Commercial aviation is one of the safest forms of transportation, and accidents that lead to fatalities are incredibly rare. Unfortunately yesterday was an exception, as we saw a fatal plane crash in Tanzania.
As more details about the incident emerge, I wanted to provide an update, as this sounds like one of the worst kinds of accidents imaginable, as many passengers survived the crash, but were then trapped in the plane.
Turboprop crashes in Tanzania with fatalities
On Sunday, November 6, 2022, a Precision Air ATR 42-500 crashed in Tanzania. For reference, Precision Air is Tanzania’s largest privately owned airline, and it’s partly owned by Kenya Airways (Air Tanzania is a bit larger, but is owned by the government). The airline operates a fleet of roughly 10 ATR turboprop aircraft, including both the ATR 42 and ATR 72.
The incident happened on a flight operating from Dar es Salaam (DAR) to Bukoba (BKZ) via Mwanza (MWZ). This was a total of a 640-mile journey, with the first flight covering 529 miles, and the second flight covering 111 miles. The plane had 43 people onboard, including 39 passengers and four crew members (the ATR 42-500 has a capacity for 48 passengers).
While on approach, the plane crashed into Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. The plane came to a stop roughly 300 feet from the runway threshold. There are conflicting reports as to whether the plane touched down on the runway but overran it, or if the plane just missed the runway altogether. The runway at the airport is around 4,500 feet long.
This flight was operated by a 12 year old turboprop with the registration code 5H-PWF. Precision Air names each of its planes after a destination in Tanzania, and coincidentally this plane was named “Bukoba,” which is also where it had this accident.
There was no ADS-B tracking for this flight, which limits the amount of information we have immediately following the accident. However, weather conditions in the area were bad, so we know that this was a factor. Regardless, I’m going to go ahead and guess that the below is a very bad take, as I think it’s too early to congratulate the airline on doing a great job with this landing.
The complicated rescue efforts
Since the Precision Air ATR 42-500 crashed only a few hundred feet from land, local fishermen and rescue workers responded quickly to try to save the passengers onboard.
Not only did officials try to get people off the plane, but they also tried to lift up the aircraft out of the water, and bring it closer to shore. At one point the fuselage was almost completely submerged, with only the tail sticking out. Thanks to the rescue efforts, the plane was no longer fully submerged at a certain point… unfortunately at that point it was too late for many onboard.
The outcome of this accident has been beyond tragic — there are 19 confirmed fatalities. 26 passengers had initially been rescued, though two ended up not making it, and 17 passengers never got off the plane.
What makes this even worse than your typical aircraft accident is that many passengers were trapped in the plane after it crashed. They didn’t die on impact, but rather ended up drowning. For example, the two pilots had initially survived the crash and were in communication with rescuers, but ended up being trapped in the cockpit, and are among the fatalities.
My thoughts are with those onboard and their families. What an awful, awful tragedy. Plane crashes are horrible enough to begin with, but to think that these poor people were trapped in a plane with no way to get out is even worse.
What survivors and rescuers have to say
The Citizen has the story from one passenger on the flight who survived, who recounts what he remembers:
“As we approached Bukoba, the pilot alerted us that the weather was not fine and that it was raining heavily so we went past Bukoba towards the border with Uganda before we could turn back. Soon we began our descent on Bukoba Airport, there was so much turbulence and it was still raining heavily and soon without any warning we found ourselves in the water. We had a cabin crew with us who helped us open the emergency exit and soon we found ourselves outside the aircraft.”
BBC has the story of one volunteer rescuer, who is being declared a hero, and has been awarded one million Tanzanian shillings (~$430), plus has been offered a job with the fire and rescue brigade. He rushed to the scene and helped open the rear door by smashing it with an oar, helping passengers seated toward the rear of the plane to be rescued.
He then moved toward the front of the aircraft and dived into the water, where he communicated with the pilots using signs through the cockpit window:
“He directed me to break the window screen. I emerged from the water and asked airport security, who had arrived, if they have any tools that we can use to smash the screen. They gave me an axe, but I was stopped by a man with a public announcement speaker from going down and smashing the screen. He said they were already in communication with the pilots and there was no water leakage in the cockpit.”
He then dived into the water and waved goodbye to the pilots, who indicated that they still wanted to be rescued:
“He pointed out the cockpit emergency door to me. I swam back up and took a rope and tied it to the door and we tried to pull it with other boats, but the rope broke and hit me in the face and knocked me unconscious. The next thing I know I was here at the hospital.”
A Precision Air ATR 42 crashed in Tanzania on Sunday, in a situation that officials are blaming on bad weather. The plane was only a few hundred feet from the airport it was supposed to fly to, but ended up having an accident in the water.
Unfortunately there have been 19 confirmed fatalities among the 43 people onboard, with many of those passengers having been stuck on the plane. While aviation is so incredibly safe, events like this are a reminder of how things can go very wrong. Simply heartbreaking…