We've got news for you.

Register on TimesLIVE at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

Army names chopper dead

02 April 2013 - 02:45 By KATHARINE CHILD
Agusta A109 Light Utility Helicopter. File picture.
Agusta A109 Light Utility Helicopter. File picture.
Image: Denel

The five soldiers killed in the SA Air Force Agusta A109 helicopter that crashed on Saturday were reportedly on an anti-poaching mission in the Kruger National Park.

This is the fourth SAAF Agusta A109 to crash since 2009.

Defence analyst Helmoed Heitman said: "It's early days but it appears that the accident was caused by pilot error."

He said it seemed that the crash could not be blamed on a mechanical fault in the Italian-made chopper.

But SA National Defence Union spokesman Pikkie Greeff said the frequency of Agusta A109 crashes was worrying.

"The inquiry needs to investigate whether there is a recurring technical problem," Greeff said.

The defence force yesterday named the dead soldiers as Captain Jacobus Andries van Rensburg, Captain MP Chabalala, Sergeant Paulus Shongela Ndishishi, Sergeant GP Ruiters and Lance-Corporal Bheki Petros Cele.

"Three of the five were members of the special forces. This is a big knock to the military. These men parachute out of planes, dive and are weapons experts; they operate as snipers and can conduct surveillance missions for days without being detected," Greeff said.

Army spokesman Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga said an inquiry into the deaths was under way . He would not comment on the frequency of Agusta A109 crashes, saying: "You do not blame the make of car for frequent car crashes."

But the DA's David Maynier said questions should be asked about the Agusta A109 helicopter, which "has experienced major problems in the past".

"These problems reportedly include software integration challenges and the fact that the helicopter is under-powered."

The helicopter, purchased as part of the controversial multibillionrands arms deal, has been upgraded for military use in South Africa. It cannot be flown in high winds or at high temperatures, according to reports on unofficial air force website saairforce.co.za.

In 2010 the helicopters were briefly grounded after two hard-landings in two years attributed to technical problems .

In 2009, an army Agusta A109 helicopter crashed into Woodstock Dam, in the Drakensberg, killing all three people on board. That crash was caused by pilot error, said Heitman.

Offices at the defence force's headquarters in Pretoria burned down on Thursday night. No one was injured. The SA National Defence Union's Greeff said the army should disclose information about the fire. He said the secrecy surrounding it was concerning.