Five accidents in two months unmask copter flight hazards

Saturday August 18 2012

The wreckage of one of the three Ugandan military helicopters on August 14, 2012 that crashed on the slopes of Mount Kenya enroute to Somalia. Photo/AFP

As investigations into the circumstances under which three Ugandan military helicopters crashed on the slopes of Mt Kenya last week begins, the loss of five helicopters in East African airspace in a span of two months exposes the risks involved in the mode of transport.

Flying information in degraded visual conditions in high terrain that the crew are unfamiliar with, always carried the risk of unwanted outcomes, the international studies of helicopter safety groups says.

Complex in technology and inherently difficult to fly compared with fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter accidents often defy age or experience, with even the most skilled crew falling victim to situations that catch them unawares.

The death toll from last week’s accident came to seven after rescuers found the bodies of four crew members from one of the helicopters that burst into flames on impact.

The three Mil-Mi24 were enroute to Somalia, where they were scheduled to support the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) troops fighting Al- Shabaab militants.

Signs of trouble emerged after only one helicopter—a Mil-Mi17 — made it to Garissa where they were scheduled to make a refuelling stopover before flying to Wajir, their last transit point out of Kenyan airspace. Both Kenya and Uganda are part of the AU force in Somalia that is preparing to capture Kismayu, the stronghold of Al-Shabaab militants.


The multiple crashes, which followed the August 5 non-fatal loss of a Robinson Raven44 helicopter at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and the June 10 crash of Kenya Police EuroCopter AS350 that killed two Kenyan ministers, serve to reinforce the risks associated with helicopter operations worldwide.

While an official investigation is yet to get underway, bad weather has already been cited by the Kenyan military, who are familiar with the treacherous conditions around Mt Kenya, as a probable contributing factor to the tragedy.

According to the International Helicopter Safety Team IHST, set up in 2005 to lead research into understanding the causes of helicopter accidents, a common hazard for helicopter crews is the sudden transition into conditions of reduced visibility, a situation that causes pilot disorientation, often resulting in accidents.

Another weakness of helicopters is that unlike their fixed wing cousins, they mostly operate at the lower altitudes, exposing them to the risk of collision with ground objects such as infrastructure or natural terrain.

If meteorological logs for Sunday bear out what Kenyan officials said about weather conditions around Mt Kenya last Sunday, both risk factors existed at the time the UPDF choppers were flying over the area. Combined with the lack of operational experience in such conditions, the risk of collision with terrain was high.

Experts who have looked at the pictures of the helicopters whose crews survived, credit their professionalism since they suggest a controlled landing in unfavourable conditions.

With all the fuel for two-thirds of their journey still on board, the only way the crew avoided fire was because they brought down the machines in a controlled manner.

According to the IHST’s analysis of 523 helicopter accidents that occurred in the US between 2000 and 2005, the majority were the result of errors and subsequent actions by pilots.

“The initiating event in the accident sequence was the absence of adequate preparation or planning by the pilot. Other times, the initiating event was the pilot’s incorrect judgment in reaction to the situation or to a problem encountered during the flight,” IHST observes, recommending that “improving pilot judgment and the ability to safely handle problems may be the most effective way to improve helicopter safety.”

The group concludes that certain categories of helicopter accidents can be prevented by improved pre-flight preparation or mission training, with special emphasis on techniques for maintaining cues critical to safe flight, and techniques for maintaining visual contact and alertness.

Despite the tragedy, the Kenya Defence Forces says that plans to take Kismayu are still on schedule.

“The crash of the helicopters will not affect the takeover of Kismayu at all because the plan has already been completed,” said KDF spokesman Cyrus Oguna.

Additional reporting by Fred Oluoch