At 7.15pm on September 23, 1994, 12 men thought they were on their way home to Indonesia on board a Hercules aircraft. The men had arrived in Hong Kong two days earlier to crew two deportation flights to Hanoi as part of the Government's forced repatriation programme for Vietnamese boat people. There had been nothing unusual on those flights and no problems reported with any part of the aircraft. It was already dark at Kai Tak airport and light rain was making the surface wet. But everything seemed normal as Captain Soeyono Sanardhi lined the aircraft up on Runway 13 and checked his instruments before applying full power. Moments after the wheels left the runway, the pilot heard a high-pitched noise and found the aircraft was banking right. Captain Sanardhi, with nearly 4,000 hours' experience flying Hercules, tried to stop the turn and called to the other members of his crew to 'take action for number four [engine]' which was giving off higher than normal readings. The captain does not remember any answer from his first officer or flight engineer. Then the landing gear hit the runway's grass verge and the plane smashed into Victoria Harbour. Emergency services were on the scene within minutes and seven of the crew were found in a life raft. One of the men died on his way to hospital. The other five were found drowned in the wreckage. An accident investigation was launched immediately and a report issued last month - to be discussed in the Legislative Council tomorrow - pinpointed a fault in the propeller of number four engine. But earlier on, as wreckage was raised from the murky waters south of the Kai Tak runway, so were questions about the plane's suitability for carrying passengers and the legality of using it for deportations. There was never an issue that the carriage of passengers in the cargo hold caused the crash or affected the airworthiness of the aircraft, but evidence soon piled up that there should never have been people inside the hold. After the concerns were raised in local newspapers, legislators demanded to know from the Government whether the plane was properly licensed to carry passengers. Officials from the Civil Aviation Department and the Economic Services Branch have always maintained that Indonesia, the country where the plane was registered, had granted full permission for it to carry passengers. But evidence of this is no longer being sought. And despite the Government's claims, the Hercules aircraft operated by the Indonesian firm Pelita Air Service have never again been used for the forced repatriation of Vietnamese boat people. Up until the doomed flight, about 1,700 Vietnamese men, women and children had been sent back on 32 Hercules flights since 1991. No one would pretend that sitting on US Air Force webbing benches running lengthways through the hold of a Hercules is a glamorous or particularly pleasant way to travel. Hercules, however, are used by various countries to transport military personnel and the manufacturers, Lockheed, have designed and produced seats, seatbelts and so on to allow the carriage of people in the cargo hold. But civil aviation operates under far more stringent rules than military flights. There must be life jackets for every passenger if the flight goes over water, there must be sufficient, well-marked emergency exits with instructions on use, there have to be supplies of passenger oxygen and so on. Although comfort was probably far from the top of the Government priority list when trying to identify suitable carriers for the deportation of the Vietnamese after adverse publicity had put off Cathay Pacific Airways from accepting the charters, safety should have been a vital consideration. Before the Government signed the deal with Pelita, a Civil Aviation Department official did inspect one of four aircraft to be used for the flights, not to check its safety features but to see if the plane could be 'stopped' in mid-air at a time of increasing hostility to deportation by the Vietnamese. By September 1994, the Government considered the forced repatriation flights to be routine. Physical opposition from the Vietnamese being put on to the planes had become rare and there were plans to step up the frequency of the flights as part of the stated aim to clear the detention camps by the handover. But it was the lack of safety equipment which alarmed one CAD investigator who inspected the wreckage recovered from the harbour. In a report to then Director of Civil Aviation Peter Lok Kung-nam, the officer concluded: 'Even at this early stage, there is ample evidence of serious breaches of the regulations governing the conduct of international public transport flights and the matter will have to be pursued further with the persons concerned.' Of particular concern to him was the fact that the vital Certificate of Airworthiness found in the wreckage licensed the Lockheed Hercules C100-30 to carry cargo only, as did other official documents recovered. Complying with the Certificate of Airworthiness is one of the most clear and important rules of the air. Though operating a cargo plane to carry passengers is unlikely to mean the plane will fall out of the sky, passengers are likely to be more at risk should there be an accident as the plane will not necessarily have all the special safety equipment considered vital. After his initial inspection of the plane, the CAD officer wrote: 'It was evident that the cargo compartment did not comply with the standards of any recognised airworthiness code in respect of its suitability for the carriage of passengers.' Specifically he noted: fewer than the required number of properly marked emergency exits, and one was wired shut; no evidence of emergency oxygen for passengers; no lifejackets under seats; discrepancies between the number of life raft places on the flight plan and the actual number; switched off emergency lighting and no passenger safety information cards. The preliminary report highlighted what the author believed to be clear breaches of both international and local aviation laws, with the assumption that the matters would be followed up. The only document ever produced to support Hong Kong's claim that the flights were legal was a 1991 letter received from the Indonesian Director-General of Air Communications. The translated letter said: 'If Hercules aircraft L100-30 will be used for special passenger transportation (non-paying passengers) in abroad, principally we do not objection with noted that situation are agreed by local authority [sic].' The Government said that by issuing the charter permit it signified its approval of the arrangement. Although an aviation lawyer said the Government should have at least taken some responsibility for ensuring the plane met international standards, the Government has always insisted that was solely up to Indonesia. The four Hercules aircraft used by Hong Kong had been used previously by the Indonesian Government for its programme of moving people to East Timor. There is no question that those flights were legal as a country may authorise any passenger flight within its own borders. But international flights - including such charters as those for the forced repatriation journeys to Vietnam - are governed by different sets of rules. Hong Kong officials have always insisted that the Indonesian government had approved the plane to carry passengers on international flights and that was all that was needed. Abiding by the limits of the Certificate of Airworthiness is clearly required under Hong Kong law. In addition, the law demands that 'a person shall not be in or on any part of an aircraft in flight which is not a part designed for the accommodation of persons'. In a statement to the South China Morning Post earlier this month, the Government said it now considered the matter closed. The Government rejected a statement from an Indonesian aviation official mentioned in the report as making 'no sense'. Though almost all of the crashed plane was recovered, many vital pieces of evidence were considered to be lost. The lack of evidence of passenger oxygen is explained in this way, as is the lack of life jackets. Not one flotation seat cushion was recovered. The capacity of the life rafts recovered was less than that stated on the flight plan, but as life rafts were not required under law, this was not followed up. A Government spokesman said: 'The Indonesian authorities have assured us that the aircraft was approved and certified properly for international carriage of passengers and we accept that assurance. 'No further action is pending.' But as Christine Loh Kung-wai, an independent legislator who was involved in trying to locate proof of the permission for passengers to be on board, said: 'They have still not answered that question.'