UPDF chopper crash kills troops in Congo

A Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) Mi-17 at the Air base in Entebbe, Wakiso District. A similar helicopter crashed in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday. PHOTO | ANDREW BAGALA

What you need to know:

  • President Museveni, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, last evening ordered deputy Airforce commander, Maj Gen Charles Okidi, to head investigations into how and why two military helicopters, which cost millions of dollars, dropped from the air three days apart.

More than a dozen Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers have reportedly perished in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after a helicopter crashed on them, multiple sources told this publication last night.

The Mi-17 helicopter, which is mainly used for transportation, medical evacuation and VIP travel, had just delivered food consignment to the troops engaged in Operation Shujaa when it tumbled and exploded during take-off. 

Brig Gen Felix Kulayigye, the army spokesman, confirmed last evening in a telephone interview that a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter crashed in the eastern DRC. 

“Yes, it is true one of our helicopters crashed. I haven’t received details about the causalities,” Brig Gen Kulayigye said. 

Asked about President Museveni issuing a radio message ordering an investigation into what exactly happened to the UPDF helicopter, he said “everytime there is an accident, a board of inquiry is established to investigate the matter and they have put up one in this incident.” 

 President Museveni, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces ordered a board of inquiry to investigate how and why military helicopters were dropping from the skies. 

Uganda People’s Defence Air Force (UPDAF) Deputy Commander, Maj Gen Charles Okidi, will lead the inquiries, according to a military radio message sent out last evening. 

Highly-placed security sources said the tail rotor of the helicopter, which was technically on a captain-supervised flight, struck a tree, leading it to spin uncontrollably before crashing on troops collecting the food. 

The tail rotor is an essential component which helps to “neutralise the twisting momentum” of the main propeller, according to the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), keeping a helicopter steady in flight.   

The instructor-cum-pilot in the Monday incident has posthumously been named as Ukrainian national Yury Vyshykvy and died on the spot while the Ugandan pilot, Capt Patrick Arinaitwe, and five other crew members sustained varied injuries. 

The casualties and fatalities have been moved to Bombo Military Hospital outside Kampala, a State House source briefed on the matter said on condition of anonymity, citing sensitivity of the issue. 

This newspaper received news of the crash on Monday evening, but delayed publishing the story to give the UPDF time to inform the next-of-kin of the deceased and injured. 

 The DRC accident occurred three days after an Mi-24 attack helicopter went down on an elderly woman’s house in Fort Portal City, Kabarole District on Saturday, raising safety concerns for an important service of the military. 

Preliminary findings attribute the crash in western Uganda to technical errors. This newspaper understands that the crew manning the ill-fated helicopter had specially been trained to fly Mi-28, Uganda’s latest and more modern fire-power acquisition in the sky. 

According to knowledgeable sources, three of the UPDAF choppers had flown out to Fort Portal in a formation, before one dropped from the skies. The two others landed successfully. 

We could not independently verify accounts that the crashed helicopter had delivered food to commandos, who constitute part of Uganda’s elite military unit, deployed in DRC on Operation Shujaa to hunt down Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels. 

The counter-ADF offensive started at the end of November last year and Monday’s tragedy, which sources briefed on the matter christened as the “worst incident”, happened a month to the mission’s first year anniversary. 

Multiple sources said the Mi-17 helicopter did not land on first attempt in Congo because the cleared helicopter landing zone, or HLZ, on the ground was smaller than the recommended 50-by-50 metre area. 

The pilots were radioed to return on the understanding that the landing area had been expanded, and the helicopter landed smoothly. However, during lift-off, the tail rotor hit a tree, yanking the machine to spin before slamming to the ground. 

It remains a subject of the investigation to establish how instructor-cum-pilot Yury, who was the most qualified and senior flight professional onboard, died when the Ugandans he was teaching all survived. 

The latest back-to-back accidents follow the death of Capt Carol Busingye on February 12, 2021 in a helicopter that crashed shortly after lifting off from Entebbe International Airport. 

Earlier in January 2020, Maj Naome Karungi and Cadet Pilot Benon Wakalo on a training flight, perished in a Jet Ranger crash in Butambala District in central Uganda. 

The worst air disaster in UPDF history, according to insiders, happened in August 2012 when seven out of a 28-member crew flying to bomb the al-Shabaab in Somalia lost their lives in multiple Mi-24 helicopter crashes on Mountain Kenya. 

Gen Salim Saleh, originally named Caleb Akwandanaho, led investigations into the accidents, but the report has not been made public, making it unclear if lessons learnt from the tragedy a decade ago have been incorporated in UPDAF operations to guarantee better safety.

Previous crashes involving military equipment

September 24: An Mi-24 crash-landed on a house in Fort Portal City. 

July 26: An Mi-24 crash-landed in Mityana District. The four occupants of the helicopter survived. The crew repaired the technical glitch that caused it to crash and the helicopter continued with its journey.

February 11, 2021: A Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) jet ranger crashed near Lido Beach in Entebbe, Wakiso District moments after take-off. One person, a trainee, died in the accident.

February 5, 2021: A helicopter, which was transporting soldiers under the African Union mission, crashed soon after take-off in Balidogle in Somalia.

The four soldiers on board survived the crash. They were travelling to the Lower Shabelle region in Somalia to support the troops already on the ground.

January 28, 2020: A UPDF jet ranger AF302 crashed in Butambala District killing two people. The deceased include Maj Naomi Kalungi and Cadet pilot Benon Wakola.

August 12, 2012: Three Mi-24 helicopters, which were flying to Mogadishu in Somalia through Kenya, crashed in Mt Kenya killing at least seven people. 

The dead officers include Capt William Spear Letti, Lt Patrick Nahamya, 2nd Lt Robert Tushabe, Lt Nelson Mulumba, WOII Kakabe David Zikosoka, S/Sgt Mweshezi Ruhamata and Sgt Charles Lukwago.  

Several others survived and they include Lt Col Chris Kasaija, Maj Charles Okidi, Capt George Buga, Capt Samuel Kitenyi, Capt Asad Magombe, Lt Robert Bakashaba, Lt Job Osuret, Lt Everest Sebagenzi, Lt John Nyanzi, Lt Charles Alemu, and 2nd Lt Gideon Taremwa. The others are 2nd Lt Asaph Barigye, WOI Patrick Ongaria, WOI Nixon Ayesigye, WOII George Nakabanda, Yahaya Wamagali, WOII Wilberforce Kalulu, S/Sgt John Komunda, S/Sgt Robert Eritu, Sgt Coleb Mugwisa and Pte Mark Muse.

Another helicopter, an Mi-17, which was travelling with the rest was not involved in the accident.

November 2011: UPDF fighter jet crash-landed at Entebbe International Airport. No fatalities or injuries were reported.

March 9, 2009: An Ilyushin 76, which was carrying equipment for Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, crashed in Lake Victoria in Entebbe, Wakiso District, soon after take-off from the airport killing 11 on board. 

The dead included two Ugandans (a corporal and an airport loadmaster), a general officer and two other senior officers from Burundi, four Russian crew members, a South African and an Indian national.

July 30, 2005: A UPDF presidential MI 172 helicopter carrying John Garang, the then First Vice President of Sudan, crashed in the Zulia Mountain ranges near Uganda’s north eastern border.

At least 12 other occupants including Lt Col Peter Nyakairu, Capt Patrick Kiggundu, Capt Paul Kiyemba, Lt Johnson Munanura, Lillian Kabeije, Samuel Bakowa and Cpl Hassan Kizza, died in the crash.