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The accident scene in the Kruger National Park. Photo: Netwerk24

Kruger helicopter crash investigation reveals training and skills shortfalls

Date: 19 June 2016

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The official accident report into the March 2013 SA Air Force (SAAF) A109 helicopter crash in the Kruger National Park points to training and skills shortfalls as being contributing factors to the death of five people, including the flight crew.

Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport was supplied with a copy of the accident report a year after it submitted an application for it in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

“The report makes numerous mentions of shortcomings in both training and flying skills of the pilot and flight engineer but no blame is apportioned,” according to the paper which adds that it, according to helicopter pilots and operators, conceals the truth more than it reveals what actually happened.

Rapport quotes an unnamed SAAF pilot who is also an instructor as asking: “Yes Captain Phil Chabalala (the pilot) flew into the ground but who placed him in the position where he made an incorrect decision under the circumstances at the time of the flight?”

SAAF investigators found that the flight crew (Chabalala and flight engineer Sergeant Gene Ruiters) were not experienced enough to undertake a low-level night flight with passengers. The passengers were Captain Jakes van Rensburg and Sergeant Paulus Ndishishi of 5 Special Forces Regiment and medical orderly Lance corporal Bheki Petros Cele. They boarded the helicopter after being part of an anti-rhino poaching operation.

All five died when the helicopter crashed shortly after take-off in the iconic game reserve which is a favoured destination of rhino poachers.

Rapport reports that both Chabalala and Ruiters were “qualified” but there were shortcomings in their training to fly the A109 light utility helicopter and that a NightSun light was used to illuminate the area at take-off. The flight crew had apparently not been fully instructed in its use including that sudden switching off of the powerful light can cause disorientation.

“Chabalala’s IQ was sufficient for him to function as a pilot but his emotion quotient, which influences decision making, was lacking. This was repeatedly brought to the fore during his SAAF career but nothing was done about it,” the paper reports adding the SANDF does not have emotion quotient measurement tools nor does it use them to establish whether people are emotionally stable enough to perform work allocated to them.

The rotary-winged aircraft that crashed in Kruger had a history of technical problems and Chabalala could have refused to fly it. This was in addition to the flight crew having exceeded allowable flight hours at the time of the crash.

“The investigating team make a number of recommendations on how each department of the air force can implement measures to prevent further similar crashes. The team also found that Chabalala was medically unfit to fly when the crash happened and this was overlooked by the SA Military Health Service,” the paper said adding “no disciplinary steps would be taken against anyone involved”.

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