Cape Town-101221-Helicopter (Huey) that will be utilised to fight fires is being explained to trainee firefighters by Mark Jackson at the Fisantekraal Aifield. Reporter:John Yeld, Photo: Brendan Magaar

Cape Town - Months before two Huey helicopters were involved in fatal crashes while being used to battle blazes in Cape Town, an aviation association raised concerns about whether they were adequately maintained.

The country’s aviation authority is now looking into whether Huey helicopters should still be used for firefighting operations.

But the company that operates the aircraft said the choppers were maintained according to the highest international standards and it was a mere coincidence that the crashes happened within weeks of each other.

On April 22, pilot Darrell Rea and firefighting helicopter safety leader Justin Visagie were killed in Bainskloof when the team tried to make a forced emergency landing in a Huey while battling a blaze.

Weeks earlier, on March 8, pilot Hendrik “Bees” Marais was killed when he tried to make a forced landing while fighting a massive fire at Cape Point. The incidents are being investigated.

The choppers were being used by Working on Fire, a government job-creation initiative launched 12 years ago.

Hueys, ex-military aircraft, are commonly used to fight vegetation fires by dropping loads of water on to flames and are used by Working on Fire.

Leon Dillman, the chief executive officer of the Commercial Aviation Association of South Africa (Caasa), confirmed that the association had met officials from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) in November to discuss the Hueys.

The association had complained “that there is no quality and maintenance control on the (Working on Fire) Hueys”.

Dillman told Weekend Argus: “The Huey has restrictions on its capabilities in many applications, just like any helicopter. However, if not correctly maintained and managed, it will fail.”

He said the authority had for many years been warned of the “bogus nature of some Hueys”.

“Not all the Hueys have been rebuilt using scrap or unapproved parts. Some are very pure and original and some are poorly maintained with scrap parts,” Dillman said.

His association had also written to the civil aviation authority “in relation to undesirable operational conditions of Hueys” about a year ago.

“In my personal view they should have more strict maintenance guidelines/schedules and more thorough inspection should be performed by the Sacaa. The parts and the origin of the parts used on these ex-military machines should also be regulated,” Dillman said.

Weekend Argus asked Sacaa whether it had received complaints about Hueys before the two crashes.

Sacaa spokeswoman Phindiwe Gwebu said the authority could not comment on the causes of the accidents until the reports on these crashes were finalised.

She said Sacaa was looking into whether Hueys should be used for firefighting, even though according to the manufacturer of the Hueys, the choppers could be used for various activities. “There are no rules or laws saying the Hueys cannot be used (for firefighting).

“But purely because of the crashes we’re looking into it,” Gwebu said.

 

This week a concerned former pilot involved in aviation safety who declined to be named as he is still involved in the industry said certification standards involving Hueys were a concern.

“The biggest concern about the Hueys that most of the industry has is certification standards to authorise (the helicopters) to fly,” he said.

Naranda Leeuwner, spokeswoman for the Kishugu group which operates the choppers and manages Working on Fire’s commercial operation, said the helicopters were maintained according to international standards by a maintenance facility approved by Sacaa. Aircraft were audited on a quarterly basis.

She said all replacement components used on the helicopters were obtained from approved facilities and records of these were kept for up to five years after a part was removed.

Leeuwner said before the two crashes, Working on Fire had flown for 9 800 hours in Hueys without a fatal accident. “It would be quite misleading to infer from these two recent accidents that they are related to the airworthiness of the aircraft.”

Weekend Argus