The partly submerged An-26 that crashed in Libreville yesterday

An Antonov 26 cargo plane operating on behalf of DHL crashed Tuesday morning in Libreville , Gabon. According to witness accounts, the aircraft visibly flying without its propeller engines operating reportedly ditched in the sea only a few feet away from the beach alongside Libreville’s main seaside boulevard. The four occupants aboard the aircraft including two pilots were taken to nearby hospitals. The aircraft registered TR-LII belonging to Solenta Aviation operated as DHL flight 122 on its 40 minutes return flight from the town of the oil industry Port Gentil. The crash immediately prompted the Gabonese government to altogether ban operation of all Antonov model 12, 24 and 26 aircraft pending an investigation.

The Soviet era aircraft

Older Soviet era aircraft that have found a second life in the African continent sometimes far away from the stringent requirements for safety of flight rigorously enforced in other regions of the world have acquired a sinister reputation. A prior Antonov crash occurring last March in the Congo town of Pointe Noire had led to 23 fatalities. On October 4th 2007 an An-26 belonging to Africa One crashed shortly after taking off from Kinshasa N’djili international airport in the other Congo Republic. That aircraft came down in a heavily populated area causing up to 50 people to lose their life on the ground in addition to 20 occupants reportedly killed aboard the aircraft. Already in 1996 an An-32 that had overshot the runway while attempting to land in Kinshasa had killed an estimated 300 people after plowing through a crowded market place nearby.

For Gabon, the demise of its national airline Air Gabon in 2006 has opened the way for a deregulated but dysfunctional airline industry. Gabon Airlines; the privatised entity that acquired Air Gabon rights on all the foreign destinations has struggled to support its Boeing 767 Libreville-Paris rotation. The nascent rivalry between Air France and Lufthansa on that segment probably spells the end for the Gabon Airlines private experiment as the government is unlikely to reverse its privatization policy only four years after the much regretted national carrier was allowed to collapse. The domestic market seems to have been taken over by smaller operators able to grow market share alongside operating flights on behalf of the oil extracting industry on the Libreville-Port Gentil route. Safety has been impacted by the general appearance of older aircraft. While it was perfectly acceptable to have Air Gabon Boeing 737-200/-300, Fokker F-28, F-100 and ATR-72 operate on the domestic market from the late 70’s to late 90’s, much older aircraft began to proliferate in the last decade. On June 8th 2004 a Gabon Express BAe/HS-748 crashed on the same stretch of sea front in Libreville. The aircraft which had also encountered mechanical problems ditched in the ocean, leading to the death of 19 people aboard. That airline had been somewhat of an attraction as it was the only carrier to operate a Sud Aviation Caravelle well into the 21st century.

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