Transport CS releases report revealing Lake Nakuru chopper crash pilot was drunk

The late Captain Apollo Malowa who died alongside four others in a plane crash in Nakuru on October 21, 2017. [Courtesy]

The pilot of the helicopter that crashed into Lake Nakuru, killing all its five occupants on October 21, 2017, was drunk.

The revelations were made in the crash report released by Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia that was made public today - Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - two years after the crash.

According to the report, Captain Apollo Malowa (deceased) is reported to have consumed a minimum of a half litre of beer or two tots of whisky.

“The pilot’s blood samples were taken from the liver, gall bladder, and kidney for toxicological screening. The results indicated the presence of alcohol (ethanol) at a concentration of 41mg per 100ml of the sample,” the report says.

It is not criminal for pilots to drink alcohol but the Civil Aviation Act of 2013 forbids them from operating the aircraft within eight hours of the last bottle.

The late Captain Apollo was formerly an employee of Kenya Air force (KAF) before joining the general aviation industry.

According to KCAA, he was initially trained in South Africa at Starlite Aviation Academy between May 2009 and February 2010.

The report says Captain Apollo was not aware of the situation when the Flex Air Limited helicopter, type AS 350 B3 and registration 5Y-NMJ collided with the water surface.

“The pilot failed to recognise the loss of altitude, excessive banking to the left, and the obstacle proximity from the aircraft.”

The 34-year-old pilot had accumulated a total of 24.8 hours three months before the crash. He had taken off from Wilson Airport on October 20, 2017 at 1420hrs and landed in Nakuru 40 minutes later.

He was in the company of an unknown female passenger.

Time spent in Nakuru

According to a worker at Jarika Hotel where Captain Apollo landed, the pilot spent an hour at the hotel before he was picked by an unidentified car.

“Another witness informed the investigation team that he had been spotted in the company of unknown persons at a famous club in downtown Nakuru,” the report says adding that the information was corroborated with club attendants and security guards.

Captain Apollo reportedly returned to Jarika Hotel in the company of three men and a female at 0300hrs on October 21, 2017.

Twenty minutes later, the five had boarded the aircraft. In another 17 minutes, they were airborne towards Lake Nakuru.

“The nonscheduled scenic flight of Lake Nakuru National Park took seven minutes and 38 minutes from lift off from Jarika Hotel to the accident location where the helicopter submerged,” CS Macharia said.

“According to the GPS download obtained from the laboratory, the helicopter was flown at a very low-level altitude between 0339hrs and 0344hrs. For instance, at 0340hrs, the helicopter was captured flying at 357 feet above ground level. At 0341 hours it was 861ft above the lake. At 0344hrs it was captured at 69ft above the water level of the lake, the report detailed.

Last moments

In the video recording of the cockpit, the pilot is seen undertaking routine preflight inspection including assisting the female passenger who was seated at the front, fix her headset before he started the flight.

After four minutes and 14 seconds in the air, Captain Apollo is seen handling his mobile phone while flying and nothing unusual appear with the flight.

The report adds that in all the video images downloaded before the crash, none shows any time in flight when the pilot displays unusual behaviour with the flight.

A screengrab from the video recording of the pilot using his phone while flying. [Courtesy]

It took more than 25 days to locate and retrieve the wreckage of the helicopter and recover three bodies of those on board.

The bodies were identified as those of Captain Malowa, Veronicah Muthoni and Anthony Kipyegon.

Two bodies, those of Sam Gitau and John Mapozi - both of Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika’s communication team have never been found to date.

“According to the KCAA regulations regarding fitness to fly, it was established that the pilot-in-command was not fit to fly since the toxicological results indicated he used alcohol. Secondly, the level of alcohol concentration was excess the required limit of 0.04 per cent. Thirdly, it was established from the flight parameters that the flight was conducted below 500ft above ground and water which is against KCAA regulations,” the report said of its findings.

The report has given a clean bill of health to Flex Air Charters, weather and aircraft.

Summary of findings from the crash investigation

  1. The previous flight before the accident was uneventful
  2. The pilot was properly certified and licensed to fly the helicopter but did not have instrument rating or special training rating for low flying
  3. The toxicological test carried on the pilot revealed that he had high level of alcohol concentration in his blood
  4. The pilot’s medical records did not reveal any ailment that would adversely affect his ability to fly the helicopter safely.
  5. The aircraft was properly maintained and had a valid certificate of airworthiness
  6. There was no significant weather that morning which would adversely affect the flight.
  7. The investigation after the crash did not find any anomalies which would have precluded normal operation of the helicopter (engine, main rotor or tail rotor)
  8. The pilot flew at a very low-level height above ground and water less than 500ft above the ground and water against the KCAA requirements of not less than 500ft agl.
  9. The pilot and all on board suffered fatal injuries.