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Pilot's inexperience caused chopper crash, says report

By Allan Mungai | March 12th 2021

Debris of the chopper that crashed in Turkana county. At least five people died.

A helicopter crash on an island in Lake Turkana in March 2019 has been blamed on the pilot's inexperience and lack of visibility.

According to the investigation report, Mario Magonga, 45, despite having flown for close to 6,000 hours, was inexperienced in flying the Bell 505 helicopter and might not have known how to react to save the situation. All five occupants of the chopper died in the crash.

Flight investigators say the pilot could also have been under pressure from the passengers and himself.

The crash occurred on March 3, 2019 at 8.24pm, killing Magonga and four American tourists who had chartered the aircraft for a tour of Central Island National Park on Lake Turkana. They were on their way back to Lobolo Camp when the plane went down.

A report by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Department looking into the cause of the air crash has attempted to piece together the factors that led to the fatal crash.

First, the pilot had not flown the new Bell 505 helicopter long enough to be considered experienced.

Magonga had only 16.9 flight hours on the Bell 505 helicopter. His flying licence was issued in December 2016 and was endorsed to fly five aircraft: Airbus AS350, Bell 412, Bell 505, BK 117, Eurocopter EC130 and Schweizer H269.

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However, by their own classification, the owners of the helicopter, Kwae Island Development Limited (KIDL), listed pilots who had less than 100 flying hours on a specific type of aircraft as inexperienced.

"It is apparent that the differences between the avionics panel layout on the accident helicopter and the Bell 206 helicopter he previously flew for a long period resulted in confusion due to the inclusion of the complex Garmin 1000 in the new plane, contributing to his loss of situational awareness," the investigators said.

"... with low flying hours on type and no specific upset recovery training, the pilot may have been unfamiliar with the handling characteristic of this type of helicopter and would have difficulties applying the correct recovery techniques with minimum time reaction to recover from the sequence of events that led to the ensuing spin, particularly in a new type of aircraft designed for high performance."

Crash investigators also believe the flight's time of take-off could have contributed to the crash. The report suggests the pilot's disorientation as a probable cause since the take-off was at night.

Spatial disorientation is the inability of the pilot to sense correctly the motion or attitude of the aircraft or self as a result of an error in his receptor sensory information.

The helicopter took off from the island at night. Operation of this type of helicopter in such conditions was not permissible under the existing Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) guidelines.

"Once the pilot loses visual cues by flying into darkness, the inner ear can send erroneous signals to the brain that causes spatial disorientation. It causes the pilot to believe they are flying straight and level when they are banking and descending rapidly," said Martyn Lunani, the Chief Investigator of Accidents.

The investigators believe the helicopter went into a spinning motion, indicating that it must have been flying erratically.

"It is considered highly likely that upon realisation of rising terrain, the pilot suddenly pulled up, resulting in the main rotor blade's angle of incidence exceeding limits during this initial climb. The subsequent result was a tail strike as he tried to overcome the rising ground," reads the report.

The search and rescue team located the wreckage on March 4 at 3.10am. The aircraft was found to have crashed on the edge of the cliff in the western area of the island adjacent to Flamingo Lake.

Some parts of the plane were found more than 50 metres from the crash site.

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