A Czech-British military exercise code named Flying Rhino was marked by tragedy on Thursday when a Lynx helicopter crashed to the ground near Brno killing 6 British soldiers. Shortly after news of the accident came through we contacted Peter Wickenden, Secretary for Press and Public Affairs of the British Embassy in Prague and here's what he had to say:
"We know so far that an accident has happened in the Czech Republic involving a British helicopter and that it took place during a joint exercise involving British and Czech armed forces. The Czech emergency services are on the scene dealing with it in conjunction with a team from the British forces and together they are establishing the details. We can confirm at the moment only that there were six deaths and no survivors from the aircraft. We are not yet in a position to provide further details. And finally as with all such incidents or accidents a board of inquiry is being set up to investigate the cause."
At this stage you say you are not allowed to give us any more details...could you at least give us an idea of the exercise that this helicopter was actually part of - this operation Flying Rhino, I believe it was called?
"Yes, I am afraid that we can only say that it is called Flying Rhino, it is a joint exercise between the British and Czech armed forces. It took place last year and was underway again this year when this accident happened."
Do you have any idea whether there have been fatalities among British soldiers in the Czech Republic previously?
"Not that I am aware of. It is the first accident of this sort that I've encountered in the year or so that I have been here in the Czech Republic."
Now, a few more facts have emerged since that call was made. Daniela Lazarova has been following the story and now joins me in the studio. Daniela, what exactly do we know about the accident at this point?
"Well Dita, there was some speculation about whether there might not have been more soldiers onboard. These Lynx helicopters can apparently carry up to 9 people - but it has now been officially confirmed that there were "only" six soldiers on board - all of them British nationals."
Of course the most important question is what caused the accident - what do we know about that?
"Officially -we don't know. As we heard from Mr. Wickenden, a special board of investigation has been set up to determine that. Of course, there is speculation. Eyewitnesses say that the helicopter was flying very low at the time of the crash and that its propeller clipped some high voltage power lines - which apparently it did because there was a power cut in the vicinity - but whether that was the direct cause of the accident or whether the helicopter already had problems when it hit the wires is not clear. What we do know is that it burst into flames almost immediately and that the wreckage and bodies were scattered on the banks of the Oslava river and in the river itself. Apparently some locals rushed to the site to try to help and one man actually dragged the dead body of a British soldier out of the river but by that time soldiers and firemen were on the spot and they closed off the site very quickly."
"Yes, the decision to continue was reportedly made by both sides - at the suggestion of the British military - but the exercise will be limited and no helicopters will take part until the cause of the accident has been ascertained."
Does that mean that the Lynx helicopters may be considered unsafe?
"No, I don't believe that is the case. We have a statement from the former commander of the Czech air force general Jan Vachek which suggests that they are in fact very reliable."
Jan Vachek: "I think that these helicopters are highly reliable. The fact that they are widely used aboard warships, out in the open seas is proof of that. Lynx helicopters have been used on Czech territory in previous military exercises and there is nothing to indicate that they have a higher accident rate than other types."
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