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Monday, September 12, 2011

Sene river incident

On Tuesday 6th September 2011, during the night, a canoe sank along the River Sene, one of the tributaries to Lake Volta, within the 'Lake Dwellers' zone we are keen to support.

The site of the accident turned out to be just 25km from Kete Krachi airstrip, the site we have been pushing to open for a long time (nearly 3 years). The Krachi Strip is quite usable, but is not yet authorised for service, due to delays in the inspection of the facility, since it is not easy to access.

When we heard the news of this terrible accident (at the time they estimated 35 - 50 dead), it was already nearly 20 hours after the incident, and night had fallen on Wednesday evening. THursday at first light we called NADMO (National Disaster Management Organisation) who oversee these things. We offered to fly a Search and Rescue Mission and to carry two of their people to the Kete Krachi strip, if permission to use it could be secured.

The NADMO team finally arrived at around 4pm on Thursday afternoon, too late to make the flights before sunset. It was decided that they would return the next morning at 06:00.

Two WAASPS/MoM aircraft, 9G ZKT flown by Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi and 9G ZAF flown by Jonathan Porter, each accompanied by representatives from NADMO, left Kpong Airfield on Friday 9th September 2011, routing to Kete Krachi . The girls from Kete Krachi who had already received training on airfield operations and FOD walks were asked to prepare the site for our arrival - demonstrating the key importance of training people from within the communities in case of events that require us to arrive at short notice.

Flight departure was delayed by inclement weather, finally leaving around 08:30 and dodging storms and showers to get to the site. By 10:30 we were safely on the ground at Kete Krachi. The 200km trip by air taking a little over 1hr and 30 minutes - compared to the 12+ hours by road. Reception by the youngsters who had been trained was excellent and they also provided aircraft pushing and crowd control to the highest standards.

Officials at the site arrived and gave us an indication that the accident site was ‘far’ between 50 and 100km away… we were also informed that the boat has sunk close to the shore – a matter of meters.

Based on the currents and other information, it was decided to fly the south banks of the Sene, from the headland that separates it from the Volta. Sadly little accurate information regarding sites of other body discoveries was available.

CH701 9G ZAF was used as the spotting aircraft, flown at this time by Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi with Jonathan Porter as a spotter/photographer. Sadly, we were fuel limited since there is NO suitable fuel at Krachi and our planned fuel dump there cannot be established before the approval for the site is in place. Had we had a fuel dump in place - or suitable fuel available, both aircraft could have flown the mission. Fortunately, the 701 has a 10 hour operational range on eco-cruise, making it able to operate with its own reserves.

Setting off it was quickly evident that the banks of the Sene are remarkably a) convoluted, b) debris strewn and c) hazardous in many places due to trees and stumps underwater – much of this may attributable to the recent higher than usual water levels.

After passing the 60km from Krachi point on the southern bank, the team crossed to the northern bank and headed back downstream, and finally found the accident site, 25km from Krachi on the Northern banks of the River Sene at N7 41.049 W0 15.363.

The stricken vessel was laying on a mud bank, clearly partially above the water line on its muddy standing approximately 800m from the shore, looking at the wreck we assume that it hit a stump.

No survivors nor evidence of victims was found, which was later corroborated as the unaccounted for dropped to one. (no manifests exists for these operations, and it is all based on 'casual reporting') Had we been able to get airborne and use Kete Krachi at dawn after the incident, and had we been informed, it is certain we could have done more....but the challenges in an SAR here are great....

We require more accurate information to be more productive, efficient and effective.

Location: the name of a town that is not on a map and without knowledge of the distance nor shore of the river is of little use and results in extra resources being wasted in clarifying what should be readily available.

Search and Rescue has two components – Search and, amazingly, Rescue. Aircraft are good at searching and clearing areas or spotting those in need of assistance. However, the standard method of reporting a position is by WGS84 Lat/Lon positions. Where the ground teams are not equipped with even BASIC GPS equipment or an understanding of headings and distances it becomes very difficult to share information between the search team and the rescue team; add to that the lack of 2 way radio or even reliable telephone coverage and the chances of survival, even for a spotted, injured person are very slim. We have offered to assist with GPS training and simulation exercises to NADMO.

This is a clear case where an amphibian aircraft with range would have been an asset.... but we cannot operate the fibreglass floats in that zone, it requires aluminium units with large wheels - such as the Zenair floats (which we so dearly wish to acquire - even if only on a 701 at this stage... the 801 would allow us to pick up a victim from in the water, but the cost of acquisition, transport and entry to service is considerably more.

During the SAR component of the mission , a linear track of 260km from Krachi-to-Krachi was covered. Most of the distance accounted for is due to following the convoluted coastline of the River Sene, especially over the marshy and tree-inaccessible areas. The total area covered by the flight was 316Km2 … although considerably more was observed than the encapsulated track represents.

[The SAR mission took approximately 2 hours, and the total flight time for the two aircraft for the day was around nine and a half hours, with a total distance flown of over one thousand kilometers.]

No charges were made to the authorities for this service in the interest of the people and their families who are suffering from this incident. Patricia amazed me with her ability to get in first time at the challenging strip and her flying was of the utmost accuracy throughout - MoM and WAASPS have trained a great crew who can perform, given the opportunity.

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