A pilot and two members of his flight crew were killed Monday morning when their helicopter crashed and exploded shortly after takeoff at the Pochentong Air Force Base.
Defense officials are blaming pilot error for the crash of the Mi-17 helicopter, which was scheduled to transport a visiting delegation of Vietnamese military officials. No Vietnamese military officials were on board when it crashed.
“We were very sorry to see our friends crash,” said a colleague of the pilots, who requested anonymity. He said the helicopter, which was carrying 2,500 liters of fuel, was so badly burned that the occupants’ bodies were identifiable only by their shoes and the location of their seat inside the helicopter. The intense heat of the explosion and fire kept military people on the scene from helping the crash victims, he said. All three died instantly.
Military officials and grieving relatives gathered at Wat Langka Monday afternoon to attend funeral services for Lieutenant Colonel Prak Thonavuth, pilot and captain of the flight team; co-pilot Chhim Sovannara and flight engineer Khim Sothy.
Captain Teap Sitha, another co-pilot, escaped with minor injuries, the colleague said. He was sitting in the back seat and managed to extricate himself and flee before the helicopter exploded.
The helicopter had lifted off the ground only two or three meters before it banked to the left, said Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh. The helicopter’s three-blade main rotor struck the ground, sending the helicopter into a roll. The pilot apparently made an error in judgment, Tea Banh said.
The crash happened deep inside the Pochentong air base. Reporters were not allowed to enter the base and view the crash site. In the hours following the 9 am crash, officials including Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara and deputy military commander-in-chief Meas Sophea drove in and out of the base, as did grieving relatives. A few ambulances were turned away.
On Sunday the helicopter had flown from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham province and returned to Phnom Penh carrying 20 Vietnamese military officials, the colleague said.
On Monday it was supposed to fly to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence at Tuol Krasaing. It was then scheduled to take a visiting Vietnamese military delegation to the Vietnam border at Bavet in Svay Rieng province, the colleague said.
The Mi-17-type MH-801 helicopter had been repaired in Vietnam five months ago and appeared to be in working order, the colleague said. It did not have a flight recorder, he said.