What you need to know:
- The helicopter was still new, crashing less than two years since its manufacture.
- The chopper was owned by Ropat Union Ltd and operated by Flex Air Charters Ltd.
- On the fateful day, the pilot, who doubled up as director of flight safety at Flex Air Charters Ltd, had arrived at Jarika hotel in the morning from a night out.
Two bodies are yet to be found three years after a helicopter crashed in Lake Nakuru, an incident that revealed eerie August timelines around the aircraft and the pilot.
The families of Samuel Gitau and John Ndirangu alias Mapozi are yet to find closure following the October 2017 accident, which also killed Apollo Malowa (pilot), Veronicah Muthoni and Anthony Kipyegon.
The AS350 helicopter registration 5Y-NMJ, which crashed into the lake seven minutes and 38 seconds after take-off on the morning of October 21, had key milestones around August – and so did the ex-Kenya Air force (KAF) pilot.
Official records indicated the helicopter’s manufacturer, Airbus Helicopters Southern (PTY) Ltd, had confirmed on August 4, 2016 the aircraft was new, which meant it crashed less than two years since its manufacture.
An inspection by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) on August 10, 2016 for the purpose of registration, however, revealed the helicopter’s tail boom and vertical fin were damaged. It also had a faulty MGB temperature switch.
The inspection confirmed all the faulty components were replaced before recommending that a certificate of registration be issued, according to an aircraft accident investigation report dated November 19, 2019.
On August 12, 2016, the aircraft was issued with a certificate of registration 5Y-NMJ.
The helicopter was owned by Ropat Union Ltd and operated by Flex Air Charters Ltd.
Following an inspection for airworthiness on August 16, 2016, an initial certificate was issued on August 19, 2016, which was renewed on August 19, 2017.
And separately, 11 days later, the pilot was issued with an annual commercial pilot licence on August 30, 2017 by KCAA.
Five years earlier, the pilot had sat KCAA type rating for Bell206 examination on August 10, 2012 and passed.
On the fateful day, the pilot, who doubled up as director of flight safety at Flex Air Charters Ltd, had arrived at Jarika hotel in the morning from a night out.
At 0320 hours, the pilot and the four passengers boarded the helicopter, which took off at 0337 hours.
Once airborne, the pilot made a few circuits and then headed towards Lake Nakuru National Park.
The firm operating the helicopter said it did not know the purpose of flying around the lake or whether the pilot had decided to fly his friends around the lake for sightseeing.
Officially, the air operator only knew about a pre-planned scheduled flight to Mau Narok, some 42km from Nakuru town.
At the time, Flex Air Charters had been contracted by Jubilee Party to transport its members to political rallies during the 2017 General Election.
The mystery flight was doomed as seven minutes and 38 seconds after take-off, the helicopter sank to the bottom of the lake.
So hostile were the waters that it took 25 days to locate the wreckage and recover the last body.
Muthoni’s body was found still trapped in the seat on November 17, 2017, when Kenya Navy and local divers located the main wreckage on the northern part of the lake.
The first body had been recovered a day after the crash when some parts of the helicopter were found north of the lake near the shore, scattered over a stretch of 100m.
The pilot’s body was found on October 23 on the eastern side of the lake, four kilometres away from the point where the first body had been discovered.
The wreckage revealed the helicopter was extensively damaged on impact. The windscreen was shattered, the main rotor blades broken and the tail boom torn away from main airframe.
An analysis of the flight’s last five minutes indicated that the pilot flew too close to the ground and water.
At one point he flew as low as 79 feet above water.
“The pilot flew at a very low level – 500ft above the ground and water – against the KCAA requirements of not less than 500ft agl,” the report stated.
According to the investigation, the pilot lost control after the helicopter pitched up, rolled to left and lost altitude.
Investigators blamed “loss of situation awareness by the pilot, who was under the influence of alcohol.”
“The pilot failed to recognise the loss of altitude, excessive banking to the left and the proximity of the obstacle from the aircraft,” stated the report by the State Department for Transport.
A basic post-mortem examination carried out on the pilot and the passengers did not reveal cause of death.
Toxicological tests conducted on the samples of the pilot’s blood revealed presence of alcohol (ethanol) at a concentration of 41mg per 100ml, which is equivalent to 0.041 per cent of alcohol in the blood.
This was above the alcohol concentration limit set by KCAA of 0.04 per cent.
Prior to joining the general aviation industry, the 34-year-old pilot had been with the Kenya Air Force, where he had trained on Bulldog S-100, RH22 and Bell 206.
He had secured Private Pilot Licences from KCAA and the South Africa Civil Aviation Authority.
Records obtained from KCAA indicated that by August 30, 2017, the pilot had a total of 2373.1 hours, out of which 392.1 hours was as an AS350 helicopter pilot.
There was no record showing whether he had instrument rating or special training on low-level flying, the report stated.
Investigations revealed the pilot and the four passengers aboard the ill-fated helicopter had been spotted at an entertainment spot the previous night.
Earlier on the afternoon of October 20, 2017, the pilot had taken off from Wilson airport destined to Nakuru with one unknown passenger.
They had landed at Jarika hotel at 1500hours.
A hotel worker said the pilot checked into the hotel but left in an unidentified car less than one hour later.
Another witness said he had spotted the pilot and his friends at the famous club in downtown Nakuru.
The information was corroborated by the club attendants.
A security guard at Jarika hotel said the pilot and his friends arrived at the hotel at around 0300 hours. They then boarded the helicopter, which was parked outside the hotel.
At 0341 hours, a witness saw the low-flying helicopter plunge into the water.
The last 30 seconds of the ill-fated flight
03:44:30 The helicopter suddenly pitches up and reduces its ground speed to 50knots within 10 seconds.
03:44:40 The pilot increases ground speed to 90knots as he slightly pitches down.
03:44:45 Aircraft descends as it increases ground speed to 110knots.
03:44:49 Pilot changes heading to 240° 16.
03:44:50 Pilot steers 280° at ground speed of 110knots and then changes the heading to 80°.
03:44:51 There is significant variation of the lateral acceleration for more than four seconds.
03:44:55 Pilot maintains a heading of 200° as he descends
03:44:58 The helicopter pitches up and banks to the left, then plunges into the water.