Following the triple crashes of Uganda’s military helicopters in Kenya on Sunday, President Yoweri Museveni appointed his advisor on defence, Gen. Salim Saleh, to head a team to investigate the exact cause and other issues surrounding the crashes. Below, Joshua Kato looks at some of the key issues that should be investigated
Were the pilots prepared for the task at hand?
The pilots were some of the finest in the UPDF Air Force. Lt-Col. Chris Kasaija, who was the commander of the Uganda Air Force arm in AMISOM, has years of experience as a helicopter pilot.
The pilot of the ill-fated MI-24 No. 806, Capt. William Letti, had also spent 14 years flying planes around the region, just like Capt. George Buga. They had undergone training in Russia, Israel, Ukraine, South-Africa and many other countries.
Did the crew have emergency facilities on board?
Signs are that the crew did not have the basic emergency facilities, such as transponders, flares to illuminate a crash site by a rescue team and satellite phones.
It is said that even the ordinary mobile phones that the crew carried had no airtime. According to sources, one of the officers on the chopper that landed at Garissa ‘borrowed’ airtime from Kenyans to call for rescue services. This was certainly dangerous for the crew.
Why did the choppers avoid established Kenyan Air Force bases?
It is said that the choppers did not refuel at Kenyan Air Force bases, but instead used civilian airstrips. At Eldoret, the choppers landed at a civilian strip and on reaching Nanyuki, they refuelled at Nanyuki Airstrip, and not Nanyuki Airbase, while the MI-17 landed at a civilian strip in Garissa, refuelled and continued to Somalia.
The committee should find out why the choppers were kept away from KDF air bases.
Were the choppers prepared for the task?
The three heavily-armed MI-24 gunships were acquired in 2003. Previously, they were used to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in the north and Congo. “They were checked by the UN’s air force component and found to be airworthy,” Gen. Jeje Odongo said.
The helicopters, according to sources at the military air base, were thoroughly refurbished by Russian and Ugandan engineers, before being allowed to fly to Somalia.
Among the key additions were night vision capabilities and advanced radar systems. All the choppers were classified as MI-24PN. But then, the committee must find out whether the latest refurbishment was properly done.
Why did one of the choppers catch fire, killing all on board?
While the two other choppers seemed to have had controlled landings albeit on uneven ground, it seems the AF-806 had no chance.
Experts say that it could have caught fire long before it touched the ground, giving the crew no chance to escape. So, why did it catch fire?
Did the choppers communicate effectively?
Planes, even when moving in formation, keep communicating with each other, unless there is a special reason not to. With proper communication, therefore, once the leading plane in the formation gets a problem, the others can take action.
Sources in the Kenyan military claim the choppers employed ‘silent communication’ for security reasons. If this is true, why did they do so in ‘friendly’ airspace like Kenya?
As a result of the ‘silent communication’, the lead chopper, the MI-17, reached Garissa without realising that the others had not made it.
Who chose the route?
According to Gen. Jeje Odongo, the choppers flew from Soroti to Eldoret and then Nanyuki, where they were to connect to Garissa and Wajir, before proceeding to Baidoa in central Somalia.
Odongo says the route was jointly decided upon by the Ugandan and Kenyan Air Force officers. “Our Air Force personnel worked jointly with their Kenyan counterparts to decide on the best route to Somalia,” Odongo said.
Sources in KDF have also confirmed that, indeed, KDF furnished the UPDF/Air Force with all the usual transiting protocol, including charts, weather updates, call signs and radar signatures.
Why did the pilots choose a route that involved flying over Mt. Kenya?
According to the flight path that had been agreed upon by the two countries, the choppers were flying to Garissa. The question then is; why did they have to fly over Mt. Kenya?
The highest the choppers could fly is 14,000ft, yet Mt. Kenya is over 17,000ft high. Comparatively, the MI-17 that reached Garissa can fly as high as 19,000ft, which is well over the height of the mountain.
Veteran pilot Capt. Mike Mukula says it was a grave mistake for the choppers, which are largely low flying, to fly over the mountain. Mukula says if the destination was Garissa, the choppers should have skirted the mountain, passing around Isiolo and then Garissa, en-route to Wajir.
“A close examination of the wreckage indicates that the choppers did not crash, but went up and lost power, before trying to land,” he said.
Mukula thinks the choppers should have flown from Eldoret to Isiolo, then Garissa-Wajir without going to Nanyuki, which is almost surrounded by Mt. Kenya.
Couldn’t the planes be airlifted to Mogadishu?
Various analysts have said that rather than fly the choppers to Somalia, they should have been airlifted using cargo planes.
Flying the planes over rugged and changing terrain for over 1,000km, according to experts, was a very big mistake. The committee should ask why the planes were not airlifted to Somalia.