Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pilot reveals all about fatal crash


Wednesday, December 30, 2009, begins quite normally for veteran Morobe bush pilot Richard Leahy, a household name in the rural areas of Morobe province. 
Morobe bush pilot Richard Leahy in happier days in Lae…most of his body has been very badly burned.-Picture courtesy of PACIFIC WRECKS

Leahy is known to live   on a wing and a prayer, an unsung hero who in his own quite little way, has brought about so much development to rural Papua New Guinea, flying into places where only eagles dare.
His Cessna 185 plane is appropriately registered as P2-MJL, the initials of his father Michael ‘Mick’ James Leahy - one of Australia's most colourful and successful explorers – and widely revered as one of those pioneer explorers who made first contact with and opened up the Highlands of New Guinea.
Richard Leahy (left) with P2 - MJL at Nadzab Airport in 2005.-Picture courtesy of PACIFIC WRECKS

He departs his home in Lae with a Protect security service escort, as is the normal case for those traveling to Nadzab airport, at approximately 2am.
On arrival at Nadzab, he submits his flight plan for the day, returns to his Kiunga Aviation office at the airport and sleeps until 5.30am.
He then prepares P2-MJL for the day’s operations and orders the first load, which is to Baindoang in the rugged Saruwaged Range, with six passengers.
These are loaded at around 5.45am.
Start-up is at 6am.
 This is quite normal with no sign of the trouble to come.
Take off and departure are also normal.
“Six people were tragically killed when a Cessna 185 fixed wing aircraft, owned by Kiunga Aviation, crashed early yesterday in the rugged Saruwaged mountain ranges of Morobe province,” The National reports on its front page the next day.
Body bags at the crash site on Dec 30, 2009.-Picture by BUSTIN ANZU
“All six passengers, including two children, died instantly on impact.
“Amazingly the pilot Richard Leahy, who owns the third level airline, survived but was in critical condition.
“The plane departed Nadzab and was headed for Baidoang airstrip when it crashed.
“The charred bodies of those killed are now at the Angau Memorial Hospital morgue in Lae while Mr Leahy was evacuated to Australia for medical attention.”
Leahy has been in intensive care in hospital in Brisbane after suffering a broken back and severe burns to more than 60% of his body.
He is now wearing a head-to-foot burns suit and will continue to do so until March 2011.
Last Sunday, Leahy finally comes out of his shell, saying the death of six of his passengers on the ill-fated Cessna 185 flight in the Finisterre mountains of Morobe province last Dec 30 is something that he will live with until he dies.
Leahy is awaiting the outcome of a Civil Aviation Agency investigation into why the engine failed that fateful day.
“I was released from the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital (RBWH) on March 26, 2010,” he tells me from Brisbane.
“I was admitted after having been evacuated from Lae by jet on the day of the accident, Dec 30.
“I remain an outpatient at RBWH and visit for treatment four mornings per week.
“This will last until March 2011.”
I ask Leahy what he remembers about that day.
“Approximately seven minutes into the flight, I noticed the oil pressure dropping off rapidly,” he replies.
“I immediately turned back towards Nadzab airport, but the engine stopped soon after.
“I broadcast a mayday (distress call) to CAA at Nadzab and tried to carry out a landing on rough country.
“I do not remember the impact, but clearly recall finding myself on my back outside the aircraft with my legs in the fire.
“I managed to use my hands and arms to pull myself clear.
“My memory from that point on for twenty eight days is not clear.”
And will he return to PNG, particularly his beloved Morobe, and fly again?
“I do wish to return to PNG after my rehabilitation time with RBWH is finished early March.
“I am and will continue to wear a head-to-foot burns suit until March next year.
“This suit does not go well in tropical heat.
“At the moment my voice is not good and because of this I would not be able to renew my flying licence.
“If this problem is rectified, I will resume flying.
“At this time and since the accident my business is being run by my son Nicholas.
“He is living in my house in Lae.
“My sympathy goes out to the next of kin of those six souls that were lost because of this tragedy.
“It is my hope that the problem that caused the engine to lose oil pressure and stop will be discovered.”
It is common knowledge that while Leahy is in a coma in hospital, Morobe Governor Luther Wenge – who lost close family members in the crash - stirs up a hornet’s nest when he threatens to have the renowned and respected pilot charged with manslaughter and deported from the country.
“Our Governor Luther Wenge is our properly-elected regional member,” Leahy says when I ask for his comments on the matter.
“He like the rest of us is fully entitled to his say in matters that concern him.
“He lost six relatives in the accident.
“I extend my condolences to the member and his family.
“I felt as soon as I became aware that he (Wenge) had made them (comments) that they were unwarranted.
“I have conducted commercial flying operations in PNG but mainly in the Morobe Province since 1964.
“During that time I have carried, whilst single pilot in command, over 50,000 passengers - the overwhelming majority of whom were PNG citizens.
“Up until Dec 30, 2009, the day of my accident, I had never caused any injury to any of my 50,000 passengers.
“The fact that six died on that day will weigh heavily with me for the rest of my life.”
Leahy said although this is an accident that he could not have prevented, he is awaiting the CAA findings on why the engine failed on that flight.
“If an aircraft is properly maintained and the pilot carries out his duties in accordance with the set down procedures, aircraft engines simply should not fail,” he says.
“Normally, there is some warning if an engine is developing serious problems and remedial maintenance can be carried out prior to further flight.
“With this particular failure, there was absolutely no warning.
“During the 24,000 hours I have spent flying light aircraft around PNG, I had had only one previous engine failure.
“I landed the aircraft in a lake and my two passengers and myself escaped unscathed.
“The engine failure was due to bad maintenance and I recovered monetary damages from the people that I had contracted with to carry out my maintenance at that time.
“Needless to repeat, my thoughts have gone out to the next of kin of those six souls lost on that day and will always remain with them and those that were lost.”
 The remains of the Kiunga Aviation Cessna 185 after the fatal crash last Dec 30.-Picture by BUSTIN ANZU

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