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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Chopper accident blamed on pilot

The wreckage of a Z-9 military helicopter is loaded onto a truck after it crashed on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in July
The wreckage of a Z-9 military helicopter is loaded onto a truck after it crashed on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in July. Heng Chivoan

Chopper accident blamed on pilot

An inquiry into the fatal crash of a Harbin Z-9 military helicopter in July has found that the accident was the result of “human error”, Minister of Defence General Tea Banh has said.

The minister’s comments, made during a military training exercise on Saturday, came more than a month after the Chinese-made Z-9 crashed into an old sand quarry in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar commune on July 14.

Four military officers – including two generals – were killed in the early morning crash.

“I would like to confirm that there were no [mechanical] problems with the helicopter,” Banh said. “The engine was working well before the crash.

“The crash happened because the pilot could not control the helicopter during takeoff, causing it to fly off and hit the cliff.”

Banh added that the investigation had closed, but gave no hint that the detailed findings would be made public.

“The process of the investigation into the helicopter crash is completely finished and there was no big problem. I have already done my report,” he said. “We regret the deaths and we don’t want to place the blame on [the crew].

“But if they were really skillful the incident would not have happened.”

Four bodies were recovered from the crash site and a fifth man managed to survive by falling from the Z-9 seconds before it struck the side of a 40-metre cliff face surrounding the quarry in Dangkor district.

Khieu Chhen, deputy director of Banh’s cabinet, said he was not aware of the report.

The Z-9 was one of 12 bought with a $195 million loan from China last year. Officials said in July that the day of the crash was the first time the Z-9s had been used to train new pilots.

The four dead were Ouk Bunnaha, a brigadier general who commanded the Air Force’s helicopter unit; Brigadier General Eang Vannarith; and trainee pilots Thorn Vandy and Kham Bunnan.

Contrary to the findings of the inquiry, Major General Hul Sam Oun, commander of the 99th Infantry Battalion, told the Post in July that the initial investigation had concluded “primarily that the reason of the crash is because of engine failure”.

Banh could not be reached yesterday for further comment.

Amateur footage of the crash that aired on state broadcaster CNC at the time showed the Z-9 attempting to land before surging forward into the quarry.

Other officials as well as Banh had at the time suggested that strong winds might have played a part in the inability of the pilot to control the craft.

Chan Sambo, the sole survivor of the crash, reportedly told a hospital staffer that he had told visiting senior military officers that the Z-9 suffered mechanical problems shortly after takeoff.

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