Revealed: How Turkana trip unfolded before plane crash

The wreckage of the chopper that crashed in Turkana County, March 4, 2019, killing all the five on board.

An investigation into the deaths of a helicopter pilot and four American tourists has offered a glimpse into the last moments of the five men.

A preliminary report obtained exclusively by The Standard of the March 3 crash reveals that the pilot, Marouis Maisiba Moganga, did not make contact with the control tower at Wilson Airport as is the norm when taking off and landing.

Captain Mario, as he was popularly known, who was piloting a Robinson 5Y-KDL helicopter, also failed to respond to four radio calls from a fellow pilot who had taken off a few minutes earlier.

The report will be released by Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia soon.

This even as Captain Mario’s mother and wife make arrangements for his burial. Their lawyer, Sammy Waweru, confirmed to The Standard that the family was briefed on the accident report yesterday.

The investigators are drawn from Kenya, France (Safran Helicopter Engines) and Canada (where the helicopter’s body was manufactured).

According to the report, it was pitch dark in Turkana at 8.30pm when the crash happened.

The helicopter is said to have nose-dived and crashed, erupting in a blaze, which would explain Mario’s body was never found.

Two passengers were also not strapped in as the chopper lifted off for what was expected to be a short flight.

A three-inch bone retrieved from the accident site and believed to be part of Mario’s body was taken for a DNA test.

The pilot of another chopper that had just lifted off, only referred to as Captain Andrew, reported that Mario’s chopper was supposed to be following him but when he failed to raise him on the radio and looked back, he only saw circling lights.

This meant that the helicopter was spinning. Spinning is associated with loss of engine power or a malfunctioning tail rotor. The helicopters main rotor blade was found 97 metres from the crash site.

Maiden flight

The Robinson 5Y-KDL helicopter was relatively new, having made its maiden flight in 2014. Its engine is said to have been working well “but more than it ought to”, which is associated with a scenario where the tail rotor has a problem.

Mario’s last flight started in the afternoon of March 2 at his employer, KIDL Helicopters, in Wilson Airport.

The seven American tourists ought to have flown in a Bell 5Y-TNF helicopter but they could not fit in the chopper. Hence Mario was called in to ferry four of them.

The two helicopters – one flown by Mario and the other by Andrew, first landed at Ol Malo in Laikipia County where the crew and their passengers spent the night.

The following morning the two helicopters left for Suguta Valley.

After a 68-minute flight, they got to Suguta where they had breakfast. At 10.19am, the team was again in the air, overflying sand dunes to the Southern Island National Park in Turkana County.

The visitors were interested in viewing the islands along the lake and after a 52-minute flight, they landed.

The next destination for the tourists was Tum where the helicopters re-fueled. At 1pm they flew to Southern Island National Park.

The team landed and settled at Lombolo Camp on the western shore of Lake Turkana where they had lunch. The two helicopters were also re-fueled.

At 5.46pm, the visitors were flown to the Central Island National Park for a sun-downer. Central Island National Park is described as “The Gem of Lake Turkana”. The park is managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service and comprises three crater lakes – Crocodile Lake, Flamingo Lake and Tilapia Lake.

The islands, which are home to hippo, bats and the largest Nile crocodile population, also boasts over 350 bird species including large flocks of flamingos.

A major attraction is the crocodiles, which breed on the shores of the island’s crater lakes between April and May.

Access to the park is normally by air. There are two all-weather airstrips that visitors use. By road, the journey takes three days from Nairobi via Marsabit and North Horr, or Maralal and South Horr.

According to the investigative report, there was a drastic change of weather with winds so strong that the chopper blades were shaking.

The tourists stayed in the park until 8.30pm when the wind calmed down and a decision was made to fly back to Lombolo, a short trip of approximately six minutes.

This time, it was decided that Andrew take-off first with the three female tourists and Mario would immediately follow him.

The four passengers in the ill-fated flight were identified as Anders Asher Jesiah Burke, Brandon Howe Stapper, David Mark Baker, and Kyle John Forti.

Andrew told investigators that he tried to make radio contact with Mario but got no reply. He repeated this four times with no response.

He looked back expecting to see light from Mario’s helicopter but instead he saw a circling light that went off.

When Andrew landed at Lombolo he immediately contacted the head of operations at KIDL Helicopters who in turn contacted the KWS.

Due to bad terrain in the crash area, the first team managed to access the site at 3am the following morning after a four-hour trek.

Among the items recovered from the crash site included a hoodie, a right-foot sandal, mobile phones, a ring, a chain, broken eyeglasses, a firearm and six bullet cartridges, among others.

After the preliminary investigations, which are not conclusive, further analysis will be conducted to establish how the helicopter ended up becoming a death trap.