Hammarskjold crash no accident, former UN air-traffic controller says

By RUSTY DENNEN | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: September 18, 2013

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Peter Brichant has been carrying a secret that could solve a Cold War mystery.

It’s a tale of intrigue, and, he says, a cover-up of the Dec. 18, 1961 plane crash in Africa that killed then-United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

Brichant, 80, who lives in Stafford County, was a U.N. air-traffic controller in the Congo, and was the last person, officially, to talk to the pilots of the DC–6B aircraft that crashed upon landing in Rhodesia, now Zambia.

A U.N. investigation in 1962 ruled the cause undetermined, and a Rhodesian commission report attributed it to pilot error. But Brichant says the crash, which killed the Swedish diplomat and all but one of the 16 passengers and crew, was no accident. The lone survivor died a few days later.

Brichant is telling his story amid calls that the U.N. investigation be reopened. A report written by four international lawyers and released earlier this month suggests there is new evidence. And that the National Security Agency, in light of the Edward Snowden leaks scandal, might have records of radio transmissions that could shed light on the crash.

Brichant read about The Hammarskjold Commission report last week and called The Free Lance–Star to tell his story. A native of Brussels who emigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen, Brichant was 28 at the time, manning the tower at the N’djili airport in Leopoldville, Congo, as the plane carrying Hammarskjold (pronounced hammer–shold) was being readied for takeoff.

“I thought it was strange that there were no guards, no U.N. soldiers, no Congolese soldiers protecting the airplane,” said Brichant, who had come to the Congo a year earlier to help with U.N. food missions.

“I was saying to myself, ‘This is the plane that the secretary general is going to fly?’”

Hammarskjold was in the Congo to help mediate cease-fire talks in the region.

Around 4 p.m., “Here comes his motorcade. He gets out and there are only 10 or 12 people on board.” The flight left about an hour later.

Brichant says he was asked to stay in the tower until Hammarskjold’s plane—which had three senior pilots, several U.N. staffers and a U.S. Marine aboard—crossed into Rhodesian airspace. The route was southeast from the Congo—a former Belgian colony—to the British colony of Northern Rhodesia.

“I had voice control with the plane for about an hour by high-frequency radio,” Brichant said. He asked the radio operator downstairs in the tower to tell him when the plane was approaching Elisabethville in southern Congo.

The plane was en route to Rhodesia’s Ndola airport.

“And I said to call me when they cross over into Rhodesia,” Brichant said.

“He called me back later that they were crossing over, and were transferred to Ndola.”

Shortly afterward, Brichant talked to the pilot for the last time.

“I gave him the frequency of the radio operator downstairs, said ‘Have a good flight, see you on the way back.’”

Brichant went home that night, not knowing that Hammarskjold’s plane had crashed. A colleague told him in the morning.

“I said, ‘Bull----! You’re kidding me.’ I liked Hammarskjold. I was really upset.”

Two days later, Brichant and other U.N. staffers were summoned to an inquest in Salisbury, Rhodesia.

There, “We heard testimony” about what happened. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” Brichant recalled.

Ndola airport officials claimed to have had no contact with the plane.

“I knew that was false, because he got clearance for the approach.”

Brichant’s theory: Rhodesian civil aviation authorities didn’t want to get involved because of heightening Cold War tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S., United Kingdom and U.N.

Brichant said he talked secretly to an Ndola air-traffic controller, who told him that radio tower tapes were taken away.

“All of them. There was no record of us having talked to the airport,” Brichant said. Further, he found out Hammarskjold’s plane crashed on final approach at Ndola about 10 miles from the end of the runway.

“They [airport officials there] saw the airplane burning. They didn’t do anything. No rescue. No fire department. Nothing. They were told not to get involved.”

The next day, Brichant says, authorities “discovered” the charred wreckage.

“To make a long story short, they denied everything. They didn’t want to exacerbate tensions between the Soviet Republic and the U.N.” into a full-blown war. “So they found a scapegoat,” namely, pilot error and that the cause was unknown.

Brichant says U.N. employees were told not to talk about the crash.

Brichant said there was a second airport nearby—the similarly named Ndolo.

The field elevation there is 700 feet. The field at Ndola, 4,700 feet.

“Their story: that three senior pilots looked at the charts, selected Ndolo, set the altimeter and flew into the ground.”

Brichant says he talked to a Marine who died three days after the crash, who told him that on the approach to landing, there were two explosions in the front of the aircraft.

“When I saw the airplane [wreckage] in the hanger, you could see under the cockpit where the landing gear was, two huge holes, and the middle curled outward,” Brichant said. No pictures were allowed; Brichant took lots of them with a small box camera during his time in Africa. And he said he was not allowed to check the plane’s altimeters.

“Everybody there knew” what happened, he said.

Brichant added that, two weeks after the crash, the Soviet-bloc embassy in Congo was expelled.

“What does that tell you?”

A year after the crash, he was invited to a memorial service for Hammarskjold, and the others who died.

Brichant had quite a journey himself, before being part of that moment in history. He was born in Belgium in 1933. His father, Andre, was a scientist and diplomat who spent three years in a German concentration camp during World War II for refusing to work for the Nazis.

“We lived under German occupation until 1944 when Belgium was liberated” by the Allies, he said. He was 12.

Brichant, his mother, Jermaine, and father went to Canada in 1946 when Andre accepted a post with the U.N. there. He attended boarding school in Montreal, returned to Belgium, then got a visa to enter the U.S. in 1948.

He became a U.S. citizen and was drafted, opting to join the Air Force, where he was trained in air-traffic control and served in Korea. He was in the service for eight years, then decided his family—by then he had a wife and two children—needed more money.

He got out of the military and joined the Federal Aviation Administration in air-traffic control.

He started in Los Angeles, then one of the FAA’s busiest airports. In 1960, the FAA offered to allow him to take a leave of absence to work for the United Nations in the Congo, to help with global food-relief efforts. Brichant spoke French and English.

He arrived in N’djili in 1960 and left four years later. After returning to the States, he was unable to rejoin the FAA, due to an age restriction. He drove a tractor–trailer for Safeway for 23 years, and at 47, entered the Air National Guard.

He retired in 1993, and has lived in the White Oak area of Stafford since 1964.

He says he still thinks about his days in Africa.

“Here we are, 50 years later. Most of those people are dead and there’s no more Soviet Republic.”