Military Helicopter Carrying 19 Passengers, Four Crew ‘Missing’ in Laos

Air traffic control lost contact with the aircraft more than 36 hours ago, an official says.

A Laotian soldier watches a Soviet-made MI-17 helicopter prepare to land in Bolikhamsai province, in a file photo.

A military transport helicopter carrying 19 passengers and four crew members to Houaphan province in northern Laos is missing more than 36 hours after it departed an airport in the capital Vientiane, an Air Force official said Tuesday.

Air traffic control in Vientiane lost contact with the MI-17 helicopter—registration number RDPL-34062—at 1:10 p.m. local time on July 27, shortly after it departed Wattay International Airport, heading for Houaphan, an official with Division 703 of the Lao Air Force told RFA’s Lao Service.

“We cannot confirm whether the aircraft has crashed or had to execute an emergency landing, because we have no proof at this time,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Higher level commanders will not allow us to confirm anything,” he said.

State media has not reported the incident and no other officials were able to confirm that the helicopter was missing when contacted by RFA.

The identities of the passengers and crew members were not immediately known.

Aircraft in impoverished Laos are mostly outdated, and the country has suffered at least two major air disasters within the last two years.

On May 17 last year, a Ukrainian-made Antonov AN-74TK-300 aircraft owned by the Lao military crashed while approaching an airport in Xiengkhuang, killing 17 passengers, including Lao Deputy Prime Minister Douangchay Phichit, Minister of Public Security Thongbanh Sengaphone, and two other high-ranking officials.

The group was en route to attend the 55th anniversary of “strategic gains” made by the Lao military during the Indochina War, according to state media.

The crash, which was attributed to a technical error by the pilot, is the second deadliest air disaster in Lao history, after the crash of Lao Airlines Flight 301 seven months earlier.

On Oct. 16, 2013, Flight 301—an ATR-72 turboprop—plunged into the Mekong River during bad weather as it approached Pakse Airport in southern Laos’s Champasak province, killing all 49 passengers.

Six Australians, seven French, five Thai, three South Koreans, two Vietnamese, as well as passengers from China, Myanmar, Taiwan and the U.S. were killed in the crash, which was also attributed to pilot error.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.