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Concerns over safety after four KDF aircraft crashes in 11 months

In a worrisome series of events, several Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) aircraft have crashed this year, sparking concerns about the safety of both military personnel and the public. This unsettling trend comes after the government’s decision to transfer the management of civilian-owned aircraft to the military in December 2020, leading to the establishment of the National Air Support Department (NASD) at Wilson Airport in Nairobi. On November 20, tragedy struck when KAF 1101, a Mi 171e helicopter delivered in 2011, crashed in Buna, Garissa during Operation Amani Boni patrols. Another incident occurred on November 9, involving an AS 550 C3 Fennec delivered in 2018, which crashed in Ol Tepesi in Kajiado. The others include a refurbished Bell UH-1M Huey 2 delivered in 2017, which crashed in Lamu County, and an AS 550 C3 Fennec, delivered in 2018, in Chemolingot, West Pokot on July 20, 2023, while accompanying Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale. The frequency of these incidents has raised concerns within the aviation industry. Officials knowledgeable about military operations attribute these incidents to servicing concerns and pilot fatigue. A top official in the Defence Ministry points to the administration’s frequent Cabinet meetings and top officials’ desire to travel to various locations as reasons for military pilots flying longer hours. The demand for government aircraft, including President William Ruto’s Kenya Air Force Augusta 139, has strained resources, prompting the re-registration of National Police Service helicopters such as NASD 001 and NASD 002 to comply with Kenya civil aviation regulations.
 President Ruto arrives at Kenya Kwanza meeting in Air Force One.
“The increased operational tempo and repurposing of military helicopters for VIP transportation have contributed to operational fatigue, shortened maintenance intervals, and heightened safety concerns. And when the president is flying, we must have one aircraft accompanying him and another standby as the procedure,” a top official told The Nairobian. Despite the series of military aircraft crashes this year, the Kenya Air Force has not released any accident investigation reports, raising questions about transparency and accountability. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the Kenya Air Force has lost 12 aircraft since 2012, underscoring the urgent need for a thorough review of the airworthiness of the country’s state-owned aircraft. A top military official expressed concern over the absence of a separate budget for VIP flights, emphasising that the operational budget covers these expenses. Over the past year, Ruto has held Cabinet meetings in Kisumu, Kakamega, Sagana, and Mombasa, drawing criticism from those who argue that these extensive travels have resulted in unnecessary expenses. Taxpayer cost Caleb Wanga, Executive Director of the Usalama Foundation, voiced concerns about the cost of Cabinet meetings outside Nairobi for taxpayers. “The CS don’t travel alone. The CS travels with aides, bodyguards, and other top officials,” said Wanga. He questioned the use of private helicopters for rescuing stranded individuals in flood-hit areas at a time when the country had invested heavily in its security. Top military officers and Defence Ministry officials highlighted the strain on military resources due to the frequent use of government aircraft, including President Ruto’s Kenya Air Force Augusta 139. This strain has led to the re-registration of National Police Service helicopters as 5Y-DIG and 5Y-PEU as (National Air Support Department) NASD 001 and NASD 002 due to KCAA rules on civilian flying. “According to the Kenya Civil Aviation Regulations (2018), aircraft flying with the 5Y civilian registrations have to fulfil a number of requirements. Chief among these is that they are insured, their pilots hold civilian flying licences, and their organisational management structure conforms to civilian standards,” said an officer. The officer emphasised the difference in rules governing civilian and military aviation, noting that any hours of experience gained by flying military aircraft are not recognised in the civilian world, and vice versa. “It is concerning that the extensive hours flown by KDF pilots are not acknowledged in the civilian world,” the officer added. Officials pointed out that the increasing travel within the cabinet not only strains military resources but also heightens safety concerns. The high operational tempo has led to aircraft fatigue and shortened durations between maintenance, resulting in increased operational costs. Military helicopters, initially intended for critical roles like providing close air support against terror threats, are now being repurposed for VIP transportation. “Despite the poor safety records, the Air Force has not released any accident investigation report for the three crashes that have occurred this year or any of the others in the past,” the officer said. The lack of accident investigation reports from the Air Force raises questions about transparency and accountability in the military, which has traditionally evaded public scrutiny.

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