Purchase of the police helicopter that crashed in Mathare, Nairobi on Thursday was shrouded in controversy.
Technical teams had opposed buying of the Augusta Westland helicopter, citing its history of accidents, informed officials revealed. Two tenders that were floated to purchase it were cancelled twice before it was finally bought for Sh680 million through single sourcing.
In their opposition, the technical teams cited the Italian-made helicopters’ poor safety record, saying those in Tanzania and Zambia had crashed. They said pilots and technicians would have to be trained were the Augusta to be chosen, besides building new service centres.
But powerful cartels at the Ministry of Interior would hear none of it, with Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery describing it as the best deal.
“Last year we made a pledge and committed to Kenyans that we would continue to modernise the National Police Service (NPS) in terms of air mobility and today we are receiving a brand new helicopter, one of the best helicopters we can have in the market today,” said Mr Nkaissery during the commissioning of the chopper at the Wilson Airport in April 2016.
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Insiders at the Interior ministry and the Police Service say politics surrounding the procurement of the helicopter led to the ouster of Deputy Inspector General of Police Grace Kaindi. Journalists who tried to question the figures floated for the fleet and other equipment were threatened and questioned by police. Journalists John Ngirachu and Alphonce Shiundu were earlier this year grilled when they wrote about the ministry’s budget.
Thursday’s crash in Mathare, where four officers aboard the ill-fated helicopter were injured, has raised questions about the qualification and experience of pilots in charge of police aircraft. Sources say some pilots who were flying the helicopter were inexperienced as they had not fully mastered the chopper operations.
An insider told The Standard on Sunday most pilots at the National Police Service Airwing have resigned for better paying jobs.
“They get trained by the police only to quit for better pay in the private sector. The service must improve pay if it is to retain the pilots they train,” said one official aware of the happenings at the Airwing.
The Mathare crash leaves the police without an operational helicopter. The Mathare chopper was badly damaged. It was the second police helicopter to crash in less than a month, undermining police operations. A Bell type helicopter bought in 2014 crashed at the Wilson Airport, injuring two people.
The Augusta Westland AW139 helicopter, which had a carrying capacity of 15, had boosted police operations since its launch. It could take off and land on autopilot.
The twin-engine helicopter has an endurance of six hours - it could remain airborne for at least six hours without refueling, and has a capacity for a vertical take-off with just one engine with a full load at high altitudes.
As part of the deal to acquire the helicopter, 10 pilots and six engineers were trained at the manufacturer’s headquarters in Italy for three months.
In 2013, NPS had four troop carriers, but only one was serviceable. In 2015, the NPS procured two new helicopters. Two of these are MI-17 models that were taken to the Czech Republic for refurbishment at an undisclosed cost and are expected back soon. They were taken for an overhaul after exceeding their flight hours.
The process to purchase another helicopter from Russia is almost complete, officials say.
The Russian-made helicopters are troop carriers and can carry at least 20 personnel at a time.
The NPS currently has 12 aircraft — six fixed wing and eight helicopters — that provide air support to ground forces including tactical reconnaissance, night reconnaissance, air observation and casualty evacuation, especially in remote areas.
Nkaissery said in April they are determined to modernise the service.