KZN pilot dies in fiery crash

2015-04-11 00:00

A KWAZULU-NATAL pilot who died when his helicopter crashed in a remote part of Zambia, had always dreamt of being a pilot, his mum has said.

Michael O’Donnell (41) was a captain in the South African ­Police Airwing based in Durban.

He was expected to arrive home yesterday.

O’Donnell was doing private work for a Canadian mapping firm, Geotech, when his ­six-seater Eurocopter B3 ­Squirrel crashed in the southern Zambian area of Mazabuka at midday on Thursday.

“He was a top-notch man,” said his mother Nancy ­O’Donnell yesterday.

“Since a little boy he dreamt of flying planes. He would draw them and buy them (models/toys) and always had his head in a book. He was a clever man who was very safety-conscious,” she said.

O’Donnell schooled at ­Penzance Primary, Durban, and then George Campbell Technical School before joining the airforce and later the SAPS.

“He was very technical. He spent nearly a decade in the South African Air Force, where he attained the rank of major,” his mother said.

She said her son flew former president Nelson Mandela and several senior government ­ministers during his career, while he had also worked for the Red Cross.

O’Donnell’s partner, Adell Sunker, said he was “analytical and thorough”.

“Michael checked the helicopter thoroughly before he flew it. He has been known to ground aircraft in the past if he felt they weren’t safe. He knew he always wanted to get home to me and our 14-month-old son, Michael Conner. He was so finicky about safety. We expected him home today (Friday),” said Sunker.

According to eye-witness ­accounts and local Zambian ­media, O’Donnell was en route from Lusaka to Ndola when he crashed.

Guy Robinson, a trustee of the Zambia National Farmers’ Union and on whose farm the aircraft crashed, said his ­employees watched the aircraft “swirl” in the air.

Speaking to Weekend ­Witness, Robinson said he ­arrived at the crash scene ­moments after the helicopter plummeted to the ground.

“I didn’t see it hit the deck, but my men in the vicinity did. They explained it was swinging in the air and began tumbling while flames shot out of the ­pivot rotor.”

He said he was among those who first arrived on the scene with fire extinguishers, but the “flames were too hot” to get close to the crash site.

“Eventually our water cart ­arrived and we managed to put out the flames.”

Robinson said an experienced pilot in the area believes the main rotor had stopped moving before the aircraft crashed, but authorities have yet to confirm the cause.

He said Zambian Air Force personnel had removed the body.

Geotech said in a statement that the crash resulted in the “complete loss of the aircraft and the death of the pilot”.

“The Zambian Department of Civil Aviation is investigating the accident in conjunction with the South African Civil Aviation Authority. Geotech Aviation wishes to express condolences and prayers for the victim’s ­family and friends.”

O’Donnell’s family said a funeral date would be announced once his body was repatriated.

Yesterday, several members of the police and emergency services held an informal memorial service at the SAPS Airwing base in Durban.

Durban-based Chris Botha of Netcare911 said: “We flew on a lot of missions together and worked very closely. I knew him very well. I had the utmost ­respect for him as a pilot. I will miss him tremendously. His skills were brilliant.”

The head of Pietermaritzburg’s K9 and Search and Rescue Unit, Lieutenant Jack Haskins, said: “We did body recovery together in the mountains and rivers. He was very safety-conscious and he was a top bloke. It is absolutely shocking what happened.”

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