x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Relatives of Fujairah plane disaster victims hold memorial

Danes visit Fujairah crash site 40 years after one of the worst aviation disasters in the history of the UAE and Denmark.

The Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, dated March 16, 1972, carried the story of the Al Hayl air crash on its front page.
The Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, dated March 16, 1972, carried the story of the Al Hayl air crash on its front page.

On the wrong flight path, flown by crew unfamiliar with the route and with a possibly faulty weather radar system, Sterling Airways Flight 296 from Sri Lanka to Denmark had the odds stacked against it.

Making what was thought to be a routine descent into Dubai Airport to refuel, the pilot and co-pilot were instead flying over a mountainous area near Al Hayl, a fishing village in Fujairah - more than 100 km away.

Losing contact with Dubai aviation officials at 10.04pm on March 14, 1972 - 40 years ago today - the two-year-old aircraft would crash into a 485-metre ridge.

The plane split in half on impact, killing all 112 passengers and crew, most of whom were Danish. It is one of the worst aviation disasters in the histories of the UAE and Denmark.

To mark the 40th anniversary of those who died, Henrik Michelsen, who has lived in Dubai for around three years, and Jussi Paivinen, whose cousin and parents were passengers, will today hold a memorial service close to the crash site.

The men will look for a memorial plate erected by two Danish sisters in commemoration of the 30th anniversary.

Both young boys at the time of the crash, this is the first time Mr Michelsen or Mr Paivinen - who will make the long trip with his teenage sons - have made the journey.

Mr Paivinen, now 46, was too young to remember the last time he saw his parents, Kim and Raima Paivinen Hellerup, who had treated themselves to a holiday in Sri Lanka after deciding to start up a hotel.

He said visiting Al Hayl was the culmination of many years of personal unrest.

"This will be a good chance to bring it up and go and show my sons where their grandfather and grandmother were lost," Mr Paivinen said.

The memorial will also bring him some closure.

"I have been hiding it from myself and it has been like a black spot in the back of my mind for all these years, and so I thought, 'OK, this must be the time to bring it up and maybe just say goodbye and let it go'," Mr Paivinen said.

He and his younger brother and older sister were brought up by their great uncle.

The Danish Transport Authority's accident report showed the weather, although rough, played no part in the tragedy.

"The combination of Ole Jorgensen and Jorgen Petersen [the pilot and first officer] as crew members … could have been more suitably chosen to perform the flight in question," said the report, produced by the former directorate of civil aviation.

Although qualified pilots, neither had flown the route and neither had received adequate training on how to use the onboard weather radar.

An old flight plan, which would account for the pilots descending in the wrong area, and misreading the radar were listed as probable causes by the Flight Safety Foundation's aviation safety network.

"It was an accident that should never have happened," said Mr Michelsen, who was only eight at the time his air hostess cousin Lone Bernth, 22, died.

Having followed her into the same industry, he remembers the last time he saw his cousin, at a family gathering.

"There she was, my hero, because she was flying," said Mr Michelsen, now 49.

Ms Bernth, whose parents died soon after losing their only child, would have turned 23 the day after the crash.

Having spent much time researching the incident, Mr Michelsen, who organised the 40th anniversary memorial, hopes to write a book for those still asking questions.

"Why did it happen? What were the consequences for those left behind?" he asked. "This accident has been so much swept under the carpet … and I don't get it. I don't understand it. What I'm hoping for [with the book] is that we have 112 souls whose story needs to be told."

Ali Rashid Al Kindi was only five on the day after the crash, when British troops in the area and the UAE government representative for Fujairah came to speak to his father and other villagers.

"We didn't know about the crash but everyone helped to find the plane," Mr Al Kindi said. "The wreckage was massive."

Helicopters provided by Abu Dhabi Defence Force spent two weeks collecting the bodies, all of which were repatriated for burial.

Mr Michelsen praised the efforts made by the UAE, then only a few months old, in helping Denmark cope with its loss.

"It was a new nation, it had just started," he said. "They didn't even have a transport system in place and from my point of view, what they did, it was fantastic."

zalhassani@thenational.ae