Skip to main content
February 18, 2019

When hundreds perished in Kenya Airways disasters

Kenya Civil Aviation officers examine the remains if the  Cessna plane belonging to Skylink Aviation that crashed in Nairobi National Park killing  a student and his instructor./FILE
Kenya Civil Aviation officers examine the remains if the Cessna plane belonging to Skylink Aviation that crashed in Nairobi National Park killing a student and his instructor./FILE

Kenya has had a chequered history with air travel. While some incidents claimed the lives of prominent politicians, others were notable for wiping out a chunk of the masses.

In 2000, Kenya Airways Flight 431 crashed, killing 169 passengers. The flight was an international scheduled Abidjan–Lagos-Nairobi passenger service, operated with Airbus A310-300. It crashed into the sea off the coast of Côte d'Ivoire on January 30, 2000, shortly after takeoff from Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, Abidjan.

There were 179 people on board. Only 10 survived, in what was the first fatal accident for Kenya Airways. The aircraft involved in the accident was an Airbus A310-304, registration 5Y-BEN, named Harambee Star.

The airframe entered service with Kenya Airways in September 1986 and had logged 58,115 flight hours at the time of the accident. The flight was under the command of 44-year-old Capt Paul Muthee, an experienced officer who had logged 11,636 flying hours at the time of the accident, 1,664 on an Airbus A310.

The airframe was completely destroyed by the impact. Powerboat operators and fishermen extracted at least seven of the survivors from the water. Of those survivors, three were Nigerians, one was a Kenyan, one was a Gambian, one was an Indian, and one was Rwandan.

One survivor, a Frenchman, swam almost 1 mile (1.6 km) to the shore. Of the 12 initial survivors, two died in hospital. Of the 10 ultimate survivors, nine received serious injuries and one received minor injuries. Four survivors received first-degree burns from contact with jet fuel in the water.

As of May 2018, the accident remains the deadliest involving the Airbus A3. The Accident Investigation Authority of France assisted in the search for the flight recorders, before handing over to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, who analysed the flight safety recorders.

The report noted that taking off after dark, towards the sea, the pilots lacked visual references, and recommended that for crews of aircraft in which false stall warnings are likely, type rating and later training should include ways to recognise and manage such false warnings when close to the ground.


Disaster next struck Kenya Airways seven years later. Boeing 737-800 crashed on May 5, 2007, in the midst of a thunderstorm less than two minutes after take-off, but the report said poor weather or mechanical error had nothing to do with it.

The plane crashed nine seconds later, a minute and 42 seconds into the flight, killing all 114 people on board, who came from 26 nations. The investigation into the crash has been a long and difficult process.

The plane went down in a mangrove swamp less than 6.5km from the runway, but it took officials 40 hours to find the wreckage, which indicated the plane had flown nose-first into the ground.

Investigators at the time of the crash said the dive indicated that a violent gust of wind may have flipped the airliner over.

A 2010 report by the Cameroonian Civil Aviation Authority said “probable causes” of the crash included loss of control by the crew, inadequate operational control and lack of crew co-ordination.

“The air plane crashed after loss of control by the crew as a result of spatial disorientation, after a long slow roll, during which no instrument scanning was done and in the absence of external visual references in a dark night,” the report said.

In court papers, where a British family sued Boeing for the accident, it was claimed that the aircraft operated by the national carrier was “defective and unreasonably dangerous”, and that it was the cause of the crash.

The suit alleged that the plane's spoilers — the flaps on the wing that control the plane’s speed — were faulty, causing the aircraft to lose thrust as it climbed.

However, these issues are not raised in the report, which said the aircraft and engines were operating normally.

The Duala report said the pilot didn’t adhere to standard operating procedures, had poor situational awareness and reacted inappropriately in the face of an abnormal situation.

The report indicated no instrument scanning was done by the crew during the initial roll, and because it was at night, the pilot had no visual references to correct the situation. The report pointed out that the air plane took off without authorisation from air traffic control, but KQ maintains it could not explain it.

This, the airline said, was not in its policy and could have been a miscommunication.

Read: Cycle of plane crashes and air of mystery around them

Click here for the latest political news

Poll of the day