Monday, March 8, 2021

Police helicopter crash- the plot thickens

Fresh information passed to the Sunday Standard revealed how Botswana Police Service (BPS) consistently violated flight safety laws and regulations leading to the fatal crash of helicopter BPS02 in the Okavango Delta on April 23rd, killing all crew members on board. Two industry experts revealed how Botswana police Service pilots fly service helicopters at night without the requisite safety equipment and training in violation of flight safety standard.

An industry expert qualified in flying both helicopters and aeroplanes with over 7000 fighting hours flying experience and another who is close to the preliminary investigations revealed how the pilot who was on her first flight after being grounded for three months following a flight accident, lost her bearings and became disorientated on the night of April 23rdbecause it was completely dark in the Delta. “It was like a blind crew flying a helicopter”, the experts said explain the blinding darkness that may have resulted in the helicopter crash that killed Superintendent Keokeditswe Sobatha, Assistant Superintendent Shepherd Ntobedzi and Inspector Ricardo Mabotho. The first expert explained that in Botswana pilots cannot fly at nigh unless they fly under night visual flight rules (VFR) with the assistance of light from streets lights or full moon.

“Visual flight rules (VFR) are a set of regulations under which a pilot operates an aircraft in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going,” he explained adding that “in Botswana you are not allowed to fly under night visual flight rules (VFR). But we know that the Police have been flying at night over Gaborone. That is because they are assisted by the city lights and light from the full moon which help orientate the pilot flying the aircraft.”

The expert noted that a night flight where there are no street lights or full moon should be conducted under instrument flight rules (IFR), which are regulations and protocols for flying an aircraft relying solely on the instrument panel inside the cockpit for navigation. “The difference is that under visual flight rules (VFR) you are limited to day operations or you can do that during the night where there are city lights or full moon and you fly by reference to outside visual cues (horizon, and buildings) which permit navigation, orientation whereas under instrument flight rules (IFR), outside visual reference is not safe and the pilot flies with reference to flight instrument which provides the correct orientation,” he said.

He said to fly a police or military helicopter at night in Botswana, the pilot has to do that under instrument flight rules (IFR) and to be qualified for that, the pilot needs a specific licence which also requires regular testing to maintain proficiency. Both BDF and BPS pilots do not have the licence. The expert said flying between Gumare and Maun should be conducted by a pilot who has an IFR-equivalent level of instrument flying proficiency and in an aircraft that is equipped to a standard similar to that required under IFR and regular testing is required. The expert said military and police pilots are not IFR rated pilots. “They do not have the skills to fly at night and it is illegal for them to do that. Conditions that prevail between the Gumare and Maun route were perfect for the accident to occur because there is no sufficient light from the ground and the pilot was not able to determine the horizon,” he said referring to suggestions that the pilot lost control of the aircraft as she got disoriented due to darkness.

“Without lights from the ground or full moon you become disoriented and you can suffer what is called black hole effect; meaning that everything becomes dark on campus,” said the expert. He added that once a pilot loses reference of the aircraft and altitude, chances of survival of those on board becomes slim. “There is likelihood that the crew was operating under IFR conditions with no suitable reference to the horizons and therefore got disoriented and they lost control of the helicopter,” he said. He said, ordinarily, pilots flying at night would fly with reference to the flight instrument which “would correct orientation.” He also added that police pilots are not trained to fly under such conditions (dark night) citing the Gumare and Maun route as an example.

“The route between Gumare and Maun created a perfect condition for the accident because on the night the accident occurred there was no full moon, no artificial light to assist the crew, there was also low level of proficiency in flying instruments, hence the pilot got disoriented,” said the expert.

“They became disoriented and the fact that the aircraft operates at low level meant that they had insufficient altitude to regain control. If you are not proficient in instrument flying, your ability to reference several pieces of flight information becomes limited and an accident occurs easily,” said the expert. The other expert added that the helicopter was not equipped with an autopilot which could have assisted the pilot when she got disoriented. He said Gaborone radar footage indicates that the crashed helicopter allegedly made a U-turn before it went out of the radar coverage, as it was flying low suggesting that this was the time the pilot got disoriented.

“From my observation the aircraft entered unintended descent when the pilot made a u-turn, the pilot became disorientated and eventually impacted the ground at high speed,” he said. He also claimed that the pilot had been “grounded for three months” following another incident in which she lost control of the helicopter in Kang village. Botswana Police Service spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner Christopher Mbulawa declined to discuss the matter in details saying “Investigations have commenced and we should not be seen to be interfering with them. So these questions should be left to the investigation team.”


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