Mystery of missing Ugandan helicopters

Two Ugandan Russian-made attack helicopters are still missing in Kenya while the crew of another was airlifted to safety from Mt Kenya, according to Kenyan and Ugandan military authorities.

A transport helicopter, which was part of the group flying to Somalia in readiness for the attack on Kismayu, arrived safely in Mogadishu.

Ugandan military spokesmen dismissed speculation about foul play and blamed the string of bizarre accidents on bad weather. (READ: Poor weather hinders search for Uganda's missing helicopters)

However, the loss of three relatively modern aircraft — the helicopters were bought last year — flown by pilots who were reported to be experienced will be one of the more notably puzzling incidents in aviation history.

According to Ugandan authorities, four helicopters, all Russian-type Hind aircraft, left Soroti Flying School in Eastern Uganda on Sunday.

The choppers landed in Eldoret at 11am and took off again for Nanyuki air base. They are said to have left Laikipia at 4pm, enroute to Wajir, a key staging point for the war in Somalia.

Yet to be found

Three of the helicopters never made it.

Ugandan military spokesperson, Col Felix Kulayigye, told reporters in Kampala that one — Mi-17 transport chopper, with its 13-member crew on board — made it to Mogadishu, while two of the three Mi-24 attack helicopters are yet to be found.

One Mi-24 was flown by Lt Col Chris Kasaija crash-landed in Castle Forest, about 14 kilometres from Kimunye Forest Service station on Mt Kenya and all its 7-man crew was rescued on Monday afternoon and safely evacuated by the Kenyan military to Nanyuki base.

Col Kulayigye had earlier told journalists that all four helicopters had been found but after a meeting with Defence minister, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, he clarified that two were still missing.

“We want to thank our Kenyan counterparts for the rescue operations. I can confirm that five people have been rescued. Ten are unaccounted for. But unconfirmed reports is good news that there are no fatalities,” he said.

The two missing helicopters, Col Kulayigye said, could have made “a hard landing” anywhere between Nanyuki and Garrissa in North Eastern Kenya. “They landed on un-gazetted surface,” he said.

This was the second batch of the helicopters to be dispatched to Mogadishu in one week.

Col Kulayigye denied reports that there was foul play or the incident could have been the result of poor training of the crew. “The Kenyan air space is safe,” he said.

The Kenyan Department of Defence, Director of Communications, Mr Bogita Ongeri said on Monday:

“Two of the helicopters have been accounted for. The one which landed at Garissa in north eastern Kenya and the one which crash landed on Mt Kenya”.

Mr Ongeri said that seven crew members had been rescued and efforts to rescue all the others were on going but being hampered by the weather.

The multiple accidents and the length of time it has taken to find the plane, if at all they crashed or crash-landed, remains strange.

Modern attack helicopters have sophisticated navigation equipment, which allows them to fly and find targets even in the dark, and tell the pilot where he is at all times.

Equally, aircraft of that nature, even from a close ally, are likely to have been monitored by Kenyan air traffic control authorities, particularly at the Laikipia air force base.

A Kenyan Office of the President official, who is briefed on security matters but is not authorised to comment on defence affairs, said the helicopters, in formation, flew out of Nanyuki air base south west of Garrissa and may have encountered bad weather, which is common in the mountain region.

The official claimed that the choppers were maintaining radio silence while in flight and that, information flying the pilots at the back followed the leader.

The crashed plane was found high in the mountain, 11,000ft where rescue operations are quite difficult, the official said. In the past it has taken days to locate aircraft and survivors on the mountain.

Officials discovered all was not well when the pilot of the cargo chopper landed after 5.30pm and discovered that he was all alone.

All the helicopters had a seven-man crew when they were flagged off by the Chief of Ugandan Defence Forces Gen Aronda Nyakairima on August 6.

According to a route chart, the helicopters were expected to fly to Mogadishu through Soroti flying school in eastern Uganda, Eldoret airport, Laikipia, and Wajir all in Kenya before refuelling and flying to Baidoa base in Somalia where they were to be armed before proceeding to Mogadishu.

The Ugandan Air force Commander, Lt Gen Jim Owoyesigire, during the flagging off said the choppers were supported to provide air power for the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) as the allied Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundi forces, fighting alongside the Somali army to remove Al-Shabaab from Kismayu.

Lt Gen Owoyesigire said the Ugandan airforce wing would provide air support to both Uganda and Burundi convoys and operations outside Mogadishu, conduct reconnaissance of Amisom’s main supply routes, provide combat medical evacuation, perform air search and rescue plus engaging the Al-Shabaab in combat operations.

Uganda military sources told the Nation on Monday that the helicopter crashes will significantly affect the plan to attack Kismayu as the Ugandan air wing was earmarked to lead the air strikes, with the Kenyan contingent facilitating the naval assault — as both contingents move ground troops to squeeze the Al Shabaab.

Military sources said the assault on Kismayu may be postponed. The commanders were yesterday called back to Nairobi for a meeting expected to start at the weekend.

Amisom spokesperson Mr Eloi Yao on Monday said he was not in position to comment about the mishap and the plans for Kismayu.

The choppers are part of the six aircraft the Ugandan Ministry of Defence, under President Museveni’s directive in early 2011, bought for a reported $400 million without parliamentary approval. The whole transaction cost a total of $74m.