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December 29th 2012 print

Tony Thomas

My crash course in Burmese aviation

'Tis the season to hit the road -- or, quite possibly, those trees beside the runway if you happen to be flying in and around Burma. A veteran traveller recalls the peculiar perils


Air travel within Burma is not without incident, as Australian survivors of the Christmas Day crash of an Air Bagan plane near Heho would agree.


This was the second crash of a Burmese domestic plane in 2012. In February, an Air KBZ ATR-72 took off from Heho and landed, more or less, at Thandwe airport. It bounced four times, veered off the runway to the left and ran into a pile of sand. The starboard propeller-ends sheered off and penetrated the fuselage, while the nose-wheel collapsed. No-one was hurt. The airline, motto “Flying Beyond Expectations”, had been operating only ten months.

I had my own brush with destiny on an Air Mandalay flight from Rangoon in late 2008, a flight which didn’t quite make it to Heho. Here’s the action replay, from my notes at the time:

Something is amiss.  Three rows behind the pilots’ bulkhead, a small boy on the right is creating a commotion. He vomited, I assume, as I am two rows behind and can’t see him clearly. Hostesses bustle about. “Bitten by an insect,” someone suggests. “No, by a snake, and it’s loose in the cockpit,” says a humorist, inevitably. Things quieten down. The twin turbo-prop, a French-Italian built ATR-72 resembling a big Fokker Friendship, drones northwards.

More drama in Row C. The parents in Row B wave frantically for the hostesses, who are chatting at the back, with toilet door open to provide more shmoozing space. The child is howling again. Two hostesses trot forward, each lugging a fire extinguisher, which they deploy at Row C. There is a lot of hissing and a faint smell of burning plastic. Other passengers with a better view, report that there is/was a fire under the seat floor.

The plane turns around and the pilot announces that, for technical reasons, he is diverting to land at the nearest airport, Nay Pyi Daw. As we disembark at the rear, I sneak forward and take a good look at the child’s seat. On the floor is a 5cm gash where heat had melted the floor. Apparently under-floor wiring shorted and ignited, giving the small boy a hot-foot.

But this is only part of the drama. We have landed, literally out of the blue, at Senior General Than Shwe’s new capital 320km north of Rangoon. Even locals need to wait weeks for a permit into this closed city. It is for the military, the civil service, compliant diplomats (Aussie diplomats remain in Rangoon) and some service providers.

The new capital is a folly of Senior General Than Shwe, whose lucky number is 11. On 11/11/05, starting at 11am, a convoy of 1100 military trucks departed Rangoon taking 11 ministries to this new abode.

Nay Pyi Daw, as at 2008, is out of bounds for foreign tourists and even to photograph its highways, public buildings and apartments is a serious offence.

Now the small terminal at Nay Pyi Daw is crowded with our party of about 22 bicycle tourists plus their guides, marooned during a three-week trip around the country. It is clear that our plane is hors de combat and no rescue plane is in the offing. Across the way is an elaborate blue-roofed public building, newly built and brightly painted but devoid of activity.

We find photography protocols mysterious. The day before, I had visited the maternity hospital in Rangoon, a venerable building from the 1890s British raj. A friend had been born there in 1940 and I had volunteered to bring home for her some snaps of her birthplace. Some security people on the ground floor were friendly but their mood changed to official and personal alarm when I produced my little Canon Ixus.

“No, no, NO!” they shouted.

I took them outside to a half buried plaque on a brick wall, on which a governor’s lady wife had commemorated the opening a century earlier. I gestured for permission just to snap the little tablet. The guardians’ alarm was unabated: “No, NO, NO!!” As I was leaving, pic-less, someone took pity on me. I was led to understand that if I drove past in my (decrepit) taxi, there was nothing to stop me taking a pic from the taxi window, which I did.

Next morning at dawn we were at the Rangoon main airport. It combined civil and military elements. While we were hanging around in the wait-lounge, with police and some military people alongside, a tourist stepped outside to take pics of the runway and aircraft. I was too late to warn him and watched goggle-eyed for an horrific denouement. But neither the police nor the soldiers cared a jot. Other camera-wielding tourists   joined their compatriot outside, followed lamely by myself.

That’s all by the way. At Naypyidaw, miraculously, our local tour guide whistled up a bus. After 12 hours on choked and rutted roads, the bus got us to our revised destination of Taunggyi.

Back in Australia, I googled up the official press release about the incident, published in New Light of Myanmar, the generals’ awful daily newspaper. What really happened to the Air Mandalay flight, according to an air ministry spokesman, was a minor fault in the overhead lighting, blown globe, something like that.

Internal airlines in Burma run about 30 planes, and their track record is not so good. Air Bagan, rival to Air Mandalay, is owned by cronies of the military and was on the US government’s sanctions list.

About six months earlier, in 2008, an Air Bagan ATR-72 was taking off from Putao.   The pilot had the nose-wheel in the air when one engine failed and he put the plane down again, too late to stop by runway’s end. It overshot by 100m and finished up a broken-backed heap. The pilot got his arm broken and depending who you believe, a dozen passengers or none were slightly hurt.

The passengers, one of them told Reuters, were stuck inside the aircraft and cabin crew took a long time to open emergency doors: "We were all were in a state of panic. Many were crying. Oxygen was running out and breathing became difficult.”

In a mixture of candour and spin, the airline’s sales and marketing manager wrote: “Air Bagan took full responsibility very seriously for this occurrence. Please kindly understand such cases could occur to any airline and we are taking full responsibility of the cause.”

A year earlier, in 2007, a Bagan Air ATR-42 plane landed with its engine on fire at Heho Airport. No-one was hurt apart from a tourist injured while scrambling out an emergency exit.

The safety record of Myanma Airways, the national airline, is so bad that in 2008 Britain’s Foreign Office warned its staff against using it. This was prescient. In June, 2009, a 32-year-old Myanma Airways Fokker F28-4000 landed so hard at Sittwe airport that one wheel collapsed and the plane veered off the runway. The first officer and one passenger were injured. Col Nyan Tun Aung, the deputy minister for transport, was fed up. He announced that the next Air Myanma pilot to make a serious mistake would be "severely punished" and exhorted workers to inspect planes more carefully.

A partial crash record of Myanma Airways and its predecessors, Burma Airways and Union of Burma Airways, makes sobering reading. 

August 1972: A Viscount overshot the runway on landing at Sittwe and skidded a kilometre before the undercarriage collapsed. No-one was hurt.

October 1985: a   Fokker F27-600 cargo plane was trying to land at Putao, overshot and pancaked into soft ground a mile from the runway end. All four crew died.

June 1987: a Fokker F27-200 hit a mountain after taking off from Heho. All 45 on board were killed.

October 1987: a Fokker F27-500 hit a mountain when trying to land at Nyaung-u. All 49 on board died.

February 1989: a Fokker F27-600 was taking off from Rangoon, entered a fogbank, veered left and hit a tree 500ft from the runway. It then caught fire. Twenty-six of the 29 on board were killed.

October 1993: a Fokker F27-600 overshot the runway when landing at Kawthaung, and came to a stop in a creek. No-one was hurt but the plane was written off.

July 1996: a Fokker F28-600   was landing at Myeik Airport when it hit a rain squall. It undershot the airstrip by 800 feet, ran over construction works and fell into a 4ft deep excavation. Eight of the 49 on board were killed.

January 1998: a Fokker F27 was taking off from Thandwe Airport when an engine failed. It swerved off the runway, hit an embankment and caught fire. Sixteen out of the 45 on board were killed.

June 1998: a Fokker F27-600 took off from Myitkina but failed to make it to Putao. It hit terrain and all four crew were killed.

August 1998: a Fokker F27 hit a hill while trying to land at Tachilek airstrip. All 36 on board were killed.

July 1999: a Fokker F27 on a mainly-cargo flight, hit a cloud-covered ridge while trying to land at Sittwe. The four crew and eight passengers were killed.

August 1999: a landing Fokker F28-1000 skidded off a wet runway at Rangoon and came to rest with the nose-wheel collapsed.

August, 2007: a Fokker F28-4000 misjudged its landing at Dawei airport and overshot the runway. The nose-wheel collapsed when it dug into soft ground. No-one was hurt.

Tony Thomas flew internally in Burma in 2011 without incident.