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Air mishap that claimed the lives of six paratroopers

By Amos Kareithi | September 8th 2021
Paratroopers from Kenya Airforce showing their skills at Lanet airfield on March 1975 [Courtesy]

Even the best-laid plans can go awry. And when they do, the consequences can be disastrous. Even tragic. That is what happened on August 5, 1971, which turned out to be a dark day that almost cost Kenya one of her most gifted soldier and man of peace.  

That day, 48 paratroopers hopped onto two planes to undertake what they thought was just routine training. For them to be enlisted as members of the 1st Parachute Company, they had undergone rigorous tests by jumping off balloons from a height of about 800 feet from a platform of wooden boxes.

They had graduated to what the military called ‘clean fatigue aircraft exit’ where soldiers jumped from aircraft flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet above ground level.  

With these skills, the paratroopers could then train to free fall, which was simply jumping out of a plane at a height of 2,000 feet and then gliding like a bird as the jumper carefully monitored and controlled the descent.

Only then could these specialised soldiers be deployed and stealthily dropped behind enemy lines to offer support to their comrades.

On that fateful day, all seemed to be going well as the paratroopers cheered each other. All of a sudden, ill winds started swirling around the two planes.

One of the senior commanders, Lieutenant General (Rtd)  Dennis Opande, who was training the soldiers, lived to tell the story. In his autobiography, he recounts events of that day:

“The winds suddenly picked up and a number of soldiers were unable to control their parachutes resulting in a mass accident that claimed the lives of six soldiers.”

The other paratroopers were lucky to escape with their lives. Twenty-six of them sustained serious injuries that necessitated their evacuation from the scene in North Horr in Marsabit to the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi. Out of the 48, only 12 escaped without injuries.

Opande says that he and another veteran, General Adan Abdulahi, were also evacuated to Nairobi as they had suffered serious injuries.

And although the doctors advised Opande against any more parachute jumps, he still persisted with his daredevil tactics until he reached 58, and could no longer be allowed to parachute as per the laid down military orders.

Despite the ever-lurking threat of death or maiming in the event of an accident, Opande confesses that parachuting can be quite addictive and can turn into an obsession.

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