Captain of Jubilee campaign chopper was drunk – report

Thursday, November 21st, 2019 00:00 | By
Captain Apollo Malowa, pilot of the ill-fated Flex Air Charters chopper. PD/FILE
Captain Apollo Malowa, pilot of the ill-fated Flex Air Charters chopper. PD/FILE

 The pilot who was flying a Jubilee campaign team chopper that crashed into Lake Nakuru in 2017 killing him and four passengers was drunk, an investigation report has revealed.

Toxicological tests conducted on samples of Captain Apollo Malowa’s blood revealed the presence of excessive alcohol concentration in his blood, according to a government report released by the Transport ministry yesterday.

“The pilot’s blood samples were taken from liver, gall bladder, stomach and kidney for toxicological screening. The results indicated presence of alcohol (ethanol) at a concentration of 41mg per 100ml of the sample,” the report says, adding: “This was above the alcohol concentration limit set by Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) of 0.04 per cent.” 

The Chief Investigator of Air Traffic Accidents, Martyn Lunani, however, notes that basic post-mortem examination carried out on the pilot and two passengers whose bodies were retrieved from the lake did not conclusively reveal the exact cause of death. 

The chopper crashed into Lake Nakuru at 6. 37 am on October 21, 2017, killing all the five persons on board. They included Captain Malowa, Anthony Kipyegon, Veronica Muthoni, Sam Gitau and John Mapozi. 

The bodies of Captain Malowa, Muthoni and Kipyegon were retrieved 25 days after the accident while those of Gitau and Mapozi, both working in Ms Kihika’s communication team, were never found.

The report was officially released yesterday by Transport CS James Macharia.The CS noted that the plane’s avionics computers were retrieved, packed and sent to France where the download and analysis were done in the presence of representatives from Air Bus and other interested parties.

According to the investigation findings, Captain Apollo Malowa’s drunken state may have caused him to lose “situation awareness” resulting in the chopper crashing into the lake.

“The pilot’s medical records did not reveal any ailment that would adversely affect his ability to fly the helicopter safely. He failed to recognise the loss of altitude, excessive banking to the left, and the obstacle proximity from the aircraft,” Lunani concludes.

Other findings that could point to the pilot’s inability to manage the situation shows that the aircraft was properly maintained and had a valid certificate of airworthiness, meaning that the crash was not caused by mechanical failure. 

“There was no significant weather that morning which would adversely affect the flight. The investigation after the crash did not find any anomalies which would have precluded normal operation of the helicopter - engine, main rotor or tail rotor,” the report says.

The investigations found out that the pilot flew at a very low altitude, less than 500ft above the ground and water, against the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority recommendations. 

Also, the pilot was not trained to fly close to the ground. “The pilot was properly certified and licensed to fly the helicopter but did not have instrument rating or special training rating for low flying,” the report notes. 

According to the report, the chopper crashed seven minutes and 38 seconds after taking off from Jarika Hotel in Nakuru. The motive of the early morning flight was not known, but there was speculation the group was on a sight-seeing mission above the lake.

However, the team had a pre-planned scheduled flight to Mau Narok, about 42 kilometres from Nakuru town.

“There was rumours at the hotel by a number of witnesses to the investigation team that the pilot had planned to fly around the lake for sightseeing before they could fly back to the hotel,” the report says.

Director of Flight Safety

Malowa, 34, was an employee of Flex Air Charters Ltd based at Wilson Airport, where he doubled as director of flight safety and helicopter pilot.

He was initially an employee of Kenya Air Force (KAF) before joining the civil aviation industry. Training records obtained from KCAA indicated that he was trained in South Africa at Starlite Aviation Academy between May 2009 and February 2010.

According to the report, a day before the accident, Malowa had refuelled the 5Y-NMJ aircraft with 350 litres of fuel at Wilson Airport. The purpose for refuelling was indicated on the receipt as travelling to Nakuru.

Further information obtained from the company indicated that the pilot was scheduled to ferry passengers from Nakuru to Mau Narok the following day for a political rally. 

According to the company’s records on flight and flight duty time, the captain had accumulated 24.8 hours within the last three months preceding the accident.

“In the month of August 2017, the pilot clocked a total of 14.7 hours, September, 2017 he had a total of 10.1 hours and during the month of October, 2017 he had less than 1 hour before the accident,” the report reads.

“On 20th October 2017, at 1420 hours, immediately after refuelling, the pilot took-off from Wilson airport destined to Nakuru with one unknown passenger and arrived at 1500hours after landing at the Jarika Hotel.” The report says after landing at the hotel that evening, Malowa checked into the hotel and spent less than one hour after which he was picked up by unidentified car.

Another witness informed the investigation that Malowa had been spotted in the company of unknown persons at a famous club in downtown Nakuru.

“The information was further corroborated with the club attendants who also informed the investigation team seeing the pilot at the club. The security guard at the hotel also informed the investigation that the deceased pilot arrived at the hotel in the morning at around 0300 hours on 21 October 2017 in company of three men and one female,” the report says.

Fly at a low level

According to investigators, the pilot did not speak to anyone as the party boarded the plane which took off towards the lake.

The report says a witness saw the helicopter fly at a low level towards the lake.

 “She saw the helicopter fly over the lake then it made a turn on southern end. It then made a left turn and flew back on the eastern side of the lake before it plunged into the water,” the report says.

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