What caused the crash?
Posted Wednesday, August 15 2012 at 01:00
On Sunday, the UPDF suffered its biggest single loss of flight personnel and military hardware. One Flight Captain and his co-pilot, a lieutenant, are reportedly among the officers who perished when three MI-24 helicopters simultaneously crashed into Mt. Kenya. Officially, the army has not indicated numbers of survivors or dead.
Sources say the four aircraft each had a pilot, co-pilot and five crew members (28 people) when they lifted off from Entebbe military airbase on Monday, last week. They flew to Soroti that day; departed on Wednesday for Eldoret (Kenya) before slamming into Mt. Kenya on Sunday on the leg of the trip between Nanyuki and Garissa.
The group, officials say, was flying under the cover of darkness to Somalia where they would join the AU peacekeeping Mission- and had stopovers in Kenya, among other things, to refuel - along the southern Soroti-Eldoret-Nanyuki-Garissa-Wajir-Baidoa route.
Highly-placed security sources told this newspaper yesterday that the agreed initial itinerary for the Sunday flight was the Soroti-Lodwar-Wajir-Baidoa, although this information could not be officially confirmed. This would mean the pilots should have flown over a fairly flat terrain and shorter distance, unlike the longer southern route that took them through the ranges of one of Africa’s highest mountains.
It is not clear who changed the final course, aware of performance limitations of MI-24 choppers at high altitude and poor weather. For instance, the service ceiling (maximum flying altitude) for the Russian-built MI-24 choppers is reported at about 4,500 metres above-sea-level yet the stretch of the flight path across Mt. Kenya rises up to 5,199 metres.
The MI-17 chopper – the only one in the Somalia-destined batch - piloted by Maj. Charles Okidi can fly up to 6,000 metres high, which partly could explain how and why it landed in Garissa safely.
Without naming names, Army and Defence ministry Spokesman, Col. Felix Kulayigye said the call on the last route followed “a lot of consultations and reconnaissance”. “We are aware that it was the weather that brought problems, nothing else!” Col. Kulayigye said.
So what exactly was wrong with the weather that neither the Kenyan nor Ugandan weather stations – let alone international weather stations – could not forecast to serve as a forewarning? Is it true visibility of the pilots was impaired?
Col. Kulayigye when contacted by Daily Monitor said he did not have time to answer all questions related to the mishap, and suggested the probe team to be headed by (Rtd) Gen. Salim Saleh would address them.
This newspaper understands that there was an initial disagreement between UPDF Airforce officials and their Kenyan counterparts over the route although the defence ministry yesterday said the plan was agreed on after consultation with Kenya.
Officials said the pilots selected for the assignments were some of their most qualified and experienced, who previously served with distinction in counter-LRA operations in northern Ugandan and DRC.
UN experts as well as Russian and UPDF engineers separately had cleared the ill-fated choppers for the mission after ascertaining their airworthiness, diminishing the possibility of technical mid-air malfunction.
Insiders say there was, however, something ominous from start. For instance, Chief of Defence Forces Aronda Nyakairima and UPDF Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Jim Owesigire, departed from the tradition of secrecy to publicly flag-off the crafts– en-route to fight a designated terrorist group – well knowing that al-Shabaab could have an intelligence-gathering presence even in Uganda, and could easily sketch the Ugandan pilots’ possible entry points and course in Somalia’s air space?
There have also emerged reports of poor planning and facilitation. A source said the pilots did not have satellite phones and relied on cell phones to communicate. One of the officers kept his mobile telephone on roaming, and was the first to update the Ugandan military airbase upon landing in Garissa that he was unable to see the other three helicopters.
He reportedly said he did not have credit on his cell phone, and officials at the airbase then loaded for him airtime worth Shs20,000.
Other security officials raised questions as to why the helicopters were flying in a formation (close battle-ready pattern) rather than dispersed outline when the pilots were not immediately in a combat situation.
The danger with formation flying, military sources suggested, is that the helicopters were moving close to each other and that if the one in the lead got into trouble, the following aircraft could have difficulty in taking evasive action.