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14 Jan, 2009 15:02

Rare sheep cause helicopter crash in Altay?

Rare sheep cause helicopter crash in Altay?

On Wednesday the preliminary causes of the accidental crash of a Mi-171 helicopter in Altay on January 9 were made public. It is thought pilot error might have been the cause.

Experts have come to the conclusion that some minutes before the tragedy the helicopter was flying at an inadmissibly low height. As a result the helicopter’s rotor touched the ground and came crashing down.

Yet to be confirmed details suggest the passengers of Mi-171 might have asked the pilots to descend in order to hunt argali – a rare and globally endangered species of wild mountain sheep. According to the report, the helicopter descended too low, its tail rotor hooked into the hillside, subsequently causing it to lose control and fall into a ravine.

Experts of the International Aviation Commission have decoded the data of both flight recorders of the helicopter. “The preliminary analysis of the flight information has shown that before the collision of the helicopter with the terrestrial surface its engines were in working order”, the Commission informs.

Ecologists have demanded the officials who survived in the accident be brought to trial for poaching. The now deceased governmental Head of the Committee for Protection of Fauna Victor Kaimin had already been suspected of the illegal shooting of rare animals prior to the incident.

As the official reports say, the passengers of the Mi-171 helicopter led by Viktor Kaimin went to the Altay Republic for the purpose of hunting. The head of the Republic Alexander Berdnikov has assured journalists that the Moscow guests and the local officials had permission for hunting and had all the necessary documents. However, what they were going to shoot was not specified.

On Tuesday there were reports that officials had shot from the helicopter several argali – the endangered mountain sheep. Hunting these animals is completely forbidden according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The photo of the animal shot near the place of the helicopter crash has been placed on Altay websites.

Experts soon confirmed that the killed animal in the picture was an argali. “In the pictures it is visible that it’s a dead argali”, declared the director of the WWF in Russia Igor Chestin. He has underlined that hunting animals from the Red List is a penal crime.

The crash survivors may face court trial for suspicion of poaching. The maximum punishment for this crime is six months imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 roubles ($US 9600). They may also be deprived of the right to take certain posts for a term of up to three years. It is not excluded that during the investigation it will be proved that the hunters shot animals from the helicopter, which is an aggravating circumstance.

On Wednesday the head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations Sergey Shoigu declared that the search operation which lasted for three days in Altay cost a sum of 22.5 million roubles ($US 721,000), RIA Novosti reports. He added that radio beacons with which helicopters are equipped too often do not work, which makes the search operation much more complicated.

However manufacturers of the SOS beacons said that the beacon on the Mi-171 helicopter was in working order. “The pilots, probably, had simply forgotten to turn on the radio beacon before the flight”, the spokesman Yury Korolev has told.

“As soon as January 11 rescuers reached the scene of the accident. One of employees of the Ministry of Emergency Situations at 17:05 local time (11:05 GMT), in order to check the working capacity of the radio beacon, turned it on and it immediately started to broadcast the mayday signal. The first to receive it was a rescue centre in India”, he stated.

Now the police are waiting to speak to three other survivors of the crash: the vice-premier of the Altay Republic Anatoly Bannyh, the main expert of the Incorporated Advisory Council Committee of the State Duma on economic policy Nikolay Kapranov, and his friend businessman Boris Belinsky. When these interrogations take place is not yet known. Currently all three are in the city hospital of Barnaul.

Earlier the second pilot Maxim Kolbin, who was discharged from a hospital on Tuesday, said the main reason for the crash was engine failure.