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Cablegate: Paramount Helicopter Crashes Killing Togolese Minister

VZCZCXRO4407
OO RUEHMA RUEHPA
DE RUEHFN #0355/01 1551326
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 041326Z JUN 07
FM AMEMBASSY FREETOWN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1121
INFO RUEHZK/ECOWAS COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 FREETOWN 000355

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR AF/W

E.O. 12958 N/A
TAGS: ASEC ATRN EAIR CASC SL
SUBJECT: PARAMOUNT HELICOPTER CRASHES KILLING TOGOLESE MINISTER

SUMMARY
-------

1. On the evening of June 3, a helicopter operated by Paramount
Airlines crashed while attempting to land at Lungi International
Airport killing a reported 21 people, including Togo's Minister of
Sport. News reports state most victims were members of a Togolese
delegation attending a soccer match between Sierra Leone and Togo.
There has been no official response from the Sierra Leone Civil
Aviation Authority in the Ministry of Transportation and
Communications. Initial reports state there were no American
citizens aboard. Post is reviewing travel options to Lungi Airport
as a contingency if all helicopter services are grounded. Post will
issue a warden message if there are changes to Post's travel policy
based on safety considerations. END SUMMARY.

TOGOLESE MINISTER KILLED IN CRASH
---------------------------------

2. At approximately 2030 hrs on June 3, an Mi-8 helicopter operated
by Paramount Airlines crashed while attempting to land at Lungi
International Airport. Witnesses say the helicopter was on approach
to the airport when sparks were seen coming from the engine. The
engine then caught fire, and the helicopter crashed. News reports
state all 21 passengers were killed. There were reportedly no
American citizens aboard the flight. Among those killed included
Togolese Minister of Sports Atipe Kwako. Two Paramount crew members
were killed but the co-pilot reportedly survived by leaping from the
aircraft as it crashed. He is in critical condition. The flight had
been chartered to shuttle members of a Togolese delegation attending
a soccer match between Sierra Leone and Togo from Freetown over the
harbor to the airport.

3. Sources state there will be no interruption in flight operations
at Lungi International Airport in the foreseeable future. The
British have encouraged the GOSL to convene a meeting on June 6 to
discuss air emergency procedures. Post will also inquire about the
procedures for a crash investigation.

PARAMOUNT WAS PREVIOUSLY GROUNDED FOR NEAR MISSES
--------------------------------------------- ----

4. This crash follows two incidents in January involving Paramount
helicopters that led to the GOSL grounding Paramount from mid
January to March 1. During the first incident at Lungi International
Airport on January 4, one of Paramount's helicopters had an engine
fire and the second incident on January 12 involved an aborted
take-off after two unsuccessful lift-off attempts at the Aberdeen
helipad in Freetown. The GOSL grounded Paramount as a result of
increased concern about the safety of helicopter operations and
Paramount's failure to meet required safety standards. (NOTE: During
both incidents, there were no reported injuries, and no American
Embassy personnel were aboard. END NOTE.)

5. Paramount Airlines operates a fleet of three Russian-built Mi-8
transport helicopters, two of which had been operational. The
helicopters are flown by Russian and Ukrainian pilots. Paramount
also operates fixed-wing planes that are registered in Conakry,
Guinea. Paramount has flown for over ten years in Sierra Leone
shuttling passengers over the harbor between Freetown and the Lungi
International Airport charging USD 50 for the approximately
eight-minute flight. Paramount's personnel and equipment have been
decimated by this crash and a recent car crash that claimed the
lives of three Paramount staff.

POST TO INVESTIGATE REOPENING OFFICE IN LUNGI
---------------------------------------------

6. Post will weigh establishing an office at Lungi Airport to
facilitate shuttling Embassy staff and official USG visitors between
the airport and Freetown. However, providing this additional service
will add considerable strain to the Embassy's limited resources.

COMMENT
-------

7. Helicopters are one of the few reasonably reliable options
available for transport to Lungi Airport. This crash raises similar
safety concerns about the remaining helicopter service, UTAir, which
began service in March. It is unknown whether the GOSL will ground
all helicopter services. If UTAir is grounded, the remaining options
for transport to Lungi are either a 4-6 hour car ride over
unimproved roads or transport by ferry, which is equally unsafe. The
hovercraft remains out of operation, but may resume soon. A new
German helicopter service, Helog, is about to launch an airport
shuttle using a Puma AS 330J and an Mi-17. Both the ferry and car
ride are problematic and will add considerable time to travel
schedules. The ferry, typically a 45-minute crossing, can take up to
four hours due to an unreliable and erratic schedule, frequent
mechanical failures, and overloading. The ferry terminal is also
situated in the eastern part of Freetown that often experiences

FREETOWN 00000355 002 OF 002


serious traffic congestion. END COMMENT

HULL

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