Uganda lost her most senior female air force pilot at the rank of Major in the military chopper that crashed in Butambala District Tuesday.
According to military sources, Maj Naomi Karungi, who had served as a pilot since 2005, died with her cadet pilot identified as Benon Wokalu.
In a tweet after the crash, the army spokesperson, Brig Richard Karemire, said: “We regret to inform that a UPDAF Jet Ranger on a training mission has crashed. It had two crew members. Sadly, no one has survived. Investigation into the cause has started. Condolences to their families and the entire UPDF fraternity.”
He did not give the identity of the victims or further details about the tragedy.
But security sources said the crew was flying from a training exercise at Kalama Armoured Warfare Training School in Mubende back to the airforce base in Entebbe.
The sources said the deceased had gone to Kalama for an airforce training exercise but it was aborted due to bad weather.
The crew decided to return to base in Entebbe, but unfortunately, they did not reach.
Witnesses speak out
Witnesses at the scene of crash said the helicopter came down at about 11am at Ndeese hill, Butawuka Parish in Bulo Sub-county in Butambala.
Their accounts gave credence to information from security sources that bad weather was the probable cause of the crash.
“I heard a loud bang. When I visited the scene, I found an aircraft crashed with bodies in the wreckage. We suspect the fog to have caused the accident because it was raining heavily,” Mr Musa Lutale, a witness, said.
Mr Sulaiman Bagenda, another witness, said they heard a loud explosion and rushed to the scene.
“We were seated in Nakatooke Trading Centre because it was raining. We had a unique racing in the air and immediately heard an explosion. I used a motorcycle, together with a friend, to rush to the scene. We found a man crashed beyond recognition and another body of a female adult lying about 15 metres away,” Mr Bagenda said.
At the scene were scattered pieces of the plane and part of the wreckage dug into the ground.
Who are the deceased?
Maj Karungi was the only female helicopter pilot in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. She had served in the airforce since 2005. Sources said she was supposed to travel to the United States for a course at the end of this month.
Maj Karungi, from Nyakahita in Kiruhura District, had been flying the Jet Ranger since 2005 to transport VIPs. Those close to her, said she was a devoted born-again Christian and a prayerful officer. In an interview with NTV Uganda in June last year, Maj Karungi said she joined the army after completing university.
“We were at university and we got an opportunity to join the military. After the military [training], we went to the flying school and the rest is history,” she said then.
She spent three years at Soroti Flying School training how to control an aircraft in motion. She later attained qualification to fly fixed wing planes.
“When I got an opportunity to come to the airbase, the commanders were very gracious to me and asked what I wanted to fly and I told them I wanted to fly a helicopter,” she said.
Maj Karungi worked hard to measure up to her male colleagues.
“Social life is part of my life but the military is first,” she added.
In the same interview, she said the Jet Ranger is the smallest aircraft and is “disturbed by three things” which named as winds, high temperatures and mountainous terrain.
She said there was nothing men can do that women can’t.
Maj Karungi was not yet married and had no child.
Her deceased colleague, Wokalu joined the army in 2006. He is survived by a widow and children.
In July 2014, an aircraft carrying US troops made an emergency landing at Kiwawu Village on Mityana Road after it ran out of fuel in flight.
The CA212 plane belonged to the US army and was carrying eight American soldiers. Nobody was injured.
Six months later on January 1, 2015, another plane crash-landed in Kamengo Sub-county in Mpigi District. The six-seater tourist viper plane was flying from Mweya to Kajjansi near Entebbe.
The plane was being flown by a Spanish national and had no passenger. The pilot escaped without injury.
In August 2009, a six-seater plane belonging to Kampala Aero Club Flight Training Centre, made an emergency landing in the middle of the road at Kyabaddaza on Masaka highway, about 140km west of the capital Kampala.
Vehicles were forced to duck into the nearby bushes as the plane staggered in the middle of the tarmac; its wings spread across the road, towards a school compound. Nobody was injured.
We knew Karungi
Fellow pilot: “I knew her in 2007 when she was my pilot in commas (PIC). She received her training from Soroti Flying School for fixed wing aeroplane then later converted to the Bell helicopter. She was trained by a highly experienced instructor from Tanzania. She was not married and flew only the helicopter in which she perished. She was so prayerful even during flights and had started a church in Entebbe called Christ Ministry.”
David Rupiny, a friend: I mourn Naomi Karungi: In early 2000s, Naomi, Nicholas Kumira and I hustled to eke out a living at a small firm, Marketing Information Systems, at Blacklines House in central Kampala. At that time, I was also a teaching assistant in the then Institute of Languages at Makerere University, as well as with Radio Paidha. The firm was owned by a savvy businessman, a one Martin.
The firm’s major stock-in-trade was billboard advertising, but somehow it landed a deal to publish the City News, a newsletter of then Kampala City Council (KCC).
My cousin Nicholas, who had links with MIS, recommended me as editor of the newsletter; and I worked with Naomi. I must confess the firm treated us well, albeit the small pay. We were a two-person editorial team. We combed KCC, did many stories and published many editions of City News. That was the era of late Mayor Sebaana Kizito. Naomi, I gathered, came from a humble background. A graduate of Makerere, Naomi was down-to-earth. I learnt a lot from her, in as much as she also learnt from me. We worked diligently and shared many stories.
Naomi spoke of her struggles, especially after the loss of her brother, a soldier, also the family’s breadwinner. Naomi was sociable, almost to a fault. Naomi was brilliant, par excellence. When we parted ways for different passions, we sort of knew our whereabouts, with Nicholas usually the link. When she joined the army, we were so delighted.
When I met her at the poolside of Imperial Hotel (our last meeting), we talked, literally for hours, going back in time. Naomi was elegant, always wearing a smile. You simply needed to see her in her military or pilot fatigue, to appreciate her.
There are individuals, but there was Naomi. When news of the crash started trickling in, involving a female pilot and her male counterpart, my mind rushed to Naomi; I hoped against hope. I basically went offline, only for Nicholas to break the sad news. Fare-thee-well, Naomi.