A plane packed with African pilgrims returning from Mecca burst into flames shortly after takeoff.
Nigeria Airways flight 2120 was a chartered service flying passengers from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Sokoto, Nigeria on July 11th, 1991. Shortly after takeoff from Jeddah, the Douglas DC-8-61 burst into flames and attempted to return for an emergency landing. Sadly, the plane crashed and all 247 passengers and 14 crew members were killed.
Built in 1968, the Douglas DC-8 was registered C-GMXQ, and was on lease from a Canadian company known as Nolisair. Usually operated by Nationair Canada, it had been wet-leased to cope with the demand for the Hajj pilgrimage to and from Mecca. Nationair's contract was with a Saudi firm called the Al-Rajhi International Trading Company – not an airline, but a broker which had been instructed by the Saudi government to fill the gap left by a defunct airline for transporting Nigerians to Mecca. The company then signed another contract with Nigeria Airways to use its support services, callsign and branding.
While most North American airlines would have balked at the prospects of flying so far away and operating this sort of service, Nationair had a firm strategy of filling gaps in the market. It was actively soliciting short-term contracts abroad. Although Hajj represents one of the biggest movements of people in the world, things don't always go to plan, as the Canadian DC-8 operator was soon to find out.
Flying the plane was Captain William Allan, 47 years of age and a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot with 10,700 hours logged. His First Officer was Kent Davidge, aged 36 and with had 8,000 flight hours logged. Takeoff was smooth, but unknown to the crew the aircraft caught fire during departure. With no fire warning system in the area where the fire took hold, vital time to deal with the problem was missed.
Pressurization failed rapidly, and the crew were overwhelmed with warnings about circuit failures. Responding to the loss of pressurization, Captain Allen decided to remain at 2,000 ft. First Officer Davidge reported that he was losing control of hydraulics, but still nobody realized the plane was on fire. A further mishap occurred when Captain Allan mis-identified the aircraft as 'Nationair Canada 2120', meaning Air Traffic Control mistook the communications as being from a Saudia flight that was also having pressurization problems.
The crew first became aware of the fire when a flight attendant came into the cockpit in a hurry saying, “smoke in the back… it’s real bad”. Davidge said that he had lost ailerons which forced Allan to take control of the aircraft. As soon as Allan took over, the voice recorder in the cockpit failed. At this point, air traffic control realized the mix-up and directed the flight towards a runway.
Horrifically, while the aircraft was at an altitude of 2,200 ft and 18km away from, the airport a number of bodies were observed to fall from the plane. The fire was so bad it had consumed at least part of the cabin floor and the airplane was starting to break up. As the Douglas was just under 3km (1.8 miles) from the airport, the aircraft became uncontrollable and crashed, killing all remaining passengers and crew. The accident remains the deadliest involving a Douglas DC-8, and the second-worst to happen in Saudi Arabia after Saudia Flight 163.
The fateful accident of Nigeria Airways flight 2120 was the culmination of a catastrophe of errors, which began several days before, on July 7th. The airplane's weather radar had failed, and it was stuck in Accra, Ghana, for several days. While it was there, the maintenance team decided to begin its scheduled A-check. The check wasn't due for another 35 hours, but given that the plane was not busy, they got going with it early.
One of the inspections included taking the pressure of all the airplane's tires. Mechanics noted that pressure in tires number 2 and 4 was around 20 psi below the minimum value. Bizarrely, nobody thought to top them up. It was later discovered that someone wrote over the original note that the tires were at 160 psi in a different color pen, overwriting the required value of 180 psi, despite the fact that none had been topped up.
Following several more flights, the plane again arrived in Accra where it was scheduled to have a number of its tires replaced, including those with the lower pressure. 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 came in from Project Manager Aldo Tetamenti. According to Admiral Cloudberg, it read,
“TOP URGENT. Pls do all possible to get back the A/C to Jed by 0800 Z GMT or 1100 LT Jed or we stand to loose [sic] a lot. Situation with Nigerian Airways critical they are giving our pax away due to delay. Do not let maint change wheels in Acc. If you have a chance call me ASAP.”
Collectively, the mechanics and Operations Officer decided that the risk to the Nigeria Airways contract was greater than the tires, and that the equipment change could wait. The new wheels and tires were loaded into the cargo hold, for replacement when the plane eventually arrived in Sokoto.
While underinflated tires might not seem like a major issue for an airliner, repeated use of semi-flat tires places excessive strain on the properly inflated tire on the same axel. Tire number 2 had been running underinflated for several days, placing undue stress on the number 1 tire opposite, causing it to overheat. As the plane departed Jeddah, the number 2 tire separated from its wheel rim, causing sparks as it accelerated along the runway. That, combined with overheated tire number 1, resulted in a fire.
Unaware of the disaster unfolding beneath them, Captain Allen signaled to retract the landing gear as the plane reached altitude, effectively bringing the fire inside the airplane. The fire grew, consuming combustible materials nearby and eventually rupturing the hydraulic lines, causing flammable hydraulic fluid to spray the area, further accelerating the fire. This punched a hole in the fuselage, leading to the rapid depressurization of the plane.
As the Captain attempted to gain clearance to return to the airport, the fire breached the center fuel tank. The blaze spread unstoppably in all directions, and as further hydraulic fluid was lost, all the airplane's control systems became dysfunctional. It finally breached 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 horrendous.
The only opportunity that was present to prevent this disaster was when Captain Allen registered a bang while the aircraft was in its takeoff roll. Thinking he had blown a tire, he continued with the takeoff, despite being well under the decision speed. It later came to light that Nationair only trained its pilots to reject a takeoff in the event of an engine failure, engine fire, or complete failure of the electrics. Nationair came under intense scrutiny from Transport Canada following the accident, but ultimately its reputation was irreparably damaged, and the airline filed for bankruptcy in 1993.
The downside of this was that the relatives of the 261 victims who perished in the crash then had no way to claim compensation for the disaster. None ever received so much as an apology from the carrier, let alone any cash. A small silver lining was that passenger jets would go on to have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the wheel well, and that tire safety is today well drummed into mechanics and pilots alike.
Source: Admiral Cloudberg
Journalist – Jack spent four years of his young life traveling around the world, and has grown up flying long-haul. Studying in Southwest England, and is excited to further his knowledge of commercial aviation. Based in Southwest England

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