16 seconds to disaster: How two aircraft collided over city park

A Safarilink plane at Wilson Airport, Nairobi. [David Gichuru, Standard]

A promising day for a student pilot and his instructor on March 5 ended in tragedy when their Cessna collided midair with a Dash 8 over Nairobi National Park, two kilometres from Wilson Airport, resulting in their deaths.

Their final transmission to Wilson Tower was ‘looking out’ before vanishing from radar.

Shortly after, the Cessna C172M (5Y-NNJ) crashed into the Safarilink Aviation Dash 8 (5Y-SLK), just 16 seconds following the Dash-8’s takeoff and two minutes after the Cessna’s ascent.

The collision involved a Cessna engaged in circuits training and a Dash 8 departing for a commercial flight to Ukunda Airport, Kwale County.

“On board aircraft 5Y-NNJ was a crew of two; a flight instructor and a student pilot, while on board 5Y-SLK were 39 passengers, two flight crew, two cabin crew, and an engineer respectively,” a report into the midair collision stated. All 39 passengers and five crew members in the Dash 8 were reported safe, according to Safarilink.

Preliminary investigations and Wilson Tower’s transcripts reveal the chilling sequence of events before the crash.

The Dash 8 took off at 9:34 a.m. and quickly ascended to 6,100 feet, matching the Cessna’s altitude. The Cessna, just airborne from a ‘touch and go’ exercise on Runway 07, disappeared from radar at 9:34:16 a.m.

At 06:32:33 GMT(which is 9:32:33 a.m. Kenyan time) , Wilson Tower alerted the Cessna of potential traffic—a Dash 8—departing from Runway 14, instructing the Cessna pilot to be vigilant. The pilot’s final response to the tower was captured five seconds later at 06:32:38 GMT (9:32:38 a.m. Kenyan time).

“After obtaining a read-back from the pilot, the air traffic controller instructed the Dash 8 to standby for departure due to traffic. At this time, the Cessna was on Runway 07 and the air traffic controller issued touch and go clearance,” the report says.

The Dash 8 pilot acknowledged the traffic information and takeoff clearance. “After getting airborne, the aircraft was transferred to Nairobi approach radar,” said the report. 

The transcript reveals a conversation between Nairobi approach radar and Wilson Tower, coordinating the flight of the Dash 8 and other aircraft looking for opportunities to land or take off at the busy airport. 

“The collision happened when the rear of the Cessna hit the front right part of the Dash 8. This caused the Cessna to spiral down and come to rest facing the opposite direction from its original flight path inside the park,” the report says.

While the Dash 8 managed to return safely to Wilson Airport, the Cessna was not as fortunate.

The air traffic controller tried to raise the Cessna several times with no response. Wilson Tower then asked the crew and colleagues of the Ninety-Nines Flying School to go around looking for their colleagues.

The Standard learned that this happened because the Police Airwing at Wilson, which is tasked with providing search and rescue services, is not functional. 

Firefighting services

“While on early downwind of Runway 07 (to the right of upwind Runway 14), a different Cessna reported sighting the crashed plane. At this time, the tower called ARFFS (aircraft rescue and firefighting services) and activated the crash alarm advising on the position of the crashed aircraft.

“The tower also advised other responding agencies,” the report says, adding, “During this time, the tower was able to request other aircraft within the airspace, including two helicopters to proceed to the site for rescue. At 06:59GMT (9:59), one of the choppers reported sighting the wreckage and landing at the site to assist.”

According to the report, the tail of the Cessna broke apart midair when it collided with the right edge of the de-icing boot on the horizontal stabilizer of the Dash 8. Pieces of the tail were scattered along the flight path. The main wreckage was found farther along this path, broken into several pieces. The front section, wing, nose, main landing gear, and part of the tail were all in one area. The engine and propeller were under the front of the plane. The cockpit and its instruments were badly damaged, and there was evidence of leaking fuel.

“Investigators determined that the Cessna was severely damaged when it hit the ground hard. Part of the tail broke off and bent upwards at a 40-degree angle, about 130 meters behind where baggage would have been stored,” the report says.

The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) has initiated investigations into the accident.

Fatigue, alcohol, drugs

“The flight crew was not on prescribed drugs. Toxicological examination was conducted to check if the flight crew’s performance was affected by fatigue, alcohol, drugs, and/or medication at the time of the accident. There was no evidence that physiological factors or incapacitation affected the performance of flight crew members,” the report says. 

Records provided for the investigation by the Approved Training Organization reveal that the student pilot, a 20-year-old, held a student pilot’s license valid until January 30, 2025, and a Class 2 Medical Certificate. The Cessna had a valid certificate of airworthiness in the commercial air transport category issued by KCAA until January 5, 2025. 

“The investigation continues to assess the circumstances leading up to the accident, examining environmental conditions, crew actions, and air traffic control communications,” the report concludes.

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