Lady Justice Kalpana Rawal’s commission of inquiry report into the helicopter crash that killed Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, his deputy Orwa Ojodeh, two pilots and two bodyguards last June, has been made public.
Its findings are in the main (although not entirely) objective and, the Kenya Forum believes, accurate. But why was publication delayed, and why did the inquiry take so long when the cause of the crash was known to professional helicopter pilots soon after the crash? These are the questions that this investigative piece seeks answers to.
The Kenya Forum’s Investigation
The Forum should state at the outset that this correspondent was driving through the Ngong Hills on the morning and at about the time of the crash on Sunday, June 10, 2013. Thereafter two Kenya Forum correspondents visited the crash site in the company of an experienced commercial helicopter pilot a few days after the fatal accident. Of this, more later.
Justice Rawal’s Findings
Judge Kalpana Rawal’s investigation concluded that the crash that killed former cabinet minister George Saitoti was caused by the 5Y-CDT type AS350 B3e (Eurocopter) operated by the Kenya Police Airwing being overloaded, which made it harder to control when flown in poor visibility by pilots who were not trained to fly in such conditions. As a result of these factors, the two pilots lost “situational awareness”.
Judge Rawal’s report also criticized the manner of the purchase of the helicopter, and the police and Government chemists and pathologists for failing to carry out enough tests on the six people who died in the crash, or to coordinate their work effectively.
Looking back from the impact site towards the the flight direction…no evidence of ploughing into the forest..the helicopter dived down, causing minimum canopy damage, with power on the rotors, as evidenced by localised tree chopping
According to the report, investigations indicated that the helicopter was overweight by at least 11kgs (a ‘conservative’ estimate), with the six occupants weighing an estimated 2,261kg against a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 2,250.3kg.
Erratic Course – Nose Dived Into Hillside
The final minutes of the flight indicated that the police helicopter had followed an erratic course, then made a sudden left turn while banking steeply, followed by another sharp left turn before nose-diving into the hill where it exploded and burst into flames.
The commission of inquiry’s findings do not surprise the Kenya Forum at all, for we could have written the same two weeks after the crash. A visit to the crash site, conversations with several helicopter pilots and some further research, all pointed to the same conclusions.
Aircraft More Overloaded Than Report Suggests
The helicopter was carrying six passengers estimated by the inquiry to weigh at least 80kg each, making it overweight by 11kgs. The Kenya Forum believes that the estimated figure could realistically have been increased by 10-20kgs per passenger. The aircraft was also carrying a full fuel load. All the pilots we spoke to at the time were not in any doubt that it was overloaded.
The two pilots were also not sufficiently experienced to fly in poor weather conditions, the inquiry found but the Kenya Forum can reveal they were not experienced enough to be given the controls of a Eurocopter of this type when carrying passengers under any conditions.
Superintendent Nancy Gituanja and Superintendent Oyugi, the two pilots who perished in the crash, had trained in the Ukraine to fly the MI-17 helicopter used by the Kenyan police. Since completing training Supt. Gituanja had flown a total of 1,243.50 hours in the MI-17 and Supt. Oyugi 1015.10 hours. To prepare for flying the Eurocopter, which one helicopter spoken to by the Kenya Forum compared to switching to a Ferrari after flying the MI-17 “truck”, as he called it, Supt. Gituanja trained in South Africa for only two weeks and the helicopter involved in the crash had only clocked up 240 hours since the police acquired it. So neither Gituanja, or Oyugi, had flown many hours on the more advanced Eurocopter.
Now compare the experience of pilots Giyuanja and Oyugi with that required by a helicopter pilot wanting to get to a level where he or she can carry commercial passengers in the United States. One such pilot told The Helicopter Page website: “Many jobs now require 2500 – 5000 hours of flight time. Most employers will not touch you with less than 5000 hours for insurance reasons. If you are lucky enough to get a job with as many hours as I had, you were going to have to pay your dues for quite a few more years before you had 5000 hours (It took me six years to get 1800 hours, and that is a lot for a six year Army pilot), and could get a better job.”
Misleading Testimony and Reporting
Helicopter tail rotor section showed no signs of smoke or fire damage which we would have expected to see if the cabin had been ablaze.
During the inquiry there was, as has unfortunately happened so often before in commissions of inquiry and the like in Kenya, demonstrably daft testimony, some of which was malicious or intended to mislead. Similar words could be used in describing some of the media coverage of the crash and subsequent investigation.
One witness reported seeing smoke in side the helicopter’s cabin: unlikely, given that the Eurocopter had dark windows. Another spoke of watching the helicopter turning and manoeuvering: unlikely, visibility was little above tree top level at best. The Star newspaper printed a photograph on its front page of a helicopter trailing smoke, seemingly out of control, without pointing out that the photograph was not of the helicopter involved in the Saitoti crash. Other theories from missile attacks, to the involvement of drug lords, an assassination plot by unnamed political opponents, to inevitably, the possible involvement of dark and secret state forces, were bandied about. Meanwhile, in the inquiry, the pressure seemed to be on ignoring possible pilot error and pinning the blame on the mechanical failure of the Eurocopter.
So what were the real facts and what really happened?
Eurocopter “Top of the Range”
First, the Eurocopter was not some second-rate machine in bad need of repair, it was a new “top of the range” helicopter of a type with a very good reputation among pilots. All of the pilots the Kenya Forum have spoken to expressed these opinions. Nor was it, with only 240 hours flown since entering service with Kenya Police Airwing, an aircraft in need of any sort of major overhaul. Again, all the pilots the Forum spoke to agreed on this point.
Pilot Error and Weather Conditions
When, during the early stages of the inquiry it was suggested that the pilots were not experienced enough to fly a Eurocopter with passengers on board, there was a howl of anguish from various quarters at such an idea being put forward. The truth is, however, that the two pilots tragically killed in the crash were not experienced enough for such flying duties in that type of helicopter.
The weather conditions in that area of the Ngong Hills on the morning of the crash were not good for flying. Eye witness reports, evidence from another pilot and the conditions nearby witnessed that day by this Kenya Forum correspondent, were of low cloud down to treetop level.
All of the pilots spoken to by the Kenya Forum made the same point. Most helicopter crashes, some quoted a figure of 90 per cent plus, are caused by pilot error when faced by poor weather conditions when the pilot concerned “loses sight of the horizon”, particularly when such conditions occur against a rising hillside. And, the Ngong Hills, said the pilots, are well known for such dangerous conditions.
Kenya Forum Team Visit Crash Site
The Kenya Forum sent a team of one correspondent, a technical advisor and a commercial helicopter pilot to the crash site only a few days after the accident. Together they witnessed that the crash site area was very small, about the size of a penalty area on a football field. The impact crater was a few meters across and only a few feet from the tail of the aircraft. There was no evidence of the helicopter having ploughed through the trees, indeed no observable evidence of tree damage outside the immediate area of the crash. Within the wreckage area one of the helicopter’s rotor blades was deeply buried into the ground and appeared to be facing the wrong way considering the obvious impact direction.
Failure to Secure the Area
The immediate crash site had been cordoned off but some helicopter debris lay outside the cordoned area, police officers near the sat idly by next to a fire and the helicopter pilot accompanying the Kenya Forum correspondent was able to walk unhindered amongst the wreckage. In short, the site was not and almost certainly had not been secured.
“Retreating Rotor Stall”
Remembering that eye witnesses said the helicopter seemed to circle, that the aircraft was tracked turning sharp left, sharp left again and the diving, and remembering also what the helicopter pilots said about the whether conditions set against rising ground added to the inexperience of the pilots, this is what almost certainly happened on that fateful morning. The phenomenon is called a “retreating rotor stall”.
The position and deep embedding of the rotor indicated that the rotors (hence engine) were still turning after impact, and that the detached cabin had flipped or rolled from the point of impact (a careful look at the rotor edges indicates that the rotor spindle hub was pointing back in the direction of impact).
The likely scenario is that the helicopter carrying Saitoti, a ‘fly by sight’ machine, was heading into low cloud on the Ngong Hills when they “lost site of the horizon” (or “situational awareness” as the Rawal report termed it). Something, perhaps a treetop appearing through the clouds, made one of the pilots try to pull the helicopter up abruptly. At that point, especially with a heavily laden machine, the G-force would have been tremendous and manoeuvrability of the craft severely restricted, if not all but impossible.
In these circumstance one of the inherent instabilities of helicopter would come into play when the rotor lift on the ‘attack side’ is greater than the receding side so the angles have to flex or trim to compensate. At stall speed the helicopter exceeds the compensation and goes nose up before slipping to the retreating side. The helicopter then effectively falls out of the sky sideways at an acute angle. In this case the Eurocopter rolled or bounced after impact some 270 degrees before the rotor embedded in the ground: the position of the rotor coupling facing backwards, witnessed by the Kenya Forum team at the crash site, bears this out.
No Engine Failure
The rotor blade deeply embedded in the ground at the crash site suggests that the helicopter had power on when it hit the ground, i.e. the rotors were still turning. That fact also goes against an engine or gearbox failure being the cause of the accident.
The Kenya Forum reiterates that all of the helicopter pilots spoken to at the time by our correspondents repeated this theory, or something very similar, straight after the crash had occurred and Judge Rawal’s findings in large measure also support it.
The questions the Kenya Forum have, among many, are why did it take so long to reach this conclusion and why was there such an obvious drive to blame Eurocopter and the air worthiness of this particular aircraft? We fear that the answer comes down in part to money: pilot error – little or no compensation; aircraft structural or engine failure – rich company to blame means more compensation.