Puzzle of 5 helicopter crashes in 12 months

A KDF helicopter flies over Kagir in May 2020. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The military aircraft that crashed on Thursday at Sintar, Endo ward, Elgeyo Marakwet was the fifth incident to hit Kenya Defence Forces in the last year.

The accident that happened after the aircraft took off from Cheptulel Boys Secondary School has raised concerns over the status of Kenya's military hardware.

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, 2023, tragedy struck when KAF 1101, a Mi 171e helicopter delivered in 2011, crashed in Buna, Garissa during patrols for Operation Amani Boni.

Another incident occurred on November 9, 2023, involving an AS 550 C3 Fennec delivered in 2018, designated for attack purposes, crashing in Ol Tepesi, Kajiado.

Another accident involved a refurbished Bell UH-1M Huey 2 delivered in 2017, that crashed in Lamu county, and an AS 550 C3 Fennec delivered in 2018, which crashed in Chemolingot, West Pokot, on July 20, 2023, while accompanying Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale.

The frequency of these incidents, especially considering the significant number involving a single operator (KDF) within a short span, has raised concerns within the aviation industry.

Officials knowledgeable about military operations attribute these incidents to serviceability concerns and pilot fatigue. A top official in the Defence Ministry points to the Kenya Kwanza administration's frequent Cabinet meetings and top officials' desire to travel to various locations as reasons for military pilots flying longer hours.

"The increased operational tempo and repurposing of military helicopters for VIP transportation have contributed to operational fatigue, shortened maintenance intervals, and heightened safety concerns," disclosed one of the top officials to The Standard, adding, "And when the president is flying, we must have one aircraft accompanying him and another standby as the procedure."

Despite the military aircraft crashes, the Kenya Air Force has not released 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, while the National Police Air Wing has lost 5, underscoring the need for a thorough review of the airworthiness of Kenya's state-owned aircraft.

"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

A top military official expressed concern over the absence of a separate budget for VIP flights, emphasizing that the operational budget covers these expenses. This raises questions about the allocation and utilisation of resources, as funds could potentially be redirected to more impactful endeavours.

"We do not have a separate budget to fly VIPs; all of this has to come from our operational budget. Most likely, there is a significant budget for this exercise, but we won't receive it. The cost of operating aircraft is rated per hour, even just the cost of hiring a chopper and then for all the hours it will be airborne. That money could have been used for more meaningful purposes," said a top military official.

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.

Caleb Wanga, Executive Director of the Usalama Foundation, raised concerns about the cost of Cabinet meetings outside Nairobi for taxpayers.

"The CSs 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," explained 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.