirement quietly fell away. That was still the case earlier this month when Matenje took off from Matsieng. Had the flight plan requirement been in place at the time of the flight and he filed it, a search-and-rescue operation would have been activated and help would have arrived much sooner than it did.

On the whole, our source says that it is quite common to not file a flight plan and to his knowledge, no pilot has ever been penalised for that lapse. The situation has actually not improved from years ago when he had just completed his training. Then a civil aviation regulation document called the Aeronautical Information Publication had a strict requirement that pilots should close a flight plan in all instances, including when they flew to or from uncontrolled airspace.

The document said that when landing at airstrips in uncontrolled space, the pilot should close the flight plan at the local police station. He recalls an instance when he flew to Serowe, got in a taxi after landing and went to the local police station to close the flight plan. “The police didn’t even know what I was talking about when I said I had come to close the flight plan,” he says.

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