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Pilot’s knowledge of mountain terrain aided rescue operation

By - | Published Tue, August 14th 2012 at 00:00, Updated August 14th 2012 at 10:22 GMT +3

By Francis Ngige

Ben Simpson, the pilot who located and rescued Ugandan troops aboard ill-fated helicopter on Mt Kenya. (Photo:George Mulala/Standard)

For Ben Simpson, his 17 years flying experience in helicopters came in handy in the rescue operation of seven Ugandan military officers in Mt Kenya forest.

Simpson, 38, put to use his vast knowledge of the Mt Kenya terrain to locate and evacuate the soldiers who had spent their night in the wildlife infested forest.

We caught up with the pilot, who is Director of Helicopter Operations at Tropic Air, at the Tropic Air Airstrip in Nanyuki just some minutes past six when he had rescued the last batch of the soldiers.

The well-built man could only spare some minutes for an interview before he boarded his chopper for Nairobi before nightfall.

He recounted the challenges he experienced in the daylong operation together with personnel from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Having participated in other rescue operations before, Simpson said his knowledge of the area was crucial in the whole operation.

17 years experience

“I have 17 years flying operations and since I operate from Nanyuki, it was easy to manoeuver the place,” said Simpson simply dressed in a faded blue T-shirt and blue jeans.

His clothes were drenched, a clear indicator of the tribulations the team underwent in the rescue efforts.

Simpson said he had taken a news crew from a foreign media house to the mountain after news of the crash filtered in.

“Once we were at the forest, the Kenyan Air Force gave us the co-ordinates of the scene where the chopper had crashed. It took me about 30 minutes to locate it,” he said

Simpson says he spotted the badly damaged helicopter perched on trees and six of the occupants walking around it.

 “From the air, we could see the soldiers walking around the wreckage while one of them was seated. I managed to land about 200 metres from the scene,” he said.

He said that after spotting the helicopter at 11.30 am; it took him and the KWS crew nearly an hour to get to it due to the steep topography.

“The scene was on a slope and it was difficult for us to get there. When we found them, one of them — the pilot — was in great pain,” said Simpson.

“The chopper crashed in the southern part of Mt Kenya and all the seven people on board are alive but the captain has serious back injuries,” Simpson told The Standard at the Nanyuki airstrip.

Damaged body

He added: “The chopper’s body is badly damaged but the engine is intact. The propellers shafts are gone.”

The soldiers too spotted and started beckoning him.

“Immediately they spotted my helicopter they beckoned me to come to their rescue,” said Simpson.

According to the initial exchanges with the soldiers, he gathered that they ran into bad weather.

“I managed to get the first four who had no physical injuries. They told me they crashed in bad weather and that the captain had a bad back injury,” said the pilot before he took off to rescue the remaining three.

Al-Jazeera correspondent Peter Gretse who was in the chopper that spotted the wreckage described how the scene was littered with personal belongings.

“I talked to the pilot who said he was trying to escape bad weather when the accident occurred. The scene was a mess and it is a miraculous escape for the troops,” said Gretse.

“They are lucky to be alive, since the helicopter is badly damaged. The weather was terrible that the soldiers lit a fire in the forest to keep themselves warm,” said the reporter.