Weather, Engine Malfunction Main Suspects in Helicopter Crash

Sunday night’s helicopter crash, in which National Police Commis­sioner Hok Lundy and three others died was caused by bad weather, engine malfunction, or both, the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation said Monday.

The private Sokha Helicopters flight departed from Phnom Penh International Airport at about 7:15 pm and crashed in Svay Rieng province at around 8 pm, killing all four passengers onboard.

Say Sokhan, an undersecretary of state at the civil aviation secretariat, said that an initial conclusion into the cause of the crash was drawn from talks with officials at Sokha Helicopters, aviation experts, local authorities and villagers near the crash site in Rumduol district.

“There were two reasons [for the crash]: the weather and technical problems. It might have been be­cause of rain or lightning or engine problems,” Say Sokhan said.

The initial investigation has ruled out pilot error, Say Sokhan said. “We don’t know the exact reason yet,” he added.

“This is the first investigation into the data from the villagers and experts. We have collected only 50 to 60 percent [of all the data].”

Aviation safety expert David Learmount, who is also editor of the London-based magazine Flight International, said Monday that the initial reports into the cause of the helicopter crash would appear to indicate that local investigators “don’t know the answer.”

Thousands of helicopters crash every year worldwide, Learmount said, adding that because of their poor safety record, helicopters are “only ever used when nothing else is suitable.”

While Svay Rieng provincial officials said initially Sunday night that Hok Lundy’s helicopter went down amid mild weather, Learmount said low-lying rain clouds could have hampered visibility to the point that the helicopter’s pilots should have either turned back or conducted a safe emergency landing.

“If it gets to the point that you can’t see out the window, you’re in big trouble,” Learmount said in a telephone interview.

Khek Norinda, spokesman for Societe Concessionaire des Aero­ports, which manages Phnom Penh International Airport, wrote Monday that Cambodia Air Traffic Services cleared the helicopter to depart Sunday night for Svay Rieng. However, the final decision to fly was made by the pilot, who “has the last word and decides with all the info he has in his hands,” Khek Norinda wrote by SMS mobile phone text messaging.

While Khek Norinda said nighttime helicopter flights are “common,” Mao Havanall, secretary of state in charge of the civil aviation secretariat, said nighttime helicopter flights in Cambodia are limited.

“If there is no other option; we allow it,” Mao Havanall said before entering Monday’s meeting to hear the initial results of the secretariat’s investigation into the crash.

Mao Havanall referred further questions to Say Sokhan, who re­ferred questions about nighttime flying regulations back to Mao Havanall.

Sokha Helicopters, a subsidiary of the Sokimex petroleum and hotel group, became fully operational in October 2007.

The CEO of Sokha Helicopters is Hok Lundy’s son Dy Vichea, who was outside the country at the time of his father’s death last night.

Phone calls and e-mails to Sokha Helicopter officials and the com­pan­y’s Siem Reap and Phnom Penh offices went unanswered.

It remained unknown Monday if the crashed helicopter was equip­ped for nighttime civilian flights or if the pilots were trained for nighttime flying.

(Additional reporting by Katie Nelson)


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