Seven South African policemen were killed in a helicopter crash on Friday at Emalahleni (formerly Witbank) about 130km east of Johannesburg, a police spokesman says. The Eurocopter BK117 reportedly crashed in a field about 10km from the town centre while landing in heavy mist.
The pilot, a crewman and five national intervention unit (NIU) commandos on their way to an armed robbery at a bakery were killed. There were no survivors.
A radio report says a second helicopter safely landed and the NIU commandos aboard arrested seven robbers. The crash is under investigation by both the police and SA Civil Aviation Authority. “The details are sketchy but it is believed the chopper crashed in an open field. The policemen are burnt beyond recognition,” said Zweli Mnisi, the spokesman for the police minister Nathi Mthethwa. Reuters added Mnisi could not disclose the identities of the deceased.
Eyewitness News reports a shocked national police commissioner General Bheki Cele has called it a “Black Friday” for his force. “I don’t think I’ve had such an encounter. It’s really devastating (and) a painful situation. I personally know them all too,” Cele said. Cele says the families have been notified but added he intended to personally go and visit them all.
Forensic experts are on the scene gathering evidence. An eyewitness described what he saw to Eyewitness News. “It’s really a wreck. There’s only a piece of the tail piece left about 150 metres away from the rest of the wreckage. The rest of the wreckage is really a mangled mess,” he said. One woman said it was an awful scene. “The helicopter is broken up into many pieces. The tail is completely [apart] from the [wreckage],” she said. The tail was the only piece of the aircraft still left intact.
The police operated two BK117 helicopters out of a fleet of some 40 rotorcraft.
The BK-117 is a twin-engined medium utility transport helicopter developed jointly by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) of Germany and Kawasaki of Japan from 1977. MBB was later purchased by Daimler-Benz and eventually became a part of Eurocopter.
The helicopter involved in the accident, was a BK117 B1 model, registered as ZS-HMY with the manufacturer serial number 7033. It was manufactured in 1983. The aircraft was powered by two Lycoming LTS-750B engines. “The aircraft underwent scheduled maintenance in June this year. At this time no further factual information is available,” Eurocopter says in a statement.
It adds in line with South African regulation and international convention, Eurocopter has offered full technical assistance to the South African Police Services which is investigating the accident. It would be inappropriate for Eurocopter to enter into any form of speculation into the causes of the accident or to pass further comment until the investigation has been finalised.
There are currently more than 800 BK117 helicopters in service with 222 operators around the world where they have logged 2 815 000 flight hours in law enforcement, search & rescue, aero-medical, military and civil roles.
“We understand that this chopper was serviced on June 9. It still had 91 hours left before the next service,” Cele said.
The pilot is also said to have been very experienced. Captain Wikus Zaaiman joined the polic from the SA Air Force two years ago. He had more than 3000 flyng hours.