What you need to know:
Explosive. In this article, first published in the Daily Monitor in November 2006, we revisit the helicopter crash that killed a soldier and ended a regime.
On the morning of December 2, 1983, Oyite-Ojok prepared to fly to the Luweero Triangle. He was having some marriage problems with his wife, Bechi Oyite-Ojok and in a heated exchange she said, “Some of you are going but will not come back!” an angry but unwitting remark that she would regret for the rest of her life.
Oyite-Ojok then set off for the Parliamentary buildings to see the Minister of State for Security, Chris Rwakasisi, but did not find him there. Oyite-Ojok then joked with some presidential staff and asked whether any one wanted to go with him. They said they would have loved to but had much office work to do.
“I am sorry for you”, he said, “You have missed a free ride!”
About the helicopter
He then set off. The helicopter that he usually used --- a Bell Augusta 412 model equipped with an autopilot steering system --- was grounded at Entebbe Air Force Base and so he was to use the Bell 412 belonging to Captain Peter Oringi, who was the commander of the helicopter squadron.
As was the custom, since Oyite-Ojok was a top dignitary, the director of the air force, Major Alfred Otto, flew him. On that day, the co-pilot was Captain Harry Oluoch.
Oluoch was not trained as a pilot but as a ground engineer and airworthiness specialist, he had learned to fly. On board the helicopter that morning were: Major-General David Oyite-Ojok, the Chief of Staff; Major Alfred Otto, pilot and director of the air force; Captain Harry Oluoch, co-pilot; Major Stephen Abili, the Hungarian-trained Chief of Logistics and Engineering in the army; and Lt. Godfrey Kato Kiragga, acting Director of Military Intelligence.
Others were Lt. Colonel Wilson Okonga, Medical Superintendent, Mbuya Military Hospital; Captain Charles Kamara, the Israeli-trained technician in charge of the air force helicopter squadron; an unnamed photographer with the Ministry of Defence; and a Tanzanian Corporal called Friday who had fought as Oyite-Ojok’s aide in the 1978-79 Uganda-Tanzania war and who was the signaller aboard the helicopter that day.
At the time, there were rumours in Kampala that a tenth person on board the helicopter was a woman, a girlfriend of Oyite-Ojok, because Radio Uganda and the state-owned Uganda Times newspaper reported that in total, ten people died in the accident.
The helicopter set off for the Luweero Triangle. Oyite-Ojok had mapped out a strategic plan to defeat Yoweri Museveni’s NRA guerrillas once and for all, and he was going to lay it out to the field commanders.
The helicopter squadron commander, Captain Oringi, flew another Bell 412 helicopter, with Captain Peter Nyakairu as co-pilot. Oringi and Nyakairu landed at 11am in a hilly area called Kasozi in Luweero, 150kms north of Kampala. The two pilots had been flying in small 12-barrel, 107mm Katyusha guns to be used in combat against the NRA guerrillas.
Oyite-Ojok’s party landed shortly after and started a meeting with the field officers Lt. Col. John Ogole who was the Brigade commander, and Maj. Eric Odwar the commander of the Buffalo Battalion and Maj. Michael Kilama, commander of the Air and Seaborne Battalion from Tororo, both of which operated under Ogole’s overall command.
The fateful journey
The long meeting ended at about 6.30pm and the teams got ready to return to Kampala. Captain Kamara inspected the helicopters as he always did at Entebbe.
Kamara, who had trained for helicopters in Israel on maintenance and mainframes, always travelled with Oyite-Ojok on the same helicopter every time the chief of staff took to the air.
Some reports said the helicopters had carried large amounts of fuel on board, since there were no re-fuelling facilities. Captain Oringi and Captain Nyakairu took off first and the Bell Augusta 412 carrying Oyite-Ojok lifted off at 8.15pm.
However, within minutes of lifting off the ground, the aircraft suddenly nose-dived and plunged to the ground where it burst into flames, killing all on board. All were burnt beyond recognition except for the acting director of Military Intelligence, Lt. Kato Kiragga who was seated to the left while the helicopter tilted toward the right. Kiragga’s lower body was burnt but parts of his torso and upper limbs were intact.
The manufacturers of the helicopter, Bell of Texas in the United States, later sent investigators to Uganda who were joined by aviation safety crews from the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority.
The combined investigation discovered that the rod, (the smaller propeller that rotates at the tail of helicopters and helps stabilise the craft during flight) had either been broken or damaged enough to later break off in the first few minutes of the return flight to Kampala.
Because Captain Kamara regularly and carefully inspected the Bell-412 and Jetranger-3 helicopters at Entebbe before they flew, it is unlikely that the rod would have got so worn out over time as for him to fail to notice it.
What could have happened?
When the Milton Obote government took power in December 1980, the Ministry of Defence immediately set about trying to acquire new helicopters since all those that had served the Army under Idi Amin had been destroyed or fallen into disrepair.
Amin’s air force had fleets of Bell Augusta 205, 206 and Jetranger-2 models, most of which had been bought brand-new from Italy. The UNLA wanted to buy Puma helicopters but because most of the Ugandan pilots were familiar with only the Bell and Jet Ranger models, it was decided that the latter would be bought.
When Chief of Staff Oyite-Ojok and Secretary for Defence Nathan Obore approached Bell in Texas, since Uganda did not have a defence pact with the United States, Bell could not sell Uganda combat helicopters but only the non-combat kind used by the Police Air wing and civilian purposes.
The Ministry of Defence was advised to purchase the aircraft from the Bell subsidiary in Italy, which sold helicopters to Africa and Middle East region.
But because at that time there was an armed insurrection in West Nile, the Ministry of Defence felt the matter had to be handled urgently. They approached a London-based company, J & S Franklin Ltd, which was supplying uniforms to the UNLA.
J & S Franklin discovered that the island nation of the Bahamas had made an order for Bell-412 and Jetranger-3 helicopters from the United States but had somehow failed to pay for them.
Using a front company to pass the rules that barred a non-treaty nation like Uganda from buying Bell’s aircraft, J & S Franklin bought the six Bahamas aircraft from Bell Texas.
The Canadian front company then sold them directly to Uganda. However, the company wanted Ugandan pilots to go to Canada for training. The company also hired three people --- a Swiss engineer and two Canadians, one a pilot, the other a technician --- to work alongside Ugandans to revive the defunct Uganda Air force.
The Swiss and the two Canadians all drew lucrative expatriate salaries and lived a comfortable life at the Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe that acted as their residence. One of the Canadians was found to be less than well trained.
In an incident in September 1983 during which Oringi and one of the Canadians flew the army commander Lt. Gen. Tito Okello to his home in Kitgum, Oringi tried to test the Canadian.
On the return flight, the Bell-412 helicopter encountered a storm over the River Aswa and had to make an emergency landing in the papyrus swamp until the storm had passed.
Oringi had told the Canadian to avoid the storm but the latter had insisted, saying it was not a threat and flew right into it. Oringi then concluded that the Canadians were earning more money than their skills warranted. He issued a report to the Ministry of Defence recommending that their contracts be terminated.