Missing Lao Military Helicopter Found Crashed, Weather Hampers Rescue

laos-mi-17-helicopter-pre-crash.jpg The MI-17 helicopter with registration number RDPL-34062 shown in a file photo.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

A military transport helicopter carrying 19 passengers and four crew members to Houaphan and Xieng Khuang provinces in northern Laos which went missing two days ago has been found crashed, official sources said Wednesday, adding that a “high-ranking military patient” had been on board the flight.

Air traffic control in the capital 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 and Xieng Khuang.

The aircraft was located crashed in a remote area of Xaysomboun province’s Longchaeng district, an official with Division 703 of the Lao Air Force told RFA’s Lao Service Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Yes, [rescuers] found it, but the remains [of the passengers] have not been brought back yet as [they] have only located the crash site,” the official said, suggesting it was too difficult to access.

“It’s in Longchaeng district, near Phalamua village. They sent the national defense force first, but had to deploy a military force to assist with the rescue operation.”

The official did not provide a number of casualties in the crash.

The official Vientiane Times quoted a military source as saying that the helicopter had been found in the jungle on a slope of Phu Bia Mountain in Longchaeng.

According to the source, local farmers told military officials that they heard an explosion not long after the helicopter flew past. The officials visited the site and reported that the aircraft had crashed, but did not provide information about the fate of the 23 people on board.

The source said extreme weather conditions were a potential cause of the accident, adding that heavy rains in the region was hampering search and rescue operations, including the ability of other helicopters to reach the crash site.

A senior official from the Ministry of Defense told RFA that at least one of the 19 passengers was a “high-ranking military patient.”

“The MI-17 helicopter which lost contact shortly after takeoff was carrying a high-ranking military patient who came to get treatment in Hospital 103 in Vientiane and was returning to Houaphan province,” said the official, who declined to provide his name.

Hospital 103 is a military hospital operated by the Ministry of Defense which was built to treat soldiers.

A doctor from Hospital 103 confirmed that the military patient had been aboard the helicopter and said three other passengers were staff members from the facility.

“Besides the high-ranking military patient, there were three health professionals from Hospital 103 accompanying him in the helicopter,” the doctor said.

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

Recent air disasters

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 BounchanhMouangkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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