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Safety of VIPs in the skies has been a major concern over the years

By Graham Kajilwa | June 6th 2021
ODM leaders in a chopper at St. Patricks Sisokhe Primary School play ground in Navakholo Sub county prepare to take off to other ODM rallies during Raila's tour at Kakamega County [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

News of a helicopter crash in Gem, Siaya County, last week had the country holding its breath, fearing for the safety of ODM leader Raila Odinga.

The helicopter that had ferried the former Prime Minister from Kisumu International Airport crashed moments after dropping him in Gem.

The Bell 407 aircraft was just five metres above the ground when it came tumbling down, leaving the pilot with minor injuries.

“Odinga successfully proceeded with his scheduled activities with the president,” Raila's spokesperson Dennis Onyango said in a statement.

Most politicians resort to using aircrafts because of their schedules. But concerns are being raised on the safety of the VIPs in the skies.

Before last week's incident in Gem, Narok Governor Samuel Tunai had a similar scare when a chopper he was flying in crashed just after takeoff. He escaped with bruises.

Some politicians have, however, not been so lucky.

It is the controversy around the death of former Internal Security Minister George Saitoti and his deputy Orwa Ojode that makes the June 10, 2012 aircraft crash so vivid.

The helicopter the two were flying in crashed in Kibiku forest in Ngong, only five minutes after takeoff, killing the two government ministers, two police body guards and two pilots.

The Eurocopter AS 350 was flying to Ojode’s Ndhiwa constituency for a fundraiser-cum-church service.

While this may be the last major aircraft accident that claimed the lives of senior politicians, there have been several other cases.

This accident happened just four years after another one that claimed the life of then Roads minister Kipkalya Kones and Home Affairs assistant minister Lorna Laboso.

The two died when the Cessna 210 plane crashed at Kajong in Narok County. An aide to the leaders and the pilot of the six-seater plane also died.

In 2006, a scheduled peace meeting among warring communities in Marsabit County never materialised as the leaders who were aboard a Kenya Air Force cargo plane never made it to the venue.

The plane carrying 17 passengers crashed on a hill, killing 14 people on board, among them six sitting MPs.

The dead included North Horr MP Bonaya Godana, Foreign Affairs minister, Mirugi Kariuki (Internal Security assistant minister), Titus Ngoyoni (assistant minister for regional development), Abdi Sasura (Saku MP), Galgallo Boru (Moyale MP), Abdullahi Adan (East African Legislative Assembly MP).

In 2003, then Labour minister Ahmed Khalif was among three people who died in a Busia plane crash. The other two were the pilot and co-pilot.

The 24-seater Gulfstream twin engine plane was also ferrying Raphael Tuju (now Jubilee Secretary Genral), Linah Jebii Kilimo (Chief Administrative Secretary Ministry of Agriculture), and Martha Karua, Narc Kenya party leader.

The leaders were on their way back to Nairobi from a homecoming party of former Home Affairs minister Moody Awori.

An inquiry into the accident found the cause to be linked to the shortness of the runway, which was also poorly maintained.

The pilots were also said to be inexperienced in using such a runway.

A report on the investigation into the chopper crash that killed Kones did point fingers at the pilot for poor planning.

“The most probable cause of this accident was determined to be flight controlled flight into terrain due to the pilot’s loss of situational awareness. The foggy weather conditions that prevailed in the Kojonga area at the time of the flight, coupled with inadequate flight planning by the pilot, were major contributory factors,” reads the findings contained in a document titled, Report of Investigation into Accident to Aircraft 5Y-BE in Kojonga on June 10, 2008.

Some of these errors, however, could be inevitable when the passenger or client who rides in the helicopter is a politician, given the antics of the crowds that turn up to see them.

In 2017, after former Prime Minister Raila Odinga had addressed a crowd in Meru County, one Julius Mwitari hang on the choppers’ landing skid and later sat comfortably on the left side as the aircraft gained height.

He amused the crowd by waving at them, oblivious of the danger staring at him. He was later arrested.

A year before, a man in Bungoma County had replayed out the same James Bond scene as a chopper that ferried the late businessman Jacob Juma’s body took off. The man, Saleh Wanjala, was later arrested as well as the chopper being flown by Capt Evans Sigilai.

To avoid such incidents, police are usually deployed to keep people away from the area where the aircraft lands or takes off.

“That particular place had been reserved for us so that after the viewing, we take off from there. Since they (police) were not there themselves, it is them to take the blame,” said Sigilai during the incident in 2016.

Speaking to The Sunday Standard, Sigilai said as pilots they handle every politician just like any other client or passenger.

“We have to plan three days before where the helicopter will land and give the coordinates,” he said.

He said he ensures take-off time is maintained even when political events end late. [Graham Kajilwa]

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