There are renewed accusations of corruption in the purchase and maintenance of Kenya Police Mi-17 helicopters after the Police Commissioner, several high ranking civil servants and an assistant minister miraculously survived a crash.
The mid-day accident occurred when one of the Mi-17s hit overhead electricity cables soon after taking off from the Kipchoge Keino Stadium at Kapsabet. Police Commissioner Mohammed Hussein Ali, Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Hassan Noor Hassan and Internal Security Assistant Minister Orwa Ojode were in the helicopter but walked out with minor injuries.
Internal Security Minister George Saitoti was in another helicopter and was not affected by the crash.
Several journalists accompanying the security team happened to be in the crashed helicopter and were evacuated for medical treatment.
A Kenya Police pilot later told Classic 105 radio that the helicopter hit electricity lines because it could not rise fast enough in the high-altitude Kapsabet area. “The air density at Kabarnet is low because of the high altitude and we could not rise quickly to avoid the cables,” said the pilot.
The Mi-17 lost its tail rotor in the incident. Despite the lack of fatalities, the crashed helicopter is unlikely to return to the air.
National security officials and the press were in Kapsabet to inspect police stations and to reinforce reconciliation efforts in the area. The Rift Valley province was hardest hit by ethnic clashes during the 2008 near civil war in Kenya. Sporadic clashes continue in parts of the province amidst fears of fresh violence in future.
The Kenya Police acquired a fleet of Mi-17s from the former Soviet Union soon after President Mwai Kibaki came into office in 2003. There was heavy criticism of the police for acquiring second hand helicopters from shadowy supply companies.
The Kenya Police defended itself, saying that it needed aerial patrol capabilities in order to combat crime. However, aviation analysts say that the Mi-17 is too big for patrol duty. A typical Mi-17 such as one that crashed yesterday can carry upto 30 passengers. It can also be configured as a cargo transport.
Aviators say the Kenya Police would have been better off with a smaller helicopter such as the Hughes 500 operated by the Kenya Army. Though carrying only a small crew, the Hughes helicopter is extremely maneouvrable and can be fitted with an assortment of weapons.
The Kenya Police has also been criticized for over-using the Mi-17s despite their size and age. The helicopters have been flying the President and other politicians currently criss-crossing the country in premature campaigns for the 2012 elections.
The Mi-17s resumed service just last year after they were grounded for lack of maintenance. The overhaul of the helicopters was marked by controversy after a company with little name recognition won the contract.