Deadly GDF helicopter crash: GCAA, Police will lead investigation – Chief of Staff

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GDF Chief of Staff Brigadier Omar Khan (centre) surrounded by Air Corps Commander Lieutenant Colonel Mohinder Ramjag; Operations Officer Lt Col Andy Pompey, and Force Medical Officer Lt Col Nigel Langhorne, at the press conference on Saturday

…flight diverted; helicopter suffered significant damage

The Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and the Guyana Police Force (GPF) are taking charge of the inquiry into the devastating helicopter crash that claimed the lives of five servicemen.

Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Chief of Staff, Brigadier Omar Khan during a press conference on Saturday at Base Camp Ayanganna, Georgetown, said the investigation has entered a new phase outside the Guyana Defence Force’s (GDF) jurisdiction.

“We have now entered the investigation phase, and the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority and the Guyana Police Force will be conducting their inquiry,” Brigadier Khan said.

The victims of the crash are Retired Brigadier Gary Beaton; Lieutenant Colonel Michael Shahoud; Lieutenant Colonel Sean Welcome; Lieutenant Colonel Michael Charles and Sergeant Jason Khan.

Only two soldiers survived the crash – Corporal Dwayne Jackson and Lieutenant Andio Crawford.

Brigadier Khan emphasised the necessity for official investigations and disclosed that both external entities and the GDF itself, through a Board of Inquiry, would conduct reviews. He expressed a commitment to transparency, stating, “As much as you are concerned, the GDF is concerned. We don’t want something like this to happen again.”

Significant damage

Regarding the extraction of the crashed helicopter, Brigadier Khan could not provide a definite timeline but assured that a decision would be made soon.

Air Corps Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mohinder Ramjag reported that the Bell 412 helicopter, with registration 8R-AYA, suffered significant damage, particularly in the fuselage, with only a few remaining pieces.

He said the aircraft left GDF Headquarters, Camp Ayanganna at 09:24h on Wednesday and travelled 144 miles to Olive Creek where it arrived at 10:27h. After refuelling, the helicopter departed at 10:58h for a 58-mile journey to Arau; contact was lost with the aircraft, and an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) alert was received at about 11:19h.
The GDF said the chopper was on a command trip to Arau, Macapa, and Eteringbang, as part of Guyana’s response to an “imminent threat to our territory”.

The specified helicopter possesses an unladen weight of 3207kg, an internal payload capacity of 2190kg, a maximum total weight of 5398kg, and a cargo hook capability of 2041kg. Featuring an aluminium alloy fuselage with a cargo area measuring 6.8m³, its cabin offers a volume of 6.2m³. Operated by a lone pilot, it can comfortably seat up to 13 individuals.

Ramjag said the aircraft, which had three crew members and four passengers, had a maximum take-off weight of 11,900 pounds, stating “We were way below our max take-off weight for this light.”

Well equipped

It was additionally disclosed that the Bell 412 Epi helicopter had a system designed to warn the pilot of obstacles ahead, enabling them to take evasive measures. However, according to Air Corps Commander Lieutenant, Colonel Mohinder Ramjag, only the aircraft’s black box holds the potential to offer insights into this capability.

“Yes, there are devices – Terrain Awareness Warning System (TAWS) and so forth. These are aids or devices – the aircraft is so equipped with this,” he told a news conference.

He further mentioned that the Cockpit Voice Flight Data Recorder (CVFDR), commonly referred to as a black box, holds information about the events leading up to the incident. The CVFDR will be dispatched to the United States for a thorough analysis of voice-recorded communications and other aspects of the aircraft’s operations, including altitude.

Addressing queries regarding whether the Terrain Awareness Warning System (TAWS) had notified the pilot about the terrain and if the crash resulted from an external explosion, he stated that once scrutinised, the examination of the CVFDR will provide answers to the questions raised.

Flight track

Ramjag illustrated that the aircraft tracking shows that the helicopter, bearing registration marking 8R-AYA, diverted from one of its intended destinations, but there was no immediate idea why that was done.

“If you are familiar with the way pilots fly, the ideal route is the direct routing. However, on this day, the pilot deviated to the north and that could be for many reasons, and contact was lost in the vicinity of the Blake Slater aerodrome,” he said.

The two survivors and bodies of the five deceased were on Friday hoisted by the other GDF Bell 412 Epi helicopter, bearing registration marking 8R-MIA. The surviving soldiers were left stranded in the forest for two days after the horrific helicopter crash that took the lives of the five other ranks.

“They were all winched out of the crash site, flown to Blake Slater airstrip, and then transported to Georgetown with the GDF (Britten Norman) Islander and SkyVan,” Operations Officer, Lt Col Andy Pompey said.

The crash site, pinpointed about nine miles southeast of “Blake Slater’s” airstrip, Ekereku Top, Cuyuni River, was officially confirmed on Thursday.

A medical team managed to reach the site on Thursday and stayed overnight to monitor the survivors, since extraction was hindered by weather conditions in the area. They were eventually flown to the Blake Slater aerodrome on Friday and later transported to the city hospital, where they underwent extensive medical examinations.

Draped with The Golden Arrowhead, the caskets carrying Brigadier (Ret’d) Gary Beaton, Colonel Michael Shahoud, Lieutenant Colonel Sean Welcome, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Charles, and Staff Sergeant Jason Khan, were taken from a GDF Skyvan at Eugene F Correia International Airport, Ogle, by their comrades and transported to awaiting hearses.

Their families along with President Dr Irfaan Ali broke down in tears as the bodies were being transported by military pallbearers. Each of their names was announced as their bodies were removed from the Skyvan.

Good health

Following the removal of the bodies, Force Medical Officer, Lt Col Nigel Langhorne, who was among the first responders to see the injured servicemen shortly after they were rescued from the dense jungle, said they were assessed and are in good health.

“From the inception, there was an indication that they were in good medical condition. On further examination at the Georgetown Public Hospital, we were able to confirm what is going on with them and I’m happy to report that there was no injury of significance. They are all in good medical condition,” he said. Langhorne said the injured were being supported by their families.

De-briefed

Now that the medical examinations have confirmed that the two servicemen are in good medical condition, the Chief of Staff said they would be de-briefed by investigators.
He also disclosed that collaborations are underway with the families of the deceased for funeral and other arrangements, and it will be announced in a matter of days.

Regroup

Meanwhile, at the press conference on Saturday, Chief of Staff Khan said even with the Force in a state of mourning, they will regroup and continue to conduct operations amid border tensions as Guyana battles increasing aggression from its western neighbour, Venezuela.

“While this tragedy of the incident has hit us hard… expect us to regroup and declare to continue with the mission of protecting our country. This is the life of the military we join. We train and we live to serve selflessly. And we do so even after we would have served,” he said.

During the past few weeks, Guyana’s military presence has been increased at that location due to Venezuela’s escalated aggression in its ongoing border controversy with Guyana.