SANDF’s black week

2013-04-01 00:00

SOLDIERS fighting rhino poaching in the Kruger Park had to watch as a helicopter carrying their colleagues crashed and exploded on Saturday evening.

The aircraft had just been refuelled and the crew had picked up three reconnaissance soldiers from the 5 Special Forces Regiment at Phalaborwa

The three had been following up information in preparation for an operation planned for yesterday.

Earlier on Saturday, a poacher was wounded in a firefight with soldiers and SanParks game rangers about 20 km away.

The accident happened just after 7 pm, a few kilometres from the Oliphants camp, just after the pilot took off with the help of the landing strip lights, circled and flew in the direction of the main Skukuza camp.

Helicopter experts said that that time of the evening is the most difficult and dangerous to fly at in a place like a game park, with few lights to help navigate.

The pilot was apparently disoriented in the darkness and misjudged his position relative to the ground. He hit the ground minutes after takeoff and the aircraft broke into pieces and exploded.

There were no hills, rises or power lines he could have flown into.

Experts said the game park can be “frighteningly dark” to fly in.

It is even more dangerous if the pilot has no co-pilot to help and advise him.

The crew and soldiers had finished their work for the day and were flying to their camp just two kilometres away.

Pieces of the chopper lay over an area of about 50 metres. Both doors had been ripped off, and the rotors had sheared the tops off trees.

Hundreds of bullets and a firearm with a bent barrel lay among the debris.

Darkness, fatigue and the tension of high-intensity operations against poachers all apparently contributed to the accident.

The dead were named as: Captain Phil Tshabalala (pilot), flight engineer Ruiters (no first name given), Captain Jakes Janse van Rensburg, Sergeant P.M. Nidishishi and Lance Corporal. B.P. Cele.

Tshabalala and Ruiters were from the 15 Squadron based in Durban, but no further information about their families was released by the SANDF yesterday.

The troops were all seconded to Operation Rhino.

The helicopter was an Agusta 109, one of the 30 the SANDF acquired in the controversial arms deal. It was the fourth to be destroyed in an accident.

Tshabalala qualified as a airforce pilot in 2010, while Ruiters reportedly qualified just two weeks ago as a flight engineer.

The weekend’s accident was the third tragedy to hit the SANDF in a week, after 13 soldiers were killed while serving in Bangui, Central African Republic, and the Infantry’s offices at army headquarters burned down.

President Jacob Zuma sent his condolences to the men’s families.

Pikkie Greef of the SA National Defence Union commented: “These deaths represent one of the blackest weeks in SA military history.”

The army said in a statement a preliminary investigation into the crash was already under way.

A task team from the police and an accident investigation team from the airforce’s Hoedspruit base were on scene yesterday.

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