x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A milestone in aviation 40 years after the UAE's worst crash

Four decades after the first and worst air crash in the UAE's history, the industry is vastly safer. But the tragedy remains in our collective memory.

Less than four months after independence, and preoccupied with strengthening what many believed would be a short-lived union, the last thing the UAE expected, or needed, was to deal with a major air catastrophe.

But on March 14, 1972, that is exactly what it faced after Sterling Airways Flight 296 crashed in Fujairah after a series of avoidable human errors. All 112 crew members and passengers - most of whom had been holidaying in Colombo, Sri Lanka - died instantly. It remains the worst aviation disaster in UAE territory.

In those days, aviation safety in the UAE was, at best, basic. Features we take for granted today, such as radar, were yet to be implemented at Dubai International Airport. Nor were the young country's rescue and recovery services prepared for a disaster of that magnitude.

Henrik Michelsen, whose cousin died on board, believes that if radar had been installed, there would have been a decent chance for the plane to make it to the runway. As it happened, radar was installed several months later.

Speculation aside, it was probably a combination of inexperienced pilots and an errant flight path that led to the crash, according to Danish investigators.

The aviation industry, like the country, had to grow up fast. Most of the questions have been answered in the intervening years, although that has not necessarily provided closure for some of the victims' relatives.

There have, of course, been other tragedies in the country's aviation history, even recently. In 2010, an Air India Express flight departing from Dubai crashed on arrival at Mangalore Airport in Karnataka after overshooting the runway; 158 people died, leaving eight survivors.

Other accidents have been smaller but no less tragic. Also in 2010, a UPS cargo plane bound for Cologne, Germany, crashed shortly after take-off into the Nad Al Sheba Military Camp near Dubai. Both pilots were killed.

In February of last year, four people were killed when their light aircraft went down shortly after leaving Al Ain International Airport. And in July, an Emirati fighter jet pilot died after crashing during a training exercise. Several other accidents have involved the UAE Armed Forces.

But with every accident, lessons have been learnt and safety precautions improved. As a result, air safety in the UAE - and around the world - is unrecognisable compared to the country's early days.

The smallest of details are now major considerations. For example, a UN panel last month recommended new international safety standards for planes carrying lithium batteries, highly flammable items blamed for the UPS crash two years ago. Such precautions would have been unthinkable, probably, even just a decade ago.

In earlier years, what the UAE lacked in technology, it made up for by other means: effort, an eagerness to learn and, above all, empathy.

The families of Sterling 296's victims still mourn their loved ones. But such was the effort to ease their pain, the sadness has over the years been ameliorated by the compassion displayed by UAE officials and citizens after the crash.

The feeling has been reciprocated. In 2002, Ingrid Mannerup, whose parents died in the crash, travelled to Fujairah with her elder sister to erect a memorial for the victims.

"The locals were impressed to see two old women here, going to Fujairah to climb a mountain," said the 63-year-old Dane, who was chauffeured up to the base of the 485-metre ridge where the plane crashed, courtesy of the ruler of Fujairah.

Today, the UAE stands as the region's main travel hub, a favoured tourist destination thanks to its modern airports and the prominence of its carriers Etihad and Emirates.

But the difficult beginning lives on in memory. Sterling 296 was expected to make stops in India, Dubai and Turkey, before finally landing in Copenhagen. Instead, its journey ended on that ridge in Fujairah.

Most of the wreckage was airlifted out within two weeks of the crash by helicopters deployed from Abu Dhabi. But 40 years later, Fujairah's rocky terrain still bears the scars. Bones, scrap from the cockpit frame and even clothing scatter the mountain top, which overlooks the small fishing village of Al Hayl.

They are reminders of the humble origins of the UAE's aviation industry, and how far it and the country as whole have come since.

 

zalhassani@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @zalhassani