Royal Thai Army: Human error possible cause of helicopter crash

The Royal Thai Army (RTA) has made its first official statement about three helicopter that crashed near the Thai-Burma border over just nine days, downplaying human error as possible reasons for the accidents.

Commander of the RTA Aviation Centre, Maj-General Phitthaya Krajangwong, repeated that poor visibility was a possible reason that the first two helicopters crashed.

They were a UH1-H on July 16 and a Black Hawk on July 19.

Meanwhile, mechanical failure was a likely cause of the third crash – a UH1-N – on Sunday. The details have been widely reported by the media and are known to the public.

Detailed results of an official investigation into the technical and other relevant aspects would be available soon, or after 30 days if an extension was necessary, he said.

All three incidents were being investigated by a single panel, which was looking into the technical, logistical and administrative aspects.

While admitting that the human factor was always a probability in any accident, Phitthaya did not mention it as a cause of the three incidents in his statement at the press conference yesterday.

He said the aviation center’s history dated back to 1967.

It had trained more than 2,000 pilots in a total of 55 classes. He cited the facts in an attempt to highlight the qualifications of the crews that perished, saying they were highly trained and had experience of flying long hours.

The three crashes are the worst air disasters in the history of the Thai military. All up, 16 personnel and a civilian cameraman were killed, while one crew member was also injured.

All UH-1N helicopters – about 20 belonging to the Army – have been grounded for a couple of days for an inspection, which may take a few more days. The general said maintenance and repairs to all three helicopters, as well as other aircraft in the RTA fleet, had been adequate and according to the manufacturers’ specifications.

The only new details given by Phitthaya was a theory related to the first crash. He said that thick clouds could have suddenly converged above a landing zone, affecting visibility and forcing the pilots to head up the UH1-H, without looking ahead, and hitting a hillside before climbing up.

In the case of the UH-1N, which is referred to by the Army and the media as a Bell 212, maybe to differentiate it from the UH-1H, he said the tail rotor was not damaged or gutted by fire and would be a crucial evidence and very useful to the investigation. He said it could confirm that it was a key mechanical failure, and possibly linked to the UH-1N losing control and hitting the ground.

Meanwhile, Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha reacted angrily to certain media reports and opinions of academics who questioned the decision-making of the Army’s senior leaders. They said that after the first two accidents, sending a third chopper could have been avoided. He called on them to show responsibility for causing a drop in the morale of the Army aviation personnel.

He said criticism could be made but should be based on facts and fairness to Army aviation personnel. He repeated Phitthaya’s insistence that the choppers had had sufficient maintenance.

Prayuth said the Army was upset over the incidents but not discouraged by them. “I welcome criticisms but they must be based on the right principles.

“What we can do now is to study the incidents, ensure the deaths were not in vain, and learn lessons from them to prevent future incidents,” he said.

Prayuth attended the funerals in Kanchanaburi of Maj-General Tawan Ruengsri, the highest-ranking casualty, among others. He travelled from Bangkok by road, instead of taking a helicopter.

Water granted by His Majesty the King in honour of the troops was presented at bathing rituals during funerals for all 17 killed. Most were promoted posthumously to higher ranks, and their families have been promised a full package of financial assistance and other support.

Prayuth said the families would be allowed to live in military apartments for a while, and the family of Channel 5 cameraman Sornwichai Khongtannikool would be also be granted extra assistance.

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