The UNTAC operation, which began in March 1992, needed serious logistical support. Air transport services were given- in somewhat (later thrown out of court) shady circumstances- to a Canadian firm called SkyLink Aviation. SkyLink used a fleet of MI-17’s and MI-26’s piloted by often dubious Russian characters- described by one UNTAC veteran as “more like a bunch of drunken pirates that had had a very rough and hard very long weekend”. Many were experienced combat pilots who had fought in the Soviet-Afghan war, and some gained a reputation for hard drinking- and unwinding with copious quantities of local ganja.
The United Nations, citing safety concerns banned SkyLink Aviation from further contracts in 1993, after a series of crashes involving its aircraft. The United Nations lifted the ban the following year but again suspended the company in 1997 after alleging that it was manipulating the bidding process. The company vigorously denied the allegations in both instances.
The first reported incident involving the MI-17 was in November 1992, when a chopper came under fire- supposedly from Khmer Rouge forces- and crash landed near Phum Damrai Slap, about 30 km from Siem Reap.
A shaken Russian crew were airlifted out under harrassing fire, and the damaged (and stripped) helicopter was recovered the next day.
According to a Phnom Penh Post reconstruction of events, this is what happened: A routine trip transporting several members of the Pakistani army battalion back to their Sector III headquarters base in Samrong at a height of 1100 meters was abruptly interrupted at 11:20 a.m. when automatic weapons fire hit the left engine oil tank, spewing hot oil into the chopper’s rear cabin.
The crew decided to immediately make an emergency landing, which had to be managed without one engine. The left engine was shut off after smoke suggested it had caught fire. The Mi-17 helicopter was still being fired upon and was hit three times as it dropped into a forested swamp. Before landing deep in muck, a tree branch gashed a hole in a fuel tank that quickly spread a lethal pool around the downed chopper.
The helicopter came down in Phum Damrai Slap, about 30 kilometers northwest of Siem Reap, the provincial capital.
“We heard firing first from far away and then closer and we knew they would be coming to surround us in 10 or 15 minutes,” recounted Sector 3 Commander Tariq Mahmud, who was among those aboard the downed helicopter.
Another helicopter which happened to be in the area was called in, lifting out everyone but the three-man Russian flight crew, who had orders to remain with their craft until technicians traveling in a third helicopter could reach them for repairs.
But once the second helicopter was in the air, the firing resumed. “At that point I ordered the second helicopter to return and pick up the crew,” recounted (Helicopter Group Captain Rafael) Zakirov, who was in the third helicopter at the time.
“That’s when the real cinema started,” recalled Russian Army Maj. Roustam Saliakhov, 30, who played a leading role rescuing his compatriots in a hail of rifle fire. “We were hovering and they (the Russian aircrew) were running towards us-in the swamp up to here,” the Afghanistan veteran said, pointing to his upper thigh.
“They were screaming and we were yelling ‘come on come on’-the last one grabbed the ladder and we pulled him in at an altitude of about 10 meters from the ground as we took off.”
This was all under rifle fire from a distance of about 50 meters. In retrospect, Saliakhov said, “It was probably just meant to harass us but at the time we didn’t know that. It was pretty real for us.” PHNOM PENH POST– Nov. 20, 1992
A crash involving another MI-17 occurred in Siem Reap on March 23, 1993, injuring at least 19 out of 23 passengers and crew, including Japanese U.N. press officer Junko Mitani, Welsh free-lance journalist Brian Hansford and Antoni Bokun, a Polish TV journalist, all of whom suffered spinal injuries. The helicopter was carrying three UNTAC officials, one being the Australian Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Palk, Chief of Military Public Information.
American academic Fred Brown, who sprained his back said he believed he was going to die when the helicopter began to plummet.
“I knew we were had. The centrifugal forces were so great we were tumbling over each other. There was nothing you could do. It was a near thing. I don’t know why the damn thing didn’t catch fire,” he said.
Ira Chaplain, an American free-lance photographer working for Der Spiegel magazine said he had similar fears.
“When it crashed there was fuel every where and sparks came raining down from the roof and we were thinking let’s get…out of here.” PHNOM PENH POST – Mar. 26, 1993
The Russian pilot was praised for his handling of the aircraft, which began to spin out of control-initial investigations believed due to a faulty tail rotor. This crash, just weeks after a larger MI-26 came down in Stung Treng, saw the fleet grounded for safety checks.
The Stung Treng crash was written about by Canadian Sgt Sylvie Boudreau who took a flight in a huge MI-26- the largest and most powerful helicopter to have gone into serial production. Her own words follow:
“In October 1992, I was serving under, 2 Service Battalion’s Transportation Company based out of CFB Petawawa, when my company was tasked to United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia. I was one of twelve section commanders to be selected to go for a period of 6 months. The Canadian Contingent was under the command of Lt Col Focsaneanu and the company was led by Maj. St-Cyr. Our main task as a transportation company was to help support the upcoming elections. Delivering various cargo was our main objective.
The cargo we had to transport across the country varied from food supplies, fuel, generators, voting equipment and even pillows. Our job was not easy since not only did we not know the countryside but also the roads were all in disrepair. Either mines or mortar shells had destroyed most of all the available roads to us. This made it hard to travel short or long distances because we were limited to a speed of 30-50 kpH. Keep in mind that the livestock and mopeds also used the same bad roads. All of this traveling had to be done by daylight for fear of being shot at by the Khmer Rouge.
Never the less we accomplished many convoys with minimum incidents. Since our resupply missions had to be done by air or waterways considering not all locations were accessible by land. This meant loading up helicopters and boats to get our deliveries to their destinations and so on 27 Feb. 93, I was tasked by MWO Gapp to escort WO Frances MacTaggart on her resupply mission to Stung Treng.
In Cambodia it was SOP (standing operating procedure) to travel in pairs at all times. The actual task was quite easy; we were only going to be deployed from Camp Canada for no more then 6 hrs. We then boarded an MI-26 #93 flight 253 (Russian helicopter). The crew was comprised of 5 Russian civilians hired on by Skylink to fly for UNTAC. The rest of the passengers included WO MacTaggart and I, the only two Canadians and the only two women aboard, 2 Chinese soldiers, 4 Polish soldiers and 1 Cambodian translator for a total of 14 people.
The chopper departed the Phnom Penh airport at approximately 0830 hrs. without a hitch. WO MacTaggart and I were sitting in a small compartment located directly behind the cockpit. From our location we could see the crew and by looking through a door we could also see the cargo hold and the remainder of the passengers. The cargo area also contained a 5-ton truck carrying 45 gallon drums of kerosene, which was by no means secured properly in the chopper. As we were nearing the Stung Treng airstrip, I was looking out of a small window video taping another helicopter that was also landing at the airstrip (MI-17, a smaller helicopter then ours) . WO MacTaggart was just sitting on a small bench looking out as well. Everything seemed to be going rather well during our flight. The crew members were going about their business without any problem, or so we thought. All of a sudden the Warrant looked at me and said with great concern “Something is wrong with this helicopter, it’s making funny noises” .
She had previously flown in the same type of choppers so she had an idea what they should sound like. At 1030 hrs. on the 27 Feb. 93, flight 253 dropped out of the sky from a height of 250 meters. The MI-26 hit the runways with such force that the tail section broke off on impact. It sent the rest of the burning helicopter skidding down the airstrip on its right side. When it finally stopped moving, most of us were scattered throughout the wreckage because we did not have any seat belts. WO MacTaggart and I landed on the floor, on top of each other along with one of the Polish soldier who was on top of us. We both looked at each other and asked simultaneously if we were all right. The only way that we could have noticed anything wrong with us would have been if a limb had been missing. The adrenaline was just rushing through our bodies. We did not have much time since it was quite evident that we were in extreme danger. The chopper still had most of fuel cargo and was already ablaze.
As soon as we could, we got to our feet and looked around to see what our situation was. A Chinese soldier was totally buried under the cargo. For as long as I live, I will never forget his facial expression asking us for help. He was pleading with us to get him out of his precarious position. By then the smoke was thickening in the cargo hold, time was of the essence. When the Warrant went to help him out, the pilot came at us with his arms in the air urging us to get out. The pilot was also hurt; he was bleeding from a gash to forehead and was also missing a part of the left knee. But never the less, the WO remained there, trying to free the soldier. With help from the pilot, they were trying to pull out the soldier. While I was attempting to get out of the wreckage, I came upon the copilot who was unconscious. I pulled him out to safety and dragged him away from the chopper.
While I was dragging him away, I saw that he was missing his shoes. His feet were actually becoming a bloody mess from the surface of the runway. This had to be a bad dream. But nonetheless I managed to get him to safety away from the current inferno. While all of this was going on, I had lost track of WO MacTaggart who was still inside of the wreckage.
From the outside, the helicopter looked extremely bad, the flames were everywhere and a thick black smoke covered the area. I screamed for her to get out of there since it was about to blow up. The pilot finally came out and she was the last one to come into view. The only exit available was a small cockpit window that we all had to crawl through. With her was a limp Chinese soldier. By this time, the uninjured ones had left the burning wreckage running without looking back. Only a few of us remained behind with the injured ones.
We did first aid until a small pickup truck and an ambulance came to take the most injured people. With all the commotion, the rescue personnel forgot about WO MacTaggart and I. Seeing that, we proceeded on foot to the makeshift terminal which was operated by the Dutch Battalion. We got as far as a 150 meters when the whole thing blew up, this time destroying what ever was left of it. The shock from the blast was so strong that from our position, we felt the heat and the concussion from the explosion. All we could do was hold on to each other and think about how grateful we were to be standing there in one piece.
This chain of events took place within a few minutes, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. Once we reached the tent where all the bystanders were, people began asking us if we had just been passengers from the blown up chopper. We confirmed that we had been aboard the helicopter. The look on their faces was of total amazement that we had just walked away from the now totally destroyed aircraft. We had strangers coming to us and hugging and kissing us. After a while the ambulance then took us to a makeshift hospital that was manned by the Indian contingent. We were treated for our cuts and abrasions.
That night at about 20:30 hr., we were air lifted back to Camp Canada by a French Puma (French helicopter used to fly low night operations to evade oncoming fire from the Khmer Rouge). There was no lost of life in the crash of MI26. A Chinese soldier sustained the worst injuries, his spine gave away when he was pried from under the cargo. A Polish soldier received severe burns to his back from his uniform shirt catching on fire. In total. 5 occupants were severely injured but none that proved fatal.
After investigation it was proved that the crash was due to pilot error. For our actions during the crash, WO Frances MacTaggart and I were awarded the Medal of Bravery the 16 June 1997 in Ottawa. The Air Force Association also awarded us with “Air Marshal C. Roy Slemon Award” for Air women of the year in Oct. 1998.
Retired Sgt Sylvie Boudreau MSA
The Canadians later met the Queen.
Other sources: Washington Post, Rethinking International Organizations: Pathology and Promise, UN Documents STEVE