How lack of training and unpreparedness brought police chopper down

Officials assessing the wreckage of a police helicopter in Meru County last year. [File, Standard]

An investigation report on a police helicopter that crashed in June, last year, has revealed that the National Police Service Air Wing may not be regularly maintaining its fleet.

It says recent accidents may also be due to lack of oversight by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority.

Investigation on the accident also indicate that the crew had not been trained in Crew Resource Management, which is crucial in environments where human error can have devastating effects.

This could have forced the two pilots into a string of unintended errors, including a midflight decision to deviate from the agreed flight path.

On the morning of June 13, a helicopter, an Augusta Westland, operated by the National Police Service Airwing, lifted off fromthe Wilson Airport. It later cashed, injuring six occupants.

Now, a report from the Ministry of Transport reveals how the unpreparedness of a police pilot put lives at risk and how what was meant to be a routine trip almost turned tragic.

“An investigation identified the probable cause of the accident as the pilot’s lack of situational awareness, and the decision to continue the flight into deteriorating weather conditions that occasioned spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of helicopter control,” James Macharia, the Transport Cabinet Secretary, said in an official statement.

On June 11, the Police Commandant briefed the crew about a peace mission two days before. The mission was to involve two helicopters – AW 139 and AW 119 – which were to ferry North Eastern and Eastern security teams respectively.

The first, AW139, was to lift off from Wilson Airport in Nairobi, fly to Garissa, Wajir, and then Badan Arero in Marsabit. The second, AW119, was to pick up three passengers in Embu, then route to Marsabit before ending at Badan Arero. 

Peace mission

Passengers were to attend a high-level talks to reconcile two communities that were embroiled in cattle rustling. The two teams, each led by respective regional commissioners, were to congregate in Badan Arero in Marsabit.

After filing the flight plan, the crew familiarised themselves with the route and the weather before lifting off from Wilson Airport at 6:57am.

But just 17 minutes after it had left Wilson, bad weather forced Flight AW 119 down and the pilot erred towards the side of caution and landed the chopper somewhere in Ndula near Thika.

By this time, the second police helicopter, AW139, had just left Wilson but something was not right. The chopper that had left before them was not following the earlier agreed upon flight plan.

AW119 was not headed to Embu as expected. On enquiry, they were informed that AW119 had landed due to bad weather.

After the Ndula incident, the pilot flying AW 139 climbed to 7,500 feet and got out of fog and noticed that visibility and weather to Embu was good and clear at that level.

The crew passed on this new weather information to the crew of AW119 and a few minutes after 7:40am, the second chopper took off.

The crew elected to fly low to Embu where they picked up three more passengers then headed to Isiolo to refuel. The flight plan agreed upon earlier had required the pilot to fly to Wajir for his refueling.

At that time, although he had gone off plan, everything aboard Flight AW119 was in order.

This was soon to change as the weather conditions once again took a turn for the worse, prompting the captain to hand over the flight controls to the copilot while he made telephone calls to establish the weather conditions at their destination before he regained control of the aircraft.

While overflying parts of Meru, the weather was so bad that conversations onboard turned to a negotiation of whether the captain should land the chopper or not.

Before they made their decision, they were engulfed in clouds. The crew had to think fast. Straight ahead, they could make out something that looked like a field that they could land at but then decided against it, hoping that soon the chopper would break free from poor visibility.

Electricity cables

The visibility got worse. They identified another location suitable for landing and went for it. Before touching down, however, they saw electricity cables forcing the captain to bank to the left to avoid the cables. But in avoiding the cables, his chopper’s main rotors hit nearby trees.

“This led to severe vibrations in the cabin. The helicopter collided with two other trees before it impacted the ground with the main rotor blades impacting the terrain while still rotating,” the investigation report reads.

When everything came to a stop, two passengers were seriously injured. The rest of the occupants were reported to have suffered injuries of varying degrees.

The investigation further established that the National Police Service Air Wing Standard Operating Procedures did not provide guidance in a number of areas, which contributed to poor decision making and coordination.

The Aircraft Accident Investigations Department, authors of the investigation report, have recommended that the police air wing review its training programmes and operating procedures.