Painful lessons from the Aberdare plane tragedy

The writer (right) and historian Tom Lawrence examine the wreckage of a Blenheim Bomber that went down in the Aberdare Ranges near Satima Peak in 1942. [Michael Mwangi, Standard]
The plane accident that claimed 10 lives, including two pilots in the Aberdare Forest last week, goes to show that technology also has its limits.

It seems for all our innovation, we cannot make machines that can withstand all situations, including the forces of nature.

The accident marked a tragic end for the two young pilots and their passengers who opted to fly as opposed to travelling by road to save time and be more economically productive.

The female pilots demonstrated that the sky is the limit. I hope young girls can take the cue by pursuing such challenging careers that are perceived to be a preserve of men.

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The Aberdare Ranges was originally called Nyandarua, a name that never stuck. I’m quite familiar with the Elephant Peak where the ill-fated plane crashed.

It is visible on a clear day as you drive to Ol Kalou or Nyahururu through the scenic Happy Valley, once you take a right turn at a town oddly named Flyover. Couldn’t it have been called “Driveover’’ or “Walkover?’’

Made public

We hope an investigation in the fashion of the famed NatGeo’s Air Crash Investigation will be carried out to unravel what led to the accident.

Was it human error, the weather or mechanical problem? Can the conversation between the control tower and the pilots be made public?

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What of the training records of the pilots, including simulations? We know the weather in the area was not the best at the time of the crash like on so many other occasions.

A conversation with someone who lives on the northern edge of the Aberdares revealed foggy weather several days to the plane crash.

Have the investigators recorded statements from witnesses who saw or heard the plane go down? It was instructive to hear of the aircraft’s age.

But more importantly, authorities should make public the maintenance records of the plane. Too often in Africa, we import what others no longer have use for such as planes, clothes, cars and even ideas.

Look no further than the bibliographies of most research in Africa and the dates of publication. The ideas therein are tired. Lack of new ideas is Africa’s biggest undoing.

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As I write this, I’m at the airport waiting to take a flight to Eldoret. I will not cancel it because of last week’s events despite the scepticism that comes in the wake of such tragedies.

Never retrieved

Incidentally, air travel is one of the safest means of transport. Hopefully, investigations into the crash will lead to enhanced safety measures from the regulators.

Including manufacturers in the probe would also add value.

The Aberdares seem to love planes. In October 2016, we took a trip up the mountain range using Shamata gate. We were searching for a military plane that went down in 1942, about 76 years ago.

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We were lucky to find the wreckage of the Blenheim Bomber that was on a routine training mission during the World War II.

The remains of the crew were never retrieved, according to history enthusiast Tom Lawrence.

We not only found some shirt buttons but also a rusty .303 machine gun, the plane’s engine that had nine pistons, and parts of the fuselage.  

One piece of metal had the words “Bristol Aerospace Company” inscribed on it. We still do not know what brought the plane down.

Was it bad weather?  Could it have been human error because it was a training mission? Was it mechanical failure? I guess we will never know.

In another accident, a Lockheed Lodestar crashed in Kinangop on the eastern side of the Aberdares on November 29, 1943, claiming 11 lives. 

Rain and low clouds meant it was not found until January 1, 1944, as reported by Humphrey Slade (Former Speaker of the Kenya National Assembly) and Harry Shewen.

Monty Brown visited the Lodestar site in 1953 while with the Kenya Regiment during the Mau Mau era and again in 2010, according to Tom Lawrence who gave a talk on the history of the Royal Air Force at Muthaiga Club last week.

He also noted that 113 Blenheims crashed in Kenya between 1941 and 1943.

Kenya provided an ideal training ground for pilots to take part in the Second World War, but the state of technology at the time and the weather might have conspired to cut their lives short.

Some old settlers who lived around the area seem to suggest there are more wreckages in the Aberdare Forest. A Mau Mau veteran, Nduhiu Wang’ombe, who made the forest his home and is a nephew of Dedan Kimathi also told us there are more planes in the area. From 1942, planes have vastly improved navigation systems and are made of lighter materials such as carbon fibre. Engineers also understand fluid dynamics better.

As weather forecasting has also improved, so has our understanding of human behaviour. This is why plane accidents are rare. The truth, however, is that no matter how advanced technology becomes, one thing remains constant - human beings and their limitations.

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi  

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