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Kenya at risk with wrong helicopters

Friday May 15 2009

What if you read that President Barack Obama’s helicopter was forced to land in a cloud of engine smoke?

Or that Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller narrowly escaped death when his helicopter landed upside down inside a prison?

Or that a dozen well-known American senators and congressmen had been killed in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission in 2006? Or the vice-president’s helicopter had barely survived a landing in 2004?

Would you want to get on an American plane?

In America, there would be massive outrage. Planes would be grounded. There would be hearings and investigations.

And, quite frankly, the same should be true in Kenya after the near-miss with the security chiefs this week in the Rift Valley.

Currently, America is in the middle of front-page charged investigation of a crash that happened last February in Buffalo, New York. Fifty passengers were killed, making it the worst crash in many years on American soil.

Hearings this week are showing that both pilots had little experience flying in bad weather. In fact, they were talking about their shortcomings during their final minutes as the plane was attempting to land in an ice storm.

Most American accidents are due to poor pilot decisions. Not ageing aircraft or poor maintenance. And that’s why there are roughly 87,000 flights each day in the US, and safety is taken for granted.

In Kenya, the safety battle is much grander. It involves everything from inadequate runways to ageing aircraft. Oddly, the government leaders allow this to go on, and continue to risk their own lives.

THE CRASH-PRONE HELICOPTERS IN Kenya were never meant for official work. They are military aircraft meant for harsh duty and a short lifespan. They’re tough to fly, harder to maintain and likely to be involved in further mishaps.

They also represent the worst about Kenya. Under a cloud of mystery, the government purchased the Russian aircraft for millions more than the market rate. For a time, they were left to sit idle. And then, the government overpaid to get them flying again.

They are giant symbols of corruption.

I can only imagine what it would be like to be a small boy in Kibera and to see one of those behemoths fly overhead, wondering what the government is doing when there is so much need on the ground.

From my experience, Kenyan pilots are excellent. My most memorable flight was in a Twin Otter into the Mara. The Canadian-made DeHavilland aircraft has swift take-off and landing capabilities, and we needed every bit of that technology as we dodged zebras on a bumpy, dirt runway.

On the international side, Kenya Airways has a modern fleet, strong safety record and multiple long-haul flights to destinations like Paris and London. I’ve flown the airline from Nairobi to Kampala, and our Boeing 757 was easily the most modern plane on the Entebbe tarmac.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration expressed its worry over the stability of the Kenyan Government. The inability of the patched-together leadership coalition to make progress is, quite frankly, troubling to the world.

Will Kenya dip back again into chaos?

With much at stake, perhaps the country’s leaders can start with doing something simple that’s truly in their own interests.

Flying these helicopters, one pilot said, was like trying to guide a pregnant cow through a heavily wooded forest. More importantly, they present the wrong message about East Africa’s leading democracy.

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