The African Plane Crash That Wasn’t

By Sarah Amos

Aug 5, 2010 12:57pm

ABC News' Dana Hughes reports from Nairobi: “Boeing 767 Crashes Outside of Harare Airport” was the breaking news headline splashed across the wires and international television and radio outlets earlier today.  The story was labelled “developing” as small details started to emerge…plane was coming from London, injuries but no fatalities.  Zimbabwean journalists at the scene reported seeing smoke, ambulances, fire trucks, and distressed people claiming to be relatives of the accident victims. The head of Zimbabwe’s civil aviation authority, David Chawota, confirmed the crash to reporters. "I can confirm that a 767 plane coming from London has had an accident at Harare airport," he told AFP news agency.  To Reuters he said, "I can confirm there has been an accident, but I cannot give details right now. I am not at the site, but there are just injuries, no deaths." But in reality there were no injuries or deaths because…there was no plane crash. After the British Foreign Office confirmed to news organizations, including ABC News, that they thought the accident was actually a drill and that, in fact, there weren’t any planes flying from London to Harare today – the jig was up.   When I spoke to Mr. Chawota, he confirmed it was a “false alarm,” but wouldn’t give details about the drill. He later held a press conference where he said everything was part of a safety drill: the fire, the emergency services; even the distressed “relatives” were hired actors. He told reporters lying to the press was part of the plan. "Telling the media was part of the exercise,” he said. “We wanted to see how the media would react.” The press reacted. And so did the British government who fielded calls from various news outlets and had to send someone from the embassy in Harare to the airport to check out the scene. This isn’t the first time an African country’s aviation authority had a drill causing confusion. In 2006 Kenya conducted a drill at its international airport. It announced the drill to select airport and police officials a month in advance, but officials who were unaware broke the “news” to international media in the country leading to a similar result to today’s. The drills are part of an effort by African civil aviation authorities to meet international aviation standards. Currently Africa has the worst aviation safety record in the world. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report last year showed that planes flying within the continent are 15 times more likely to crash on average than planes in North America.  The U.S. transportation authority has been working with African governments to help their aviation industries meet international standards.  Part of that plan however, didn’t seem to include unannounced drills and giving deliberate misinformation to journalists.

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