On July 24, 1999, a fatal domestic airplane crash in the interior of Naitasiri killed all 17 on board. Nine of the victims were from prominent families.
There were two separate probes — but investigators did not come up with conclusive evidence on the cause of the crash. One investigation, though, raised pertinent questions that remain unanswered today.
The tragedy also placed local flight following procedures under scrutiny and investigators recommended that Fiji engage the services of an internationally-recognised emergency response specialist.
IT would have taken Air Fiji's PC121 25 minutes to fly from Nausori to Nadi. On the morning of July, 24, 1999, the pilots were given the all-clear and the Embraer Bandeirante aircraft taxied off the runway at 5.26am.
Ten minutes later it crashed in the dark into the side of Mataicicia mountain in the interior of Naitasiri, killing all 17 on board. The youngest passenger was a two-year-old girl, she and her mother making up one of the two mother-and-daughter pairs travelling that morning.
Nine of the deceased were locals.
There was shock and bewilderment. The worst disaster in Fiji's aviation history had affected the lives of many. Perplexed, people started asking questions about what really happened in the 10 minutes from takeoff to when the aircraft fell out of the sky. Sadly, 13 years later, the questions remain unanswered.
The mystery of what really happened deepened in the aftermath when an aviation industry expert challenged certain findings of a report by official investigators.
As Air Fiji maintained the airworthiness of the aircraft, conspiracy theories circulated as reports filtered in that a crucial piece of the aircraft — that could provide clues — was never found. Like the mist that covered and seemingly tried to hide the wreckage of PC121, the events leading to the pre-dawn crash remains shrouded in mystery.
Today, the "what if", "how come" and "whys" are questions that still linger in the minds of those who lost loved ones. Much of the uncertainty was triggered by the findings of the two separate investigations. The first report contained the outcome of the official crash investigation while the second was the result of an analysis of the first report — by United Kingdom aviation expert Steven Danahar.
Both, unfortunately failed to provide conclusive answers and bring real closure to a tragedy that took the lives of 17 people.
The official investigation made 12 recommendations which included training on standard operating procedures and crew resource management practices — a training that allows co-pilots to take part in decision making in the cockpit. It also called for an assessment of the adequacy of communication resources and procedures.
In a section titled probable causes, the official investigation said the combination of a dark night, cloud, and limited ground lights, would have provided the crew with few external visual cues.
"This would have required that they constantly scan their flight instruments to achieve the desired aircraft performance and flight profile. This is a demanding task and it is possible that the crew became disorientated and lost control of the aircraft with insufficient altitude remaining to regain control of the aircraft," the report said.
"The evidence is consistent with the aircraft colliding with one or more objects prior to breaking up and impacting the ridge. However, it was not possible to determine the exact sequence of events during the in-flight break-up. It is possible that the crew did not climb the aircraft to the reported altitude. However, there is no evidence to support this."
It is therefore of particular interest to read through Mr Danahar's analysis regarding the entire tailplane assembly which had broken off prior to impact.
According to the official report, "Immediately prior to the final impact, the empennage (complete tail unit) had separated from the fuselage due to in-flight stresses resulting from the loss of the right wing. The stresses exceeded the aircraft's structural strength."
What intrigued Mr Danahar most was the fact that the vertical stabiliser of the aircraft was never recovered or found among the wreckage — and scant mention made of the crucial piece of evidence in the official investigation report.
"The rudder is attached to the missing stabiliser by hinges and bolts. Control rods and cables are attached to the lower portion of the rudder and feed through the fuselage to the pilot's rudder pedals. I find it strange that a large part of the tailplane is missing when its associated parts are found in the same area.
"I feel there is a need to find the missing stabiliser so that we can evaluate its relevance in this accident, by reference to its positional evidence and its physical state."
Mr Danahar added it was impossible to completely rule out structural failure or lay blame on the pilots as the cause of the PC121 disaster could not be determined until the missing piece of evidence was retrieved. He questioned the legitimacy of the possible scenarios of pilot error extended by the official investigation.
"With no hard evidence against the pilots, then surely the investigation should have been inconclusive on the cause of the accident instead of quoting possibilities. And, of course, there is still the question of the missing vertical stabiliser sitting somewhere out there in the jungle," he said at the time, as quoted in an article in The Fiji Times a year after the incident.
Mr Danahar also posed the most pertinent question: "why should a reportedly well-maintained, relatively modern aircraft, with two qualified commercial pilots whose combined flying hours totalled 6116 hours, plunge 6000 feet to destruction?"
The UK aviation expert was also not satisfied with the information provided on the instrumentation and equipment used by the crew of PC121. He expressed concern that the official findings made no reference of a standby artificial horizon and a directive by Air Fiji management for pilots not to use autopilot. A critical piece of equipment, the artificial horizon is an instrument that informs the pilot of the orientation of the aircraft relative to earth and is used when vision is restricted either because of cloud cover or when flying in complete darkness.
"This is extremely important because if it wasn't the pilot who induced the initial phase of loss of control of the aircraft then it could have been his major source of aircraft altitude — the artificial horizon that failed," he said in his analysis report.
Regarding the autopilot issue, Mr Danahar said no reason was given by the Australian investigators as to why the instrument was not working.
"Because the unserviceable autopilot was still fitted in the aircraft, can we assume that the reason for unserviceability up until the time of accident had not been determined?
"If the autopilot had not been disarmed in the correct manner and there was no visual 'unserviceability' placard on the instrument panel, is it possible that the pilots, through lack of positive information, used the autopilot and in doing so lost control of the aircraft?"
Mr Danahar — who emphasised that his investigation was not to discredit the investigators but improve air safety — also said all possible mechanical, navigation or weather-related factors be eliminated as the cause of the accident before focus could be shifted to the pilots.
His call for the investigation to be re-opened one year after the tragedy went unheeded.
* Next week: The man who had the ear of the president. KB Singh, a trusted and close friend of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, uses his influence to get a seat on the ill-fated flight. First Lady Adi Koila Nailatikau and KB's son Surendra remember this special friendship.