U.S. Horn of Africa Personnel Dive for Aircraft Wreckage in Lake Victoria
Service members from U.S. Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa have located the wreckage of an Ilyshin II 76 aircraft that crashed in Lake Victoria and are conducting diving operations to retrieve information.
The contracted Soviet-era IL-76 was carrying tents and water purification units to Mogadishu in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia. All 11 people on-board died after the freighter crashed shortly after takeoff from Entebbe International Airport on March 9, 2009.
CJTF-HOA personnel are using three types of sonar systems; both unmanned under water vehicles and boat-towed systems to map the lake bottom floor and locate the aircraft debris. As targets are identified, buoys are dropped so divers can find and confirm the objects. The divers have found the aircraft tail.
"It was very tall, and it was in the flight path, so we splashed divers on it and there it was," said Lieutenant Junior Grade Scott Bryant, the on-scene diving operations officer. "We also located portions of the fuselage, that are not enclosed, they are cracked open like an egg." According to Bryant, divers have also located both wings, landing gear with four tires and what they believe to be one of the engines. However they believe the other engines are sunk and will confirm over the next few days.
"Most of the heavy stuff is underneath the silt. We found parts of the tail that are sunk and the divers had to dig five feet under," he said. "This is very difficult diving and potentially very hazardous. Probably some of the most difficult I've seen in 19 years of service. There is no visibility, especially once you touch the bottom; a powder, like talcum powder, floats up everywhere and you can't see at all. Because of the wreckage, there are very sharp medal objects pointing everywhere and we have fishing nets to deal with."
Lake Victoria is the second largest fresh water lake in the world. The wreckage is 80 feet under water, buried in approximately 15 feet of silt and 6.8 miles from the closest pier.
"First we are searching for nets and sharp objects that are going to hurt us. If those aren't an issue then we are looking for enclosed spaces, which may contain human remains, but we haven't found any yet and I don't think we will," Bryant said. "We are searching for engines, we want to mark them for the Ugandans. We are searching for wreckage that might show damage consistent with sabotage or an attack, because that's what we do."
CJTF-HOA brought personnel and equipment to Uganda from Bahrain, Italy and Djibouti. Equipment includes sonar systems, self contained under water breathing apparatus (SCUBA) gear, surface-supply diving equipment, a hyperbaric chamber for emergencies and three boats. CJTF-HOA is part of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
"We are serving as the eyes of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority and UPDF (Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces.) The divers are going down in search of information that help their investigations," said Lt Col Peter Timothy, the CJTF-HOA mission commander. "We are working alongside Ugandan divers who had already located some of the wreckage before HOA arrived in this multi-national recovery effort."
The Government of Uganda requested US assistance in recovering the victims, retrieving black boxes and flight data information, if possible, and support in providing advisory and technical services to the accident investigation.
"U.S. service members are in the Horn of Africa to build relationships with partner nations," said RADM Anthony Kurta, CJTF-HOA Commander. "We work beside Ugandan military forces on a regular basis as part of our efforts to strengthen their own security capacity."
CJTF-HOA personnel use military-to-military mentorship as the cornerstone to building partner country security capacity and support development by building schools, clinics and hospitals and conducting Medical Civil Action and Veterinary Civil Action projects in the Horn of Africa.
"CJTF-HOA retains a search and recovery capacity in our area of operation and my team remains committed to providing the best possible assistance to our Ugandan colleagues," the mission commander said.