The sad fate of Pelican 16

South African Air Force Shackleton 1716 – Pelican 16. This iconic image by photographer Dietmar Eckell for his photo book ‘Happy End’ – stories about miracles in aviation history, says it all.  The fate of Pelican 16 carries with it a tale of heroism and sadness.

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Restored to flying condition by volunteers in 1994, Pelican 16 was offered to take part in the Fairford Military Air Tattoo in the United Kingdom and departed South Africa for England on July 12th, 1994.

The departure from Cape Town (CT) was scheduled for a midnight take-off, on Friday 08 July 1994.  The entire flight from CT to the UK, entailed four legs, with stops in between and the routes were planned for as follow:

a. CT to Libreville, Gabon
b. Libreville to Abidjan, Ivory Coast
c. Abidjan to Lisbon, Portugal
d. Lisbon to Duxford, England

(The return flight to SA, one month later, would have been just the reverse of the above route.)

Flown by a group of active SAAF pilots, Pelican 16 was operating over the Sahara desert  on the night of July 13th.  They were alerted to a warning on #4 engine, indicating signs of overheating, the engine was shutdown, as a precautionary measure and power was increased on the other three engines, in order to maintain the safety altitude.

The propellers on #4 feathered properly. The reason for the indication of overheating, can be contributed to a suspicion of a possible leak within the coolant system. However, within approximately 15 minutes after shutting down #4, sparks were seen emitting from #3, which ensued into flames around the contra-rotating propeller spinners.

The #3 engine was also shutdown, after the flames were successfully extinguished by the activation of the engine fire extinguishing system. However, after shutting down #3, the propellers would not feather completely and remained windmilling at +- 150 RPM.

The aircraft was now rapidly losing height and it was elected to restart #4 to gain height again. Within +- 10 minutes after restarting #4, the engine became so hot, that the exhaust stacks reflected a white magnesium glow. #4 was then shutdown for the second time, but this time round the propellers would not feather completely and they kept windmilling, much faster than those of #3, at +- 650 RPM.

With two sets of windmilling propellers, both on the same wing, a crash landing became inevitable, as asymmetric forces began to gain the upper hand.

The terrain where the crash landing was eventually executed, (approximately 14 km from the Eastern border of West Sahara with Mauritania), was indeed flat sands, but with multiple rocky outcrops in the area. In fact, the impact was, very fortunately, right on top of a slightly raised rocky outcrop and from there the aircraft skidded along the sandy surface, until she suddenly slewed by 90° to the left and thereafter skidded sideways to the right, before coming to a standstill.

The distance from point of impact and coming to a standstill, was paced off later that morning, after it became daylight, to be 243 metres – a very short landing for a Shackleton!

The failure of #3, was determined to be a probable Translation Unit (TU) failure. The TU is situated between the two contra-rotating propellers, inside the engine cowlings. It is attached to the front propeller by three rack bolts and it governs the rear propeller. After removing the front spinner from #3 engine later that morning, quite a few ball-bearings were found to be strewn inside the spinner. That confirmed the suspicion of a TU failure, which resulted on account of the rack bolts that pulled the TU apart. The latter can only be surmised that the cause was on account of the increased RPM on the three remaining engines, after #4 was initially shutdown. Why it happened, is still unknown.

Though none of the crew were seriously injured by the landing, all 19 men were miles from any assistance and in the middle of an active warzone. The crew of Pelican 16 were quickly located and returned safely to South Africa.

Time of the crash landing was at 01h40 GMT.

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This is the photo taken from the French rescue aircraft “Pelican 16” taken after the belly landing in the Sahara desert – the ’19 OK’ written on the ground is to inform any rescue aircraft of the number of surviving souls from the crash.

The original sign on the ground was structured by the laying out of a combination of the spare orange flying suits and the single-man dinghies.

The word “OK” is no longer clearly visible when this photo was taken from the Atlantique ll Maritime aircraft, belonging to the French Navy’s 22 Squadron, that was on detached duty at Dakar, Senegal, from where it was scrambled at 04h00 GMT that morning, to conduct the search of the 19 souls of “Pelican 16”.

She is still where she landed – located about 2 hours drive from Zouérat in northern Mauritania in contested territory – lying open to the desert elements and subject to decay as there is no means of retrieving this beautiful aircraft.


Researched by Peter Dickens. Image Copyright Dietmar Eckell.  Information on the route and sequence of events written by Lionel Ashbury with his kind permission and assistance.

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