The machine that never wants to fly


Helicopter: The machine that never wants to fly

Internal Security Assistant Minister Orwa Ojode and his boss Prof George Saitoti in a public function in Baragoi, Samburu North. Both died in a helicopter crash in Ngong on Sunday. Photo/FILE

Internal Security Assistant Minister Orwa Ojode and his boss Prof George Saitoti in a public function in Baragoi, Samburu North. Both died in a helicopter crash in Ngong on Sunday. Photo/FILE

By NYAMBEGA GISESA and JACOB NGETICH Ngisesa@ke.nationmedia.com and jngetich@ke.nationmedia.com
Posted  Friday, June 15  2012 at  00:00

The website howstuffworks.com can easily discourage the lily-livered from ever boarding a helicopter.

“One thing that has characterised the helicopter since its invention in the 1930s has been the absurdity of the machine. The contraption simply looks unable to deliver on its promise, which is to fly up and down, backward and forward, right and left,” it is written on the website.

According to the on-line information resource, “the famous US broadcast journalist Harry Reasoner discussed this apparent paradox in a 1971 commentary he delivered about the use of helicopters in the Vietnam conflict.”

Of the machine, a type of which killed Internal Security Minister Prof George Saitoti, his Assistant Minister Orwa Ojode, pilots Nancy Gituanja and Luke Oyugi and bodyguards Thomas Murimi and Joshua Tonkei on Sunday, the broadcaster had an interesting observation.

“An airplane by its nature wants to fly. … A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.” Scary.

Reasoner, writes the website, “laid bare the fundamental reality of helicopters — that the machines have complex designs and that flying them is extraordinarily complicated. The pilot has to think in three dimensions and must use both arms and both legs constantly to keep a helicopter in the air. Piloting a helicopter requires a great deal of training and skill, as well as continuous attention to the machine.”

Retired Kenya Air Force pilot, Capt John Kioko, agrees that while a fixed-wing plane can glide, reducing fatalities, a helicopter falls like a stone from the sky.

Helicopters are unable to operate in extreme bad weather conditions and are said to be more dangerous at night, which is why during the NO and Yes campaigns for the new constitution, a pilot refused to fly a Cabinet Minister back to Nairobi.

She had extended a meeting to 6.30pm. In April this year, a hiker on Mt Kenya died when a Lady Lori helicopter dispatched to rescue him failed to fly up the mountain due to bad weather.

Since the first helicopter flew in Kenya, there have been numerous fatal accidents involving civilian and military helicopters blamed on various reasons and, according to the American Space Agency, NASA, helicopters crash 10 times more than other types of aircraft.

On July 27, 1996, the Eastern Provincial Commissioner Ishmael Chelang’a, Rift Valley Provincial Information Officer Kaetuai Katampoi and other senior civil servants died in a chopper crash in Marsabit. An inquiry found out that the aircraft had not been properly serviced.

On January 4, 2002, six Kenya Air Force men were killed when their helicopter, a French-made Puma, ploughed into a clump of trees and burst into flames, Salama, Makueni.

Its pilot Capt Habakkuk Okello succumbed to severe burns 48 hours later.

On April 8, 2004, five senior executives including then Nation Media Group CEO, Mr Wilfred Kiboro, and Safaricom CEO, Mr Michael Joseph, and their pilot, Capt Nyanjui escaped unhurt when their helicopter dropped from the sky shortly after takeoff.

On the flight were also KenGen’s managing director Eddie Njoroge, KWS chairman Colin Church and KWS Managing Director Evans Mukolwe who were also unhurt.

One-time Vice President Moody Awori survived a chopper mishap on June 26, 2004. A year later, a military chopper carrying him failed to take off after a function in Kapenguria.

Captain Nyanjui would be involved in another chopper accident in December 2007, this time alone when his chopper developed electrical problems and crashed in Mt Kenya.

He was rescued a week later having survived on leaves. He vowed to keep on flying. Calls to get have his take on helicopters went unanswered.

In September 2008, a helicopter carrying three tourists went down in Mount Kenya, killing one of them.

On May 11, 2009, a Russian- made police chopper ferrying Police Commissioner Major General Hussein Ali and Mr Orwa Ojodeh lost power and plunged into a field in Kapsabet.

Two years later, Cabinet ministers Franklin Bett and Noah Wekesa narrowly escaped death when their helicopter crash-landed in Keiyo on December 17, 2011.

In October 2011 a military chopper crashed during takeoff at Liboi killing all the five on board at the start of Operation Linda Nchi.

Despite the growing list of helicopter accidents, the aircraft is increasingly being used by Kenyan politicians and business executives because of its ability to land in remote places without airstrips.

Before 2002, the use of government helicopters was strictly limited to President Daniel Moi and powerful politicians.

Even in the neighbouring Uganda not many people own helicopters.

In a June 2011 advertisement Kampala’s largest charter company, Kampala AeroClub, highlighted one of its achievements as the registering of Uganda’s only commercially available helicopter.

“The cost of hiring a helicopter has increased to over 500 per cent in the last five years,” Capt Thomas Samoei, a former air force pilot with over 27 years flying experiences, says.

Compared to fixed wing aircraft, helicopters are much more expensive to buy, run and maintain.

A helicopter, according to Cpt Samoei, consumes about 150 to 160 litres of jet A-1 fuel at a cost of Sh82 per litre in an hour.

That would be Sh12,000 to Sh13,000 an hour. However, bigger choppers, such as the ones used by the police can consume up to 1,000 litres per hour — Sh82,000 in last year’s fuel prices.

One Eurocopter model consumes 160 to 190 litres per hour of jet fuel meaning that if it is air-borne for five hours, one parts with close to Sh100, 000 for fuel alone.

The costs are much lower for fixed-wing machines. A six-seater Cessna U206 uses about 240 litres of Jet A1 fuel to fly from Wilson Airport to Turkana, which is about Sh20,000.

It costs about Sh160,000 per month to keep a helicopter at a hangar in Wilson Airport, Nairobi, while insurance ranges from Sh6million to Sh10million depen

A chopper pilot is paid Sh8500 (100 dollars) per hour’s flight while to hire a chopper at Wilson Airport costs anything between Sh40,000  and Sh150, 000 per hour depending on how far you are travelling.

At night or in peak seasons, the costs can rise to about Sh200,000 per hour.

Never mind the cost. Helicopters are now common place in rural Kenya, the commonest being the Eurocopter or Bell makes.

During the burial of the father of Mr Ojodeh politicians and other high ranking government officials arrived in 12 helicopters.

Retired politician Simeon Nyachae owns the more advanced and pricier Eurocopter AS350B3, popular with air forces.

This model is renowned for its reliability and is on record as having been the first helicopter to land on Mount Everest.

Mr Nyachae’s Aircraft Leasing Services operates two helicopters, a Eurocopter AS350B2 and a Eurocopter AS350B3, both manufactured in 1999.

Mr Uhuru Kenyatta regularly uses two choppers but his spokesman, Munyori, could not confirm who owns them.

Gatanga MP Peter Kenneth uses two Bell 407 helicopters branded PK1 and PK2 while Mathira MP Ephraim Maina owns a Bell 206B (4638) chopper registration number 5Y-MNW which was manufactured in 2006.

Acting KANU chairman and son of former president Daniel Moi reportedly owns three helicopters through Sicham Aviation.

Kilome MP John Harun Mwau and Juja Mp William Kabogo are also regular helicopter users giving rise to speculation that they own the  machines as does Siakago MP Lenny Kivuti.

Lady Lori is East Africa’s largest executive helicopter operator with a fleet of modern turbine-engined Eurocopters.

The fleet has previously been used to fly royal families, heads of state, and chief executives of major corporations and celebrities.

The Kenyan military operates various types of helicopters among them the gunships YY and Chinese  Z-9s which are being used in the fight against the Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

As of July 2011, the Kenya Police Air Wing owned eight helicopters five of which were unserviceable.

To acquire and assemble a Eurocopter in Kenya costs about Sh300 million. All helicopters are imported as knocked down kits and then assembled.

The Eurocopter, which is designed for external load operations, filming, scenic flights and VIP transportation, can remain in the air for over four hours.

It carries loads of up to 1,000kg with a performance ceiling of up to 20,000 feeding on the cost and the capacity of the chopper.

Parking costs Sh800 a night at Wilson Airport where the navigation fee is Sh1,600 and landing Sh800.

It’s also much more expensive to train and pay a chopper pilot than a fixed-wing aircraft one.

“Choppers are also more difficult to fly as compared to fixed wing planes,” says retired Kenya Air Force pilot Captain John Kioko.

The Schweizer model 300C, which is mostly used at Wilson Airport for training is reputed to be one of the finest and most versatile piston engine helicopters.

Last year, Nicholas Muhoya of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority said that his department examines a  craft’s history, general airworthiness, maintenance serviceability and equipment such as life-limited parts before issuing a certificate of airworthiness, which goes for about Sh25, 500.

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Posted on June 14, 2012, in Categorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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