Questions on night chopper accident that left five dead

Ferrying away the remains of the chopper crash victims at Lobolo Tented Camp in Turkana County. [Bakari Angela, Standard]
Leaders have called on the authorities to investigate the helicopter crash, which killed five people in Turkana on Sunday night.

The accident - which killed Captain Mario Magonga and his four American passengers identified as Kyle John Forte, Stapper Brandon Howe, Burke Anders Asher and Baker David Mark -  has raised questions, including why the chopper was flying at night and on a route described as treacherous.

Adding to the controversy was the demand by some Rift Valley MPs allied to Deputy President William Ruto for thorough investigations, to establish the cause of the crash. They cited past unresolved cases.

According to a statement by Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), the chopper and another took to the skies on Sunday at about 8.35pm for a flight from Lake Turkana Central Island to Lobolo camp.

SEE ALSO :Ruto’s pilot buried as kin demand answers

The island is characterised by strong winds, especially at night, which makes it risky not only for choppers to land and take off at night but also for speed boats - the only other vessel used to access it - to dock.

Lobolo in local Turkana language means a place of abundant water. It is a tented camp located 58km from Lowdar town.

On a fateful night, the Bell 505, registration 5Y-KDL crashed on the island and the wreckage later located with no survivors.

“Soon after take-off, unfortunately, one of the helicopters, a Bell 505 registration 5Y-KDL lost contact and crashed on the island,” said KCAA’s Capt. Gilbert Kibe.

The other chopper registration number 5Y-TNF made it to Lobolo Camp.

Search and rescue teams arrived at 11.20pm and the wreckage was located four hours later.

The bodies of the Kenyan pilot and four American tourists were yesterday recovered from the crash scene and transported to Nairobi. The US Embassy in Nairobi confirmed their citizens were affected in the incident without elaborating.

“Security teams are on the scene to assist in the recovery efforts. The cause of the incident is yet to be established,” said Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet.

The operators of the chopper, KIDL Helicopters, also issued a statement on the accident.

The cause of the accident is yet to be established, but a team of experts is investigating it.

As the Ministry of Transport’s Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) launched investigations, it will be left to the investigators to determine why a professional and experienced ex-military pilot who flew VIPs, including the deputy president, flew at night under such conditions. 

The pilot of the other chopper told officials that the area was windy at that time. He added he saw something like a huge fire.

Those who reached the site yesterday said the plane and its occupants were burnt beyond recognition. It may require DNA tests to identify the remains.

The place where it crashed is rocky, which is believed to have led to the fire.

Social media was awash with claims Ruto owns the aircraft, but the DP and KCAA were silent on its ownership.

The reactions by four MPs allied to the DP - David Pkosing (Pokot South), Nelson Koech (Belgut), Gideon Keter (Nominated) and Joyce Korir (Bomet woman rep), who said Kenyans deserve to know what caused the accident, further fuelled the speculation.

Past crashes

Mr Pkosing, who is also the National Assembly Transport Committee chairperson, accused AAID of dragging its feet in probing past air crashes and said they expected the agency to act quickly this time round.

“The department which is under the Ministry of Transport is under the radar of my committee. They have been very slow and ineffective in the past. We will not let them go easy if they do not give us answers on what caused the Turkana crash,” he said.

“As a committee, we will summon the management of AAID if they do not give us satisfactory answers,” Pkosing added.

The four tourists, according to Aden Mohamed, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) assistant director for Western conservation area, were part of a group of seven tourists who had landed at the Lobolo tented camp on Sunday afternoon.

“On Sunday we had some guests at Lobolo tented camp who decided to visit the Central Island National Park,” Mohamed told journalists.

“One helicopter returned while the other did not. It was ferrying five people - one Kenyan pilot and four American tourists.”

A rescue mission was launched at around midnight after it was reported to KWS, he said.

“We sent a team to Central Island and they spotted the wreckage. We then informed the National Police Service, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and officials of national and county governments. Yesterday morning we visited the scene and retrieved the bodies and the wreckage,” Mohamed added.

“We don’t know the cause of the crash and we cannot speculate. We have called in people in charge of accidents related to aircraft. They will be able to say what caused the accident,” he said.

According to Joyce Wangeshi, a manager at Lobolo Tented camp, seven American tourists and two pilots landed at the camp at around 4pm on Sunday.

She added that the tourists decided to visit Central Island to take photos at around 6pm.

At around 7pm, they were informed that one helicopter had crashed and Wangeshi informed KWS.

“When they landed at the camp the tourists rushed to the reception saying that one of the helicopters had crashed. I talked with the pilot and we informed the KWS,” she said.

One resident at Lobolo said he spotted the two helicopters from Central Island but only one made to the shore and landed at Lobolo tented camp. 

The ill-fated Bell 505 chopper with tail number 5Y-KDL was among five helicopters operating under KIDL Helicopters and based at Wilson Airport.

The affected chopper was shipped from Bell’s facility in Mirabel, Canada to Africair Helicopter Support Limited (AHSL), a newly-established Kenya Civil Aviation Authority authorised maintenance organisation where the aircraft was reassembled.

“After re-assembly, the Bell 505 was flown by KIDL CEO, Captain Marco Brighetti to Wilson Airport in Nairobi to begin VIP transport operations,” says a post on the company’s website.

Captain Magonga is listed as one of the pilots operating under KIDL Helicopters. Others are Christopher Stewart, Kieran Allen and Brighetti.

“Chief Pilot, (ATP) and a Qualified Helicopter Instructor trained in the Kenya Defence Forces. He has accumulated over 5500hrs experience on single and multi-engine types,” reads a citation on Magonga.

The deputy president used one of the choppers from the company with tail number 5Y-KDM on Sunday to Tala, Machakos County.

The other choppers operating under the company are 5Y-DSB, 5Y-DSM, 5Y-DSN and 5Y-KDM.   

The MPs maintained that it will be important for the public to be informed about the cause behind the crash, to rule out foul play. 

Koech, Keter and Korir warned that the State cannot afford to take the matter lightly since Ruto has been under siege politically in the recent days.

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Captain Mario MagongaChopper crashDP Ruto chopper crash