BANGKOK — The Royal Thai Army has dismissed speculation that a helicopter crash that killed 9 servicemen earlier this week was a result of the aircraft’s old age.
The US-manufactured Bell-212 helicopter went down in a forest in Phayao province on 17 November, killing all nine of its passengers. Maj.Gen. Songphol Thongjeen, deputy commander of the Third Region Army, was among the fatalities.
The crash raised concerns that the age of the chopper, built during the Cold War and imported to Thailand in 1995, may have been a significant factor behind the incident. According to data provided by Thai army, the first batch of Bell-212 helicopters was purchased in 1976, and the last in 2004.
However, a spokesperson of Third Region Army said the age of the choppers is not a concern because Bell-212s can be used for up to 30 years.
"We have been using those helicopters in the Third Region Army for 20 years," Maj.Gen. Thana Charuwat said. "They can still be used for the next 10 years."
He added that the cause of the incident is still under investigation, but stressed that pilots and mechanics in the Thai army have been performing “strict” maintenance checks on all aircrafts.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, chairman of the Thai military junta and Prime Minister, similarly downplayed the age of the choppers in a press conference at the Government House yesterday.
"I am sorry for what happened. I don't want such loss to happen again," Gen. Prayuth said. "It was an accident. No one wanted it to happen. Pilots didn't want it to happen, either. The mechanics have checked the machine regularly. We will investigate the cause."
He continued, "I admit that the helicopters are old, but every other country uses them. We also have helicopters that are even older, the HUHD [sic]. They are 30-40 years old, but they can still fly."
"Anything can happen once your feet leave the ground," Gen. Prayuth concluded.
Meanwhile, Maj.Gen. Thana Charuwat, spokesperson of Third Region Army, denied media reports that the Thai army grounded all of its B-212 helicopters following the crash.
'Gate of hell is open'
However, some of the soldiers who perished in the 17 November crash appeared to have had doubts about the old helicopter.
Sgt. Anan Chomchiangkam, a mechanic onboard the Bell-212, posted the following comment his Facebook moments before the aircraft took off:
"Time to challenge the sky and brave the cold wind again. New pilot, old helicopter. Weather is closed [bad], the gate of hell is open."
An uncle of Sgt. Somphob Malaiwong, another soldier who died in the crash, told reporters that his nephew mentioned the age of the helicopter when he met with him several days before the incident.
"He wanted to change his deployment from Phitsanulok camp to Loburi camp because there are only old helicopters [at the former]," said his uncle, Surin Puangsriraksa."He said they were very dangerous and risky."
The Royal Thai Army is considered one of the most powerful and corrupt institutions in Thailand. Critics say the annual budget of 91 billion baht is regularly used to purchase questionable equipment.
In 2010, a state-sponsored scientific test revealed that the Thai army’s GT-200 "bomb detectors," purchased from a British conman, were fake. The army has also come under criticism for purchasing a 350 million baht "surveillance airship" that has repeatedly failed to take off.
In 2011, 17 people were killed when three army helicopters crashed over a period of two weeks.