On November 28 1987, a South African Airways 747-244b aircraft (Aircraft Identification ZS-SAS) with 159 passengers on board crashed into the Indian Ocean, 160 miles north east of Mauritius. All passengers and crew perished.
Official inquiries into the incident and cause for the disaster never yielded definitive resolution. The previous government in South Africa, lead by the National Party, was either grossly incompetent in its fact-finding mission or deliberately obstructive. Then there is also the part played by the ANC. One “official” cause supplied was that a fire caused by fireworks on board resulted in the disaster.
What follows here is a personal account of a very distinguished gentleman. A very intelligent man. But that is only my opinion. You decide for yourself.
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
- Clarke's First Law -
In the late fall of 1987 I was approached by Colonel Jorrie Jordaan to produce a rather nasty weapon system that would be used in the war in Angola. Since I was already designing the security systems for military bases, borders and key points, and I had worked on advanced and non-conventional systems in the past, the “marriage” of my previous experience with this new ‘purpose’ was a natural transition, as far as Jorrie was concerned.
Jorrie wanted a way to take down the Migs that were giving us so much grief, but he wanted to do it in a way that would make it look like pilot error and keep the Russians and Cubans guessing. The best technological ‘fit’ I could work out at the time was an accelerated laser weapon with a nuclear source. We could constrain a highly energized particle stream inside a “tube” or “ring” laser, bring its energy level up to a few trillion volts and send it into a Mig. It would be like a focused EMP Cannon with a 1/4 wave frequency anywhere from hundreds of yards to thousands of miles in length. The result of a hit on a plane (and the pilot it contained), would be catastrophic, but almost undetectable unless one found the energy transfer point.
A few months after the request had come through to develop the weapon, and the prototypes of smaller units had been constructed as a proof of concept, it came time to build the working device that would be deployed in Northern SWA (now Namibia). There were however problems with the acquisition of parts and materials for the larger device. You can’t walk into a hardware store and buy a few megawatts of Class IV lasers or highly enriched u239. These kinds of components and materials had to come from overseas. Armscor already had a working relationship with SAA (South African Airlines) to move armaments and even though a weapons embargo was in place, it was not being seriously managed by it’s most staunch supporters (ref. 1988 US/Iraqi arms deal with French support delivered through SA for direct shipment to Saddam, for the invasion of Kuwait, this was after the Helderberg catastrophe, but nothing was really any different in 1987 as opposed to 1988) (1).
Colonel Jordaan needed to get the materials into SA, so he did what any loyal Boer would, he handled the purchase and transport himself. After all, this was a very sensitive and highly illegal operation and the success of the operation meant success for all of South Africa. What follows is a bit of the story...
The Events Surrounding the Helderberg Specifically
Jorrie was allegedly at a science conference, that was the cover story and having his wife with him made it look perfectly innocent. What he was really doing however, was between him and very few others. The cover was that Armscor had told him they wanted him there to examine new technology, possibly for security applications. That’s what he told everyone, like Andre and I, before he left.
I knew a couple of things though, both PMP and Somchem wanted a new Ammonium Perchlorate (APC or AMP) accelerant mix for the solid fuel propellant in SAMS. Atlas needed a contained fissile source for something I had designed for Jorrie and Armscor to take down the Migs in Angola. The Minister and Armscor were not adverse, to ‘strong-arming’ SAA pilots to move weapons and material shipments to get around the arms embargo, by using commercial airlines. To make matters worse, they had ‘bought men’ in the airports to expedite their ‘packages’ and ‘sanitize’ the paperwork.
Then there was the underlying problem with Armscor and the government, both of which had two internally warring factions Jorrie had told me. Armscor was politically fractured, he called the two sides, the hawks and the doves. And either side was capable of doing anything to the other side to further their positions, including killing fellow officers.
The day before Jorrie left Taiwan, he received his “samples” shipped from North Korea through China. Plenty enough material to replicate for PMP and Somchem. He handed this off to an operative for vacuum packaging and transport on the plane. He went back to the hotel, showered and threw out his day clothes. He wouldn’t want the “sniffers” to pick up a problem in the airport. He might not be able to fix that ‘little’ situation.
The next day at the airport, while Jorrie was waiting to clear his tickets and his baggage, one of his “trusted” operatives approached him with guarded urgency. This was a man who should not have been there. He motioned Jorrie aside, away from the crowds and the line of people. Recognizing him, Jorrie told his wife to wait in the queue while he thought, ‘it must be important’.
The displaced operative whispered to him, “you have to stay, tell her there is a problem with the baggage, I’ll wait”, and that was all he said.
Jorrie turned and visibly checked his wife. When he turned back, the man was moving away and into the crowds of milling people to stand against the outside wall. He would have to think fast.
He had not checked his bags yet. He took his wife out of the queue to sit down and told her, “I will take care of the bags, you can just stay here and read, relax for a bit.”
He had positioned her sufficiently far enough away, in a quiet area where she wouldn’t be able to see exactly what he was up to. Jorrie stood in plain sight for about 10 minutes, then he bypassed the desks and took his bags to his displaced operative standing at the outside wall.
He said, “take these outside, put them in the trunk of a close cab and wait in it, when I come out, I’ll find you, wait till I am at the cab and get out, get your car and follow me to the hotel, take my bags from my cab, wait one hour and drop them off at the front desk, say you are from the airport, give them apologies or something.”
The man raised his hand and nodded in acknowledgment and confirmation, took the bags, found a cab, loaded them in the trunk and waited. Jorrie headed back towards the ticket counter and baggage check area and started waiting, to make his move.
After about fifteen minutes he went over and complained to his wife, “they said there is something wrong with our luggage, it has been taken by security to be checked, can you believe it?”
She asked, “what could be wrong, dearie?”
He shrugged, “I don’t know, yesus, these bloody Chinese, they said to go back to the hotel.”
“But we’ll miss our flight,” she worried.
He responded, “then we will, they said they would honour the tickets, don’t worry, they will sort it out,” he said, “ach, let’s get out of this stupid place.”
And he walked her out the front door to the waiting cab. His associate exited, Jorrie and his wife entered. They made their way back to the hotel and checked in for another night. His wife didn’t notice, she was waiting near the hotel doors, but Jorrie had told the driver to wait five minutes and he would send someone down for the bags. Once upstairs he scheduled his re-return flight to Johannesburg. Downstairs, in front of the hotel, his associate had removed the luggage and was waiting in his car.
One hour later, his operative delivered the luggage to the front desk. He said he was delivering for South African Airlines, there had been a mix up, “please give them our apologies.” The front desk called up. The Op was gone. The desk had the luggage sent upstairs and Jorrie’s wife didn’t know a damned thing about what had just transpired.
On the plane, it was a different story. The pilot and two crew members knew something nasty was coming on board. They didn’t know exactly what even though they had suspicions, they did know it wasn’t ‘good’. As every time before though, there would be a handler and “he” would take care of the cargo. Prior to take-off, the pilot noticed an irregularity, the handler had not boarded. Imagining the worse, with good reason, he refused to take off (3a).
Then the threats came from Pretoria, it was the one call that would change 159 lives. A Minister called and told the pilot that if he didn’t take off they wouldn’t just “release” him from his duties, they would “release” his family and anyone else he cared about for that matter. With his back to the wall, he taxied out and took off, not knowing the two missing passengers names were being purged from all records relating to his flight.
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