Mystery man ‘worked’ on Saitoti crash chopper

Kenya Police Airwing Deputy Commandant Johnson Mwangi. [Photo: Collins Kweyu/Standard]
By Ally Jamah

The commission investigating the helicopter deaths of Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, his assistant Orwa Ojode, their bodyguards and pilots learnt of a mysterious engineer who “repaired” the chopper two days before it crashed.

Deputy Commandant and Chief Engineer of the Kenya Police Airwing Johnson Gathatu Mwangi told the Justice Kalpana Rawal-led Commission that he does not know the man who conducted the crucial repairs in the chopper or whether he was qualified to do the job.

By virtue of his position, Mwangi was present when the unknown man replaced a faulty system that controls the functioning of the engine two days before the ill-fated crash.

The mysterious man worked with another engineer named Aristides , who was officially appointed by the manufacturers of the helicopter to help the police repair and service the plane during the one-year period of warranty. Mwangi said he does not know Aristide’s second name.

“I do not know the man. Aristides, who had unsuccessfully tried to repair faults in the system that controls the engine brought him in. He said the man was a specialist,” Mwangi told the commission sitting at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi.

Under cross-examination from lawyer Ken Ogeto of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), Mr. Mwangi also said he didn’t know if the mysterious engineer was qualified or approved by the KCAA.

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Ogeto wondered how the chief engineer would allow a “stranger” to repair a police helicopter and without ascertaining his qualifications of executing his work.

Identity and qualifications

“Were you not worried that Aristides was calling somebody you don’t know at all to look at the aircraft that is the property of the State?” he asked.

The hangar at Wilson Airport in Nairobi where police helicopters are stored and serviced is a security zone that requires individuals accessing it to first get special clearance.

“Aristides made the decision himself to call the other engineer, I did not authorise him to do so. It was an arrangement between the two gentlemen. Engineers often help each other,” replied Mwangi.

Last Thursday, Mwangi also failed to identify the mysterious engineer under cross-examination and it had been expected that he would have established his identity and qualifications before coming up for Monday’s hearings.

The inquiry heard that several weeks before the copter crash, Aristides had reportedly attempted to repair faults in the engine control system after warning lights indicated malfunction, but failed to diagnose the fault after several attempts.

According to Mwangi, Aristides called in the mysterious engineer who services planes at a nearby facility in Wilson Airport.  The mystery man removed the FADEC (or the Full Authority Digital Engine Control ) that controls engine performance and replaced it with another bought in South Africa.

“Whatever the gentleman did was under the supervision of Aristide who had the overall responsibility of servicing and repairing the plane. I didn’t have any reason to suspect anything wrong,” added Mwangi.

He revealed that despite that replacement of the FADEC, another warning light indicated a failure in the Engine Data Recorder (EDR) that captures information on engine activity.

When the police engineer contacted Eurocopter South Africa about the EDR failure, they were assured in an email message that the mechanism did not directly affect the safety of the helicopter, and that they could continue flying for at least 200 more hours in spite of the defect, said Mwangi.

It also emerged  on Monday that the ill-fated plane had only one Primary Flight Display (PFD)instead of two as agreed in the tender documents before the purchase.

PFDs help in controlling various crucial aspects of flight including altitude and vertical speed. Each unit is placed in the pilot and copilot’s compartment. .

Lawyer Fred Ngatia, representing the Saitoti family suggested the lack of the PFD on the copilot side, might have hampered the safe operation of the helicopter. He said the supply of one PFD violated the Ministerial Tender Committee that procured the helicopter.

Further questions

Mwangi said that during the pre-shipment inspection in South Africa in late November last year, he inquired about the absence of the second PFD, but was told by Eurocopter officials that Police Airwing Commandant Rodgers Mbithi approved one.

“I asked for the second PFD and I was informed that the cockpit layout with one PFD was already approved. I asked no further questions,” he said.

During Monday’s hearings, the 11 components allegedly changed by Eurocopter engineers without the knowledge of the Police Airwing were named. They included the vertical speed indicator, Transponder and transceiver among others

The helicopter crashed on June 10 in Kibuki Forest in Ngong killing Saitoti, his deputy Orwa Ojodeh and two police bodyguards, Joshua Tonkei and Thomas Murimi as well as pilots Nancy Gituanja and Luke Oyugi.

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