Sapta Kanya air crash: 46 years on | Daily News

Sapta Kanya air crash: 46 years on

 The site of the crash
The site of the crash

Last December 4 marked the 46th anniversary of the crash of Martinair Flight 138 on the Sapta Kanya (Seven Virgins) mountain range, the largest air crash in Sri Lankan history. The DC-8 plane crashed into the Sapta Kanya mountain range 10 minutes after 10.00 pm on December 4, 1974. One hundred and ninetyone people died in the crash.

The flight is said to have departed Surabaya, Indonesia, at approximately 12.03 UTC heading to Jeddah,with a stop at Bandaranaike International Airport. At around 16.30 UTC Colombo air traffic control cleared the flight for landing.

At 16.38 UTC another air traffic controller is said to have intervened and cleared the flight down to 5,000 feet and reported clearing the aircraft to 8,000 feet. Colombo flight control then cleared the flight down to 2,000 feet at 16.44 and told the pilot to expect a runway 04 approach. The crew on board the flight were then asked to report when the airfield was in sight. The crew then continued their descent until the aircraft crashed into Sapta Kanya Mountain at an altitude of approximately 4,355 feet, at around 40 nm east of Colombo.

The crash remains the deadliest in Sri Lankan aviation history and the third-deadliest involving a DC-8, after Arrow Air Flight 1285 and Nigeria Airways Flight 2120. At the time, it was the seconddeadliest aviation accident, after the loss of Turkish Airlines Flight 981 which occurred earlier that same year.

Two people who were in the vicinity at the time described their experiences of the accident as follows.

Percy Lionel Ranasinghe (82), a resident of Norton Bridge,Vidulipura, recalled that the aircraft was carrying pilgrims from Indonesia to Mecca. Nine of the crew were Dutch. All the others were Indonesians. The plane entered Sri Lanka and flew over 32,000 feet at Talawakele and about 12,000 feet above Castlereagh Bridge.

“My house is located below an international air route. As usual, that Martinairaircraft also entered the country and flew over the Maskeliya Oya. The left wing hit the rock on the third mountain in the range. Then the pilot tried to turn the plane to the right. Theplane then hit the fifth mountain and exploded. It blew up into several pieces and the people inside would have died instantly. The broken pieces of the aircraft could not be cut. The metal was so strong. The next day we climbed the mountain on a makeshift road built by the Army. I was at the scene of the incident for about two or three hours. Relatives of the victims came to Sri Lanka and dug up the body parts and buried them in white cloths. The next day when we went to the mountain, people from the Ratnapura area had come and found more bodies of the dead.”

The investigators also found the black box (flight data recorder) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR). It was revealed by air crash investigators that the co-pilot had flown the plane at the time of the accident. The chief pilot was Captain Hendrik Lamme who served as a pilot for the British Army during World War II. First Officer Robert Blomsma was his co-pilot. He had mistaken the lights at Laxapana for the landing lights at Katunayake and lowered the plane. The plane had hit the Sapta Kanya rocks and exploded.

“Shortly after the crash, SLBC reported that a plane had crashed near Sripada (Adam’s Peak). At that time, there was no TV in Sri Lanka and only the radio gave us news. After a while, the sky in the area was covered with smoke. I found a tyre near the Norton Bridge Police Station. At that time, the OIC of the Norton Bridge Police was a gentleman named Attygalle.”

GamlathRalalagePodiSinho (79), a resident of Hatton, Kottellena, recalled the events: “I used to work at the Laxapana Power Plant. I usually come home from work and go to bed at around 10.20 at night after listening to Pirith. At around 10.15 pm I heard a loud noise that shook the ground. It was an intense sound. I realised it could be a plane crash. At that time, pieces of the plane were scattered everywhere. The investigators who came asked me to help them find the black box. I tried to look for it despite the risk to my life. Then I found something like a small belt. I gave it to the gentlemen. At that moment they called Colombo. Three days later, I climbed the mountain. In fact, this accident was the saddest event in my life.”