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Explainer: What happens when a military chopper crashes?

A military aircraft goes up in flames after it crashed at Oltinga area, Kajiado West Sub-county. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

On Thursday, April 18 at 2.20 pm, an American-made Huey military chopper crashed shortly after takeoff, killing Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla, and nine senior military officers. Only two unnamed officers survived the crash.

The incident occurred in the remote Sindar area of Kaben in Elgeyo Marakwet, an area known for bandit activity, prompting a joint deployment of both police and military to restore order.

President William Ruto confirmed the incident on Thursday evening but did not immediately ascertain the cause of the incident. He stated: “The Kenya Air Force has constituted and dispatched an air investigation team, to establish the cause of the air crash.”

Unlike civil aviation, the military operates under different protocols.

Speaking to The Standard on the phone, Aircraft Accident Investigation Department Director, Captain Martyn Lunani explained that investigations into aircraft accidents generally follow procedures set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

“However, the purpose of investigation may vary from one organisation to another. Civil aircraft accident investigation is guided internationally as opposed to the Military,” said Captain Lunani.

The aircraft operator initiates the investigation by notifying the investigating body of the accident and waits for a response. The operator can be the pilot or the body running the aircraft.

Investigators then visit the scene to gather information during the field phase, followed by a post-field phase that may take several months. This phase involves collecting and validating additional evidence, conducting laboratory tests on selected wreckage and components, and analysing data from the black box.

Further interviews may be conducted for clarity.

Armed with the needed information, the investigation team reconstructs the events leading to the crash.

Preliminary reports, statements, and recommendations are then issued, culminating in a final report, signaling the conclusion of the investigation.

Capt Lunani says, “Generally accidents are unique, however, the most common probable causes of aircraft accidents as per the statistics, is 80% is due to human factors.”

The recent chopper crash evoked memories of past incidents, such as the Ngong forest crash on June 10, 2012, involving a police helicopter carrying then Minister for Internal Security George Saitoti and his Deputy Orwa Ojode, which also resulted in a fatal fire.

 “Most aircraft accidents are categorised as high energy impact. These are likely to lead to rupture of the fuel tanks leading to fuel leaks. Exposure of fuel to sparks may lead to ignition,” explained Lunani.

Leaders allied to the Azimio coalition have since raised fears of foul play and have intensified calls for speedy, thorough, and transparent investigations into the crash.

But, President William Ruto, in a quick rejoinder, dismissed the narrative insisting that there will be neither extrajudicial killing nor political assassinations during his tenure.

 “I have full confidence in General Omenda and the team he has appointed to make sure that all details are laid bare on the accident that took away the life of General Ogolla,” said Ruto while addressing mourners in Ng’iya, Siaya county on Sunday.

He added: “The KDF are as concerned as I am, and indeed the family and every Kenyan about the life of General Ogolla.I want to assure the country, that the KDF, our Kenya Air Force, have the requisite integrity and professionalism to ensure that there will be no shroud of doubt on what happened to General Ogolla.”

Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen clarified that only the Defence Forces can investigate accidents involving military aircraft. 

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