Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 was a chartered service carrying passengers from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Sokoto, Nigeria on July 11, 1991. Shortly after takeoff from Jeddah, the Douglas DC-8-61 caught fire and attempted to return for an emergency landing. Unfortunately, the plane crashed and all 247 passengers and 14 crew members were killed.
About the flight
Built in 1968, the Douglas DC-8 was registered C-GMXQ and was leased by a Canadian company known as Nolisair. Usually operated by Nationair Canada, it had been chartered with crew to cope with the demand for the Hajj pilgrimage to and from Mecca. Nationair’s contract was with a Saudi company called Al-Rajhi International Trading Company – not an airline, but a broker who had been commissioned by the Saudi government to fill the void left by a former airline to fly Nigerians to Makkah . The company then signed another contract with Nigeria Airways to use its support services, callsign and branding.
While most North American airlines would have been reluctant to fly this far and operate this type of service, Nationair had a firm strategy to fill the gaps in the market. She was actively soliciting short-term overseas contracts. Although the Hajj represents one of the largest movements of people in the world, things don’t always go to plan, as the Canadian DC-8 operator would soon find out.
How was the accident
The aircraft was piloted by Captain William Allan, 47, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot with 10,700 flying hours. Its first officer was Kent Davidge, aged 36 and with 8,000 flying hours. The takeoff was smooth, but unbeknownst to the crew, the plane caught fire during takeoff. With no fire warning system in the area where the fire started, vital time to deal with the problem was missed.
Pressurization failed quickly and the crew was overwhelmed with warnings about circuit failures. In response to the loss of pressurization, Captain Allen decided to stay at 2,000 feet. First Officer Davidge reported that he was losing control of the hydraulics, but no one realized the plane was on fire. Another incident occurred when Captain Allan misidentified the plane as ‘Nationair Canada 2120’, meaning air traffic control confused communications with a Saudia flight which also had pressurization issues. .
The crew first became aware of the fire when a flight attendant rushed into the cockpit saying, “smoke in the back…that’s really bad.” Davidge said he lost ailerons, which forced Allan to take control of the plane. As soon as Allan took over, the cockpit voice recorder failed. At this point, air traffic control realized the confusion and directed the flight to a runway.
Horribly, while the plane was at an altitude of 2,200 feet and 18 km from the airport, a number of bodies were observed falling from the plane. The fire was so severe that it had consumed at least part of the cabin floor and the aircraft was beginning to fall apart. As the Douglas was just under 3 km (1.8 miles) from the airport, the aircraft spiraled out of control and crashed, killing all remaining passengers and crew. The accident remains the deadliest involving a Douglas DC-8 and the second worst to occur in Saudi Arabia after Saudia Flight 163.
Under-inflated tires caused the crash
The fateful crash of Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 was the culmination of a catastrophe of errors, which had begun days before, on July 7. The plane’s weather radar had failed and it was stranded in Accra, Ghana for several days. While he was there, the maintenance team decided to start their scheduled A-check. The check wasn’t due until 35, but since the plane wasn’t busy, they started early.
One of the inspections included taking the pressure of all the aircraft’s tires. The mechanics noted that the pressure in the number 2 and 4 tires was about 20 psi below the minimum value. Strangely, no one thought to recharge them. It was later discovered that someone had written on the original note that the tires were at 160 psi in a different colored pen, overwriting the required value of 180 psi, despite none having been recharged.
After several more flights, the aircraft again arrived in Accra where it needed to have a number of its tires replaced, including those with the lowest pressures. However, the storage room containing the new tires was locked and it took several hours to find someone who had a key. As the mechanics were about to start work, an urgent fax arrived from project manager Aldo Tetamenti. According to Admiral Cloudberg, he said,
“VERY URGENT. Please do all you can to bring air conditioning back to Jed by 0800 Z GMT or 1100 LT Jed or we stand to lose [sic] a lot. The situation with Nigerian Airways is critical, they are giving our pax due to delay. Don’t let maintenance change wheels in Acc. If you have a chance, call me as soon as possible.
Collectively, the mechanics and the operations officer decided that the risk to the Nigeria Airways contract outweighed the tires, and that the equipment change could wait. The new wheels and tires were loaded into the cargo hold, to be replaced when the aircraft finally arrived at Sokoto.
A series of catastrophic events
Although underinflated tires may not seem like a major problem for an airliner, repeated use of semi-flat tires puts excessive pressure on the properly inflated tire on the same axle. The number 2 tire had been running underinflated for several days, which put excessive pressure on the number 1 tire in front, causing it to overheat. As the plane took off from Jeddah, the number 2 tire separated from its rim, causing sparks as it accelerated along the runway. This, combined with the number 1 tire overheating, caused a fire.
Unaware of the disaster unfolding beneath them, Captain Allen motioned to retract the landing gear as the plane reached altitude, thus bringing the fire inside the plane. The fire grew, consuming nearby combustible materials and eventually rupturing hydraulic lines, causing flammable hydraulic fluid to spray into the area, further accelerating the fire. This punched a hole in the fuselage, causing the aircraft to rapidly depressurize.
As the captain attempted to obtain clearance to return to the airport, the fire punctured the center fuel tank. The fire spread relentlessly in all directions, and as hydraulic fluid was lost, all of the aircraft’s control systems became dysfunctional. He eventually broke through the cabin floor; the terror that must have been felt by these passengers, many of whom were flying for the first time, would have been appalling.
The only opportunity that presented itself to prevent this disaster was when Captain Allen recorded a bang as the plane was racing for takeoff. Thinking he had punctured a tire, he continued the takeoff, despite being well below decision airspeed. It later emerged that Nationair only trained its pilots to abort a takeoff in the event of an engine failure, engine fire, or complete loss of electrical power. Nationair came under scrutiny from Transport Canada following the accident, but its reputation was ultimately damaged beyond repair and the airline filed for bankruptcy in 1993.
The downside was that relatives of the 261 victims who had perished in the crash then had no way to claim compensation for the disaster. No one has ever received an apology from the carrier, let alone money. A little silver lining was that passenger jets would continue to have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the wheel well, and tire safety is now well integrated with mechanics and pilots.
Source: Admiral Cloudberg