The Star (Nairobi)

31 August 2012

Kenya: Saitoti Copter Parts Switched

The Saitoti crash helicopter had 11 key parts removed and replaced with dodgy substitutes in South Africa, the tribunal heard yesterday. A senior policeman said he regretted allowing the Eurocopter AS 350 into Kenya without verifying that the chopper was intact. Johnson Githatu, the deputy commandant of the Kenya Police Airwing, said he was in the team that travelled to South Africa late last year for a pre-shipment inspection.

He said he trusted the manufacturers in South Africa would not change any parts of the helicopter without informing the Kenya Police. But he later learnt that more than 11 key parts had been removed between November and December, 2011. "I trusted them and would not have accepted the aircraft had I gone through the papers and found the components changed," said Githatu. He said neither himself nor the commandant authorised the changing of the parts.

The helicopter crashed on June 10 in Kibuki Forest of Ngong killing Internal Security minister George Saitoti, his deputy Orwa Ojode, two of Saitoti's bodyguards Joshua Tonkei and Thomas Murimi and police pilots Nancy Gituanja and Luke Oyugi. Githatu said that had he checked and found out that the manufacturers had changed the Vehicle Engine Monitoring Display (VEMD), he would not have accepted the new aircraft.

The manufacturers installed a new VEMD on December 2, just seven days before it was delivered to Nairobi. The component is among six parts identified for further investigations abroad. It is used to monitor the performance of the helicopter engine. According to Githatu, a message displayed after the June 8 repairs showed engine data record (EDR) failure. He said they contacted a Eurocopter engineer who contacted his principals in South Africa.

The South Africa engineers are said to have emailed the Police Airwing Commandant telling him that the EDR failure was not a safety problem and that they could continue flying the aircraft with the defect. An email from the manufacturers read out in the commission chaired by Justice Kaplana Rawal said the monitoring device defect had no consequence on safety and the aircraft would have been flown for another 200 hours. It was after the June 8 correspondence that the aircraft was released for service and flown to Voi by Captain Nancy Gituanja to rescue another police chopper.

The next day, on June 10, the chopper crashed as it was taking Saitoti and Ojode to a funds drive in the latter's Ndhiwa constituency. Githatu said that on her return from Voi, pilot Gituanja reported that the problem of the EDR was persisting. However, her concerns were ignored by her seniors on the basis of the assurances they had been given by the manufacturer's engineers in South Africa.

Githatu said he was not aware of any flight scheduled for June 9. The Police Airwing quality manager Morris Okech had on Wednesday told the commission that the Airwing commandant Rodgers Mbithi had used the chopper for a flight whose details were not indicated in the flight register.

Mbithi flew the chopper to an unknown destination before returning it to the Wilson Airport hangar 50 minutes after he had taken off. He did not log the reason for the flight or its destination. Githatu told the commission that he went to Wilson Airport that Saturday evening to receive the Commissioner of Police who was arriving from Mombasa.

He said he arranged the Sunday trip on instruction from the Airwing commandant but was not present at the Wilson Airport until 9am when he received a distress call about the crash. He said the documents indicated the aircraft had been refilled with 530 litres of jet fuel on June 9. Githatu said the repairs on the aircraft had not been updated in the register as of June 8 since it normally took two to three days to update the maintenance register. The hearing continues.

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