How often do three helicopters crash at a go?
Soroti Flying School, 2kms northeast of Soroti town in eastern Uganda, was on the morning of August 12, a bee-hive of frenetic activity as army pilots jumped onto waiting helicopters while their top brass waved excitedly and gave interviews and photo-ops to excited journalists.
Four helicopters, three Mi24s or what the army calls combat helicopters, and one utility chopper, a Mi17, were heading to the war-front in Baidoa, Somalia, on a special mission. For the first time since UPDF entered the Somalia war under the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) five years ago, the force was set to get firepower to pursue the al-Shabaab militia.
The helicopters were to fly over 10,000 kms in five fuelling loops mostly over Kenyan airspace from Soroti to Eldoret, then to Nanyuki, Garisa, Wajir, and finally Baidoa. The route was long, over-flying Africa's second highest mountain range, and with the risk of Somalia al-Shabaab militias attacking them with Surface-to-Air missiles.
Barely 12 hours after take-off, between 7pm and 8pm according to the army, one of the helicopters sent a distress call to Nairobi. It had crashed into Mt Kenya. Hours later, two more of the combat choppers were reported missing. In all, seven airforce soldiers, including two senior pilots, died in the three crashes while 15 were rescued. Only the utility chopper, the Mi17, made it to Garisa. What started as a jolly mission was quickly becoming the UPDF's biggest air disaster.
Questions are being asked over why the UPDF wanted this particular mission publicly trumpeted when concealment was vital? Usually, the UPDF is very secretive about its military missions. Therefore, the scene played out at Soroti Flying School that tragic morning was quite unusual.
Some aviation experts have suggested that concealment on the Kenyan side in fact caused the choppers to fly very late; departing Nanyuki at 4pm to attempt to overfly unfamiliar, mountainous, and dense forest territory to avoid danger. The plan appears to have been to refuel at Garisa, which is about 350kms from Nanyuki and enter Somalia under the cover of darkness. It misfired.
As the Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for Somalia, Ambassador Boubacar Diarra, put it, the helicopters were being sent to Somalia to give AMISOM an air component for the first time.
"As AMISOM continues to expand into open country, the deployment of these long awaited enablers, authorised under UN Security Council Resolution 2036, remains critical for operational as well as logistical support and medical evacuation," he said.
Apart from providing aerial cover, the choppers were supposed to act as aerial escort for convoys, assist in emergence rescue, evacuations, and air searches for the Burundi, Kenya and Uganda Amisom forces.
Diarra, therefore, urged the UN and the international community to expedite the training and deployment of replacement helicopters and crew.
However, questions are being asked about what went wrong. Was it pure accident? How often do three helicopters crash at a go? Was there sabotage? Were the choppers airworthy? Were the pilots competent? Would it not have been better to strip the helicopters down and load them into an Antonov cargo plane for delivery to a Forward Operating Base? There are many questions but few answers.
The nature of the crash has bred several conspiracy theories.
UPDF Spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye might have hinted on this when he mentioned that the mission "has become attractive to many" in an interview on NTV. Apparently, the UN has complained that UPDF has over-deployed in Somalia--the force has surpassed its approved quarter of about 6000.
The army's answer for now is that these choppers were flying in a formation, a military strategy to defend each other and were hampered by bad weather, which is known to change every after 10 minute in Mt. Kenya area, sometimes even getting blizzards.
Handling of the mission has been criticized because the pilots did not have communication gadgets like satellite phones. But Kulayigye says these were considered not critical since choppers in formation communicate to each other. However, the only chopper that reached its destination reported that it had lost communication with the others and the crash survivors had to be hunted manually.
According the Minister of State for Defence, Gen. Jeje Odongo, the mission had been meticulously planned over three months. Activities included the inspection of the planes by the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM's airforce component and re-training of the already experienced pilots.
The minister was also quick to commend the cooperation from the Kenya Military and to appeal for calm as the facts about what he called a "sensitive" subject are gathered.
One expert view is that the helicopters were involved in what they call a Controlled Flight into Terrain accidents (CFIT) where by an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is intentionally flown into an obstacle. Wikipedia says "the pilot involved in a CFIT is unaware of the danger until it is too late".
In this case, the expert said, handling a helicopter in the thinner air at high altitudes around Mt Kenya was difficult.
"Engine response is not immediate and therefore reaction time is severely compromised. Add that to poor visibility in a mountainous area... However, that some of the survivors had back injuries is also quite telling. It means that at least one or all of the choppers literally dropped out of the sky. This basically suggests that one or more of choppers may have suffered a catastrophic loss of lift due to the thin and cold air. If you also look at the wreckage pictures, the choppers' noses seemed relatively undamaged which also suggests that they fell mostly vertically, another strong indicator of pilot error!"
A Kenyan official who was part of the rescue efforts said that for one to fly through Mt. Kenya, they must be very experienced because of the complex nature and unpredictability of the area.
But Defence minister Odongo said the pilots had been trained by UN and passed competence tests and had been flying these choppers since 2003. Of the seven that perished in the crash, two - Capt.William Letti and Lt.Patrick Nahamya - had reportedly trained in South Africa, Russia, and China. Letti was a very senior pilot having entered the trade in the 1980s.
Retired former pilots and high ranking members of the ruling NRM, Captains Francis Babu and Mike Mukula, have raised questions about why they took the route of Mt. Kenya well knowing it is dangerous and yet they had a safer option north of the mountain. Babu says that rocks in such mountains contain some minerals that have magnetism that can affect choppers.
Mukula, like the Kenyan pilot of Tropic Air Ben Simpson who rescued the victims, argues that the choppers were strained because they were forced two fly in higher altitudes than they are designed to handle. An Mi-24 is designed to fly up to an altitude of 12000 feet yet Mt Kenya goes as high as 17000feet.
One of the choppers was found hanging on one of the cliffs at an altitude of 10000feet--Mukula says that this shows that it was struggling. He adds that that is why the Mi-17 was able to make it through the mountain because it is bigger and can handle higher altitudes.
In response, Kulayigye admits that the route of the crashes is dangerous, accounting for numerous accidents but, he adds, several considerations were made while planning the route including the endurance of the aircrafts, next refueling points and the like.
He adds that the route had been planned in advance and with the help of Kenyan authorities. However, reports in Kenyan media say the choppers deviated from the planned route for reasons that are still unknown. Kulayigye said that it was impossible to use the other route because it had rained on the other side of mountain or the safe route before the choppers took off from Nanyuki.
Mukula also said that questions need to be answered about the training and motivation of the pilots, "you remember we have raised these issues here in parliament," he said.
Although poor pay could not have led to the crash, such issues have been raised by Uganda airforce pilots. A section of airforce pilots have expressed concern to army authorities including President Museveni that they are paid peanuts, about US$500 a month, compared to expatriates whom they say earn about US$10,000. Because promises from the government to address the situation have come to naught, some of their colleagues have had to leave, The Monitor reported earlier this year.
The loss of airforce pilots, who are few and require extensive training to produce, is worsened by such disasters. Sometime this year, an aviator who requested not to be identified raised questions about inadequate training for some airforce officials at the Soroti based East African Civil Aviation Academy.
He noted, in a letter, that the airforce trainees underwent substandard training by studying for shorter periods than designated for the standard aviation courses. However, the army spokesman dismissed such allegations as "empty and a work of some elements disgruntled over petty things".
The crashed choppers were not the best that Uganda has since it has other Mi-24 variants--but the loss is huge. In money terms, no official figures are available as the information is classified but going by the army's position that the choppers were purchased in 2003, The Independent can reveal that they cost around US$10 million. This is because, the Global Arms transfer expert organisation, SIPRI, in its arms transfer database, shows that Uganda acquired three Mi-24 that were updated to the Mi-24PN mode before delivery in an estimated US$10 million deal. There is, however, a fear that AMISOM might not compensate Uganda for the loss. There is no doubt that President Yoweri Museveni will replace them. Already the army has indicated that it will be sending more fighter helicopters to Somalia. Just last year, President Yoweri Museveni came under fire for forking US$740 million out of the national reserves to buy Su-30 combat aircraft.
President Museveni has also set up a commission of inquiry into the crashes. His appointment of his younger brother, Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh, has re-awakened debate of over the so-called junk choppers he purchased.
The controversial purchase of four choppers (junk helicopters) in 1997 was brokered by businessman Emma Kato and Gen. Saleh. Two of these were Mi-24s that sources say have since been part of the UPDF fleet after they were taken back to Beralus for patch up work. At the very maximum these choppers were supposed to cost US$6 million but because of the state they were in, a probe noted that they should have cost US$2.8 million.
Despite the vigorous defense, those who have flown in some of Uganda's airforce choppers say apart from the inside being too scary, too old, they are very bumpy in the sky. Sources says the choppers tend to take long to be overhauled because these overhauls are too expensive--an overhaul can cost as high as US$3.5 million.
Part of the reason is that airforce choppers are not subjected to strict aviation scrutiny. For instance, in 2010, the Mudoola inquiry revealed that the Ilyushin IL-76 Russian aircraft that crashed in Lake Victoria, killing 11 people on board, was not airworthy.
The plane's flying life had expired by 11 years at the time of the crash and it had not been overhauled. However, Civil Aviation Authority officials could not inspect it because security organs interfered with their work.
A source intimated to The Independent that despite caution from the CAA about the airworthiness of such aircrafts, military officials still went ahead to ask that the authority cleared such aircrafts. Apparently, army officials headed for missions preferred these choppers because they are cheaper, more convenient than commercial aircraft.
Although, the Mudoola Inquiry report has long been covered in dust, it raised queries about Uganda's choppers. The report noted, for example, that CAA does not have the technical personnel to conduct oversight safety checks of aircrafts made in the former Soviet Union. Worse still, the Russian aircraft sometimes do not come with any documentation at all and that sometimes when they do, it is in Russian. The Mi-24 is the Russian Airforce's helicopter of choice.
Many including members of parliament are now questioning Saleh's spearheading this inquiry. It should be recalled that at the height of the junk helicopter inquiry, when he was tasked to explain certain technical issues, opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who was UPDF's chief of logistics and engineering at the time of the purchase, challenged his submission saying Gen. Saleh was not competent because he was not a technical person.