Monday, May 20, 2024

‘Khama endangers his own life by flying planes’

On the face of it, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Botswana Democratic Party Secretary General, Mpho Balopi, revealing a private arrangement between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, but there really is.

“At this point in time, President Khama has requested use of a government plane under the control of President Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi to go somewhere,” said Balopi when addressing a press conference last Tuesday. “He [Masisi] has released the plane with no quibbles to enable him to fly where he wants.”

The issue of Khama and government aircraft is not that he is not allowed to use it because one of his last legislative acts as presidents was to fatten up the Presidents Pension and Retirement Benefits Act such that a former president got entitlement to all modes of government transportation. As a matter of fact, Masisi would be breaking the law if he denies Khama (or Festus Mogae for that matter) use of government aircraft. The issue is that for both legal and practical reasons, Khama, who learnt to fly planes when he trained as a platoon commander at the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (commonly known simply as Sandhurst) in the United Kingdom, should not be personally flying such aircraft. 

The legal perspective has been dealt with in an Ombudsman report that was produced close to two decades ago. When then Vice President Khama started flying around in BDF helicopters, Ombudsman Lithebe Maine became sufficiently concerned to carry out an investigation of his own volition. He also investigated a complaint by the Botswana Congress Party that senior civil servants had accompanied Khama at a Botswana Democratic Party political rally. The investigation experienced its own internal problems because Khama was not willing to cooperate, forcing Mogae to intercede for Maine. The intercession came after Maine had told Mogae in a private meeting that Khama’s lack of cooperation left him with no option but to subpoena him ÔÇô something which the Ombudsman Act explicitly authorises.

With precise regard to flying BDF aircraft, the report said that Mogae had authorised Khama to do so. As a lawyer, Maine could have stated in very clear terms that the BDF Act prohibited that but Khama was this larger-than-life figure whom all civil servants feared. What he said instead said was that Mogae should tell Khama that flying BDF aircraft could create complications down the road because the latter was no longer a member of the BDF. Khama would continue flying BDF aircraft for the rest of Mogae’s presidential term and was obviously never going to stop when he ascended the presidency. Eager to carve his own legacy, Masisi, who is BDF’s Commander-in-Chief, disinherited this problem last month when the head of the air arm notified pilots that Khama should no longer fly BDF aircraft.

Received wisdom that refuses to engage with what the BDF Act prescribes has excoriated the new president for publicly humiliating Khama but facts speak otherwise. Some have suggested that the fact that communicating the message in question via BDF crew members could point to the fact that Khama ignored what Masisi personally told him about flying BDF aircraft.

The practical reason is more troubling and for the first time ever, is being given by people with personal experience of Khama’s piloting. Each time a new model of aircraft is introduced, BDF pilots have to undergo training (called “conversion”) which can take as long as three months. A source with army piloting experience says that each type and model of aircraft has its own unique systems and handling characteristics which pilots have to familiarise themselves with. Conversion entails learning about the airframe (for example, what the new aircraft is made of and how it reacts to heat and cold) as well as its avionics, fuel and mechanical systems and limitations.

“Aircraft functions may be the same but a new one will have entirely new systems that pilots have to learn,” says another army source, adding that “the bigger the machine, the more complex its systems are and the need to learn such complexity. A pilot has to be competent and remain current by pilot continuation training with emphasis on handling emergencies.” 

Army aircraft perform many tasks and are variously configured in order that they can execute such tasks. Through conversion exercises, pilots carry out exercises of what they may be required to do in real life ÔÇô like transporting troops or equipment to a battlefield or transporting VIPs or landing on an airstrip with no tarmac or landing between hills ÔÇô as say in Shoshong where BDF has a base. The source says that handling the aircraft differs markedly from task to task and that the practice sessions are as repetitive as would be necessary to make pilots highly efficient.

“It is a very tactical operation and if you haven’t undergone conversion, there is a very high possibility of exposing treasure and blood,” says the source, referring by the latter, to the risk of loss of aircraft and life.

He then introduces into the discussion an aviation term – “flight envelopes”, which means capabilities of aircraft design in terms of airspeed and load factor or altitude. The sources indicate that there many flight envelopes and that each has unique characteristics. In terms of altitude, the higher you go, the thinner the air becomes and the lesser the atmospheric pressure and temperature get. This particular envelope requires a pilot to handle the plane differently at different elevations, altitudes, temperatures and weights.

Sandhurst is an excellent academy but even its graduates have to undergo conversion. The problem with Khama, sources say, is that he has never undergone conversion but merely received the most basic instruction from those who had. By way of example, a source who was in the air-arm when Khama was BDF commander, says that he would do “low-level flying to Lobatse or Jwaneng and learn how to take off and land” under the guidance of an instructor. Actually there are many more stages in flying: taking off, climbing to desired altitude, levelling off, cruising, descending and landing. In the context of conversion, each stage requires hours upon hours of practice. 

After President Sir Ketumile Masire’s presidential jet was shot down over Angola in 1988, the government bought a replacement (a Gulfstream 4 jet) that Khama couldn’t resist. Then air-arm commander and future BDF commander, Tebogo Masire, who also happens to be Masire’s nephew, is said to have asked Khama to undergo conversion at the FlightSafety International in the United States of he wanted to continue flying the presidential jet. He didn’t go but stopped flying the jet.

For someone who cuts corners, Khama should be able to bury his head in a book for hours but the former president has publicly owned up to not being a deep reader. New aircraft comes with book-long technical log books, flight manuals and performance charts which Khama never read – probably still doesn’t read. In his army days, he would reportedly explain away this discrepancy by saying that “reading is a waste of time because the manual is more complicated than actually flying an aeroplane.” In this way, he denies himself knowledge from two very important aviation sources: conversion and manuals.

It cannot be a mystery how good a pilot someone who foregoes all that important education and training would be. A while back, the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Thapelo Olopeng, revealed the open secret that, even in the army, Khama always wanted to be number one. Despite the fact that he skipped conversion and didn’t read manuals, Khama would be the captain (the boss) when he got in the cockpit while those who had done the exact opposite would be co-pilots (assistants). It is alleged that his lack of knowledge would be apparent in all flying stages.

Every aircraft takes off into the wind and to that end, windsocks (the orange-and-white conical textile tubes used at airports to indicate the direction and strength of the wind to pilots) play a very critical role. Pilots position their aircraft in such manner that they take off into the wind. A source with very good knowledge of Khama’s army piloting says that his take-off wouldn’t be constrained by this very basic aviation rule and that such action compromised what is technically called “critical wind azimuth” – maintaining steady flight with a crosswind. While some pilots are said to have complained that Khama was putting their lives at risk (one is supposed to have said “this man will kill me” after a hair-raising practice flight), the issue was never escalated all the way up because the person being complained about happened to be at the very top of BDF’s high command.

Khama is said to have done as poorly as a pilot in 1993 when he led a contingent of BDF soldiers on a United Nations mission to provide humanitarian relief and help restore order in Somalia. This followed the country’s civil war and dissolution of the central government. The country was still in turmoil but lacking tactical skills of handling aircraft in a war zone, Khama did, according to a source “fly as if he was in Gaborone.” Naturally, his passengers (soldiers) would get extremely worried but knew better than to raise any complaint.

However, what pilots fear the most is that if there is a mid-air emergency, Khama’s lack of knowledge about aircraft that he insists on being captain of, means that he wouldn’t be able to competently execute a series of elaborate and highly complex protocols to avert disaster. A source adds that in aviation, a split-second can mean the difference between life and death which is why through processes such as conversion, nothing is left to chance. According to the source, “a pilot’s competence is measured by his ability to handle emergencies and you cannot handle an emergency situation in a plane whose systems you don’t fully understand.”

Before a plane takes off, the captain (not the co-pilot) inspects it and signs an engineer-prepared technical log that attests to the plane’s airworthiness. By signing this log, the captain agrees with the technical staff that the plane is airworthy. Another important document is the flight authorization log which captains (not co-pilots) sign to accept and agree to carry out the authorised flight profile. When the plane is back on the ground, the captain (not the co-pilot) inspects the plane once more and signs off with “D.C.O.” which stands for “duty carried out.”

An army source says that while he insisted on being a pilot, Khama would sign neither the technical log nor the authorization log, instead delegating such role to the co-pilot.

“This means that when there is an accident, the responsibility would lie not with him but with the co-pilot,” a source says.

All these aviation standards (“air staff instructions” as they are called) are developed in accordance with the BDF Act. In essence, failing to comply with them constitutes contravention of the Act.

The BDF memo means that Khama will no longer be able to fly BDF aircraft but the problem persists because he has not undergone conversion for the plane that Masisi lent him. By flying this and other aircraft, Khama is putting his own life (as well as the lives of crew members) at grave risk.

For all his love of flying, Khama never touches fighter jets because they reportedly give him the jitters. Once when he had to rush for an emergency appointment, he was flown in a jet that could cover the distance to the destination in the blink of an eye. He is said to have given very strict instructions to the pilot to not make the spectacular maneuvers that the public is treated to on BDF Day.


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