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Mar 19, 2020

A Look at the Latest Reports into the B.D.F. Helicopter Accident

As we promised, the following story looks at the two reports of the B.D.F. helicopter accident that were released late Wednesday evening.  The reports are produced by the Civil Aviation Department and the BELL Company. One report looks specifically at the aircraft itself, with an analysis of the wreckage recovered from the site; while the other gives a more general overview of the factors. Reporter Andrea Polanco tells us more about these reports.

 

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

The Ministry of National Security presented two reports from the investigations into the fatal helicopter incident that happened on February twenty-seventh of this year. The first report is a two page report from the BELL Company, which is the manufacturer of the aircraft. This report details the damage to the different parts of the helicopter; for instance, it notes that the engine was separated from the aircraft due to the impact of the crash. It notes that the analysis of the wreckage doesn’t show any pre-accident abnormalities. Minister of National Security Michael Peyrefitte told the press on Wednesday that this report is quite similar to the account produced by the Honduran investigators.

 

Michael Peyrefitte

Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security

“To me, it adds nothing new. There are no surprises in there but I don’t expect you to trust me, so you can read it for yourself when we post it online.”

 

Reporter

“Is it still pointing to non-mechanical error; pilot error – are those reports still pointing to pilot error?”

 

Michael Peyrefitte

“Well, they don’t get into that directly; essentially they just analyze the aircraft.”

 

The second report is a five pager from the Civil Aviation Department. That report establishes the time of departure as seven minutes after four o’clock on Thursday morning, and points out, “The time of departure is considered as night, as official sunrise had not officially past”. It also noted that the flight left from an area with clear visibility, that is near the airport, and went to an area where there was no light and a body of water over which the helicopter was flying. The lack of night vision capabilities was also noted. Like the Honduran Air Force report, it concludes that time of the accident at four-thirty that morning. This report says that when the helicopter arrived at the clandestine airstrip, it hovered for a short time in the area. This report, unlike the Honduran Report, states that the helicopter never landed – but it doesn’t state how that piece of information is known. The Honduran Report doesn’t say if anyone saw the helicopter on site, it makes reference to someone hearing the sound of the chopper that morning. Both reports say that it was believed that the aircraft had left the area – again, both reports don’t attribute this to a specific source.  The report notes that the primary factor in the accident was spatial disorientation – and that the crew didn’t recognize they were experiencing this quickly since they were on a low altitude flight. But by the time they tried to maneuver the helicopter to orientate themselves using the land features, they were too close to the water and so it was too late for them to react appropriately using flight controls.

The aircraft findings, according to the Civil Aviation Report, are a summary of the findings from the Honduran Aircraft Air force Preliminary Report. So, this section of the investigation findings highlighted that the helicopter was in working condition and had no sign of engine failure. It also says that the ballistics tests show that the aircraft was not brought down by gunfire. It says that remnants of the chopper show that it was operating at the time of the impact and there was a full right turn, as stated in the Hondurans’ report. The report also includes a section that speaks to the weather conditions. Like the Honduran Air Force Accident Prevention and Investigation Board’s Report, this latest account speaks about the cold front, with rain, thunderstorms, strong winds forecasted for that morning, as well as reduced visibility. But unlike the Honduran Report, this account states that, “The Met report also stated that during four a.m to four thirty weather conditions would have been worse than was forecasted.” It concludes that section by pointing out that while met conditions were unfavorable, it doesn’t show that it was a primary cause of the accident, but rather a contributing factor. This report also highlights the issue of lack of night vision equipment was a major contributing factor in this fatal crash saying it, “severely decreased the flight crew’s chances of avowing the terrain while carrying out low altitude, high risk operations leaving them to rely only on their human sensory capability.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“Then what was really the point of that helicopter out there, if you don’t have the equipment to see; the conditions are poor out there – then what kind of surveillance are you doing, really?”

 

Elton Bennett

Elton Bennett, Lead Investigator

“Okay, so when a pilot is flying, he is either flying under instrument flight rules or he is flying under visual flight rules. Under the visual flight rules, he is using his naked eyes. And this is where the discretion of the pilot will determine if he flies or not. And in this case, he was hovering over the area of operation; he was seeing the area of operation and he was reporting back to the JIOC. It was an authorized and controlled operation unlike what you think.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“We are talking about a drug plane, with possibly narco traffickers on board; armed people on board and you go out there just relying on your eye sight?”

 

Elton Bennett

“Yes, the visual flight rules provide you with a broader scope of safety than flying on mere instrument flying rules. As a matter of fact, you are preferred to fly with visual flight rules until the conditions are no longer favourable then you would have to switch to your instruments. So, by safety standards flying with the naked eye especially in those operations where you are required to be closer to the ground, etc, that is the preferred rules that they would fly under.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“But in this case, they didn’t even have the equipment to rely on if their eyesight “mi di fail deh” so to speak – they couldn’t see and didn’t even have the equipment to back up, to support them – are you going to be able to answer that or that is going to be answered as a part of the internal investigation?”

 

Elton Bennett

“It is definitely one of the issues that we are going to be looking at in terms of the investigation. It is one of the main lines of investigation that we are going to be looking into, trying to determine the conditions that were necessary for the pilot to be able to fly and what he was required. So, from what we recovered from some of the force standing orders. And the flying orders are perhaps outdated. But there is no stipulated, mandatory night vision for you to fly.”

 

So, in conclusion, in this preliminary report, the Civil Aviation Department investigator says that review of all information and evidence gathered suggests that the combination of weather condition, little operational flight crew experience and human factors were major contributing factors in the crash. Added to that, “affected by organizational pressure to fulfill the mission” perhaps led the chopper to fly into poor weather conditions and “due to poor operational risk management this action resulted in the flight crew suffering from spatial disorientation.” All of these things, according to this report, led to the helicopter being put in an unusual position which caused the crew to lose control, thus killing the four soldiers. We note that other investigations into this incident are still ongoing but we asked General Steven Ortega of the B.D.F why there was no risk assessment done by the Commander of Operations.

 

Andrea Polanco

“Somebody who basically serves in an advisory position – is he included in all operation or are there certain operations that he is excluded from?”

 

Steven Ortega

Brig. Gen. Steven Ortega, Commander of the B.D.F.

“He is normally included in all, dependent on time constraints.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“Was he included in this particular [mission]?”

 

Brig. Gen. Steven Ortega

“No, he wasn’t.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“Is there a specific reason why he wasn’t included?”

 

Brig. Gen. Steven Ortega

“Availability.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“And if he is not there to advise, is there anyone to fill that role to advise?”

 

Brig. Gen. Steven Ortega

“Yes, there would. But if you notice what time this operation happen.”

 

But military sources say that a risk assessment should have been done and could have been done that very same morning. They say checks like those can be done “quick” or “deliberate” – which mean the procedures can be done in some minutes or go for hours, depending on the situation.  If you recall back on 28th of February, when the wreckage was found, Minister Peyrefitte outlined a timeline where JIOC made contact with General Ortega  around one thirty-eight that morning.  JIOC then made contact with Ramirez around seven minutes later. Around 2:18, Ortega got a briefing from JIOC about the mission. At 2:22 and later at 3:17 Ortega communicated with Ramirez. And then, according to the Ministry’s timeline, at 3:54 Ramirez signed out the helicopter and at 4:07 they lifted off. But later during that press-conference, when Ortega was asked about why the helicopter was heard early that morning from around two – he claimed that the men are required to do preliminarily warm up and checks. So,  between 1:38a.m and up to four that morning – was there not enough time for an alternate to do a rapid assessment, in the absence of the Commander of Ops? Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

 

On Friday, we’ll give you an update into the internal investigation and other issues that were raised during the question and answer segment of the press conference.


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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