Malaysians mourn helicopter crash victims, some demand top navy officers resign

Petty officer Nor Rahiza Anuar was supposed to celebrate a special Eid gathering with her family this Friday. Able Seaman Joanna Felicia Rohna last spoke to her younger sister on Saturday, asking her to take care of their grandparents and eat well.

All these plans and conversations are now just memories held by their distraught families after the two servicewomen died along with eight others in a twin helicopter crash during a rehearsal on Tuesday for the navy’s 90th-anniversary celebration at its naval base in Lumut, Perak.

A viral video of the horrific moment shows the two helicopters appearing to clip each other’s rotor blades and swiftly spinning out of control towards the ground where plumes of smoke spew upwards on impact.

The incident has shocked Malaysians and raised questions about the Malaysian military’s preparedness, assets and training given to its staff.

“The navy will form an investigative board [on the crash], assisted by the air force and the director general of technical airworthiness,” Defence Minister Khaled Nordin told a news conference on Tuesday.

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10 killed in mid-air helicopter collision at Malaysia naval base

10 killed in mid-air helicopter collision at Malaysia naval base

Khaled also gave more details about the two helicopters involved in the tragedy. The Eurocopter Fennec lightweight helicopter started service in 2003 while the Maritime Operations Helicopter (HOM) built by Italy’s Leonardo, which carried seven of the victims, was delivered to the navy in 2021, he said.

Malaysians were united in mourning on Wednesday, posting numerous messages hailing the victims as heroes and extending condolences to their grieving families.

Some called for heads to roll among the navy’s top brass for alleged poor planning as the fly-past formation included helicopters of different models operated by separate units.

“It really shows poor preflight briefing is done especially when crew’s & helicopter type are not from the same unit. Those in charge of this kind [of] aerial display needs [sic] to be taken to task including the naval commander,” read a Facebook comment by one Suresh Kumar.

“Why are there so many personnel in the aerial display on the two helicopters? Was some personnel on joyrides on the helicopters? 10 personnel loss [sic] their life due to poor planning by the organisers.”

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Most chose to focus on the pain suffered by the victims’ families.

“Unbearable pain in the heart. Condolences to the family members,” said one Izwan Rashid in a comment to a separate Facebook post.

The Malaysian navy on Wednesday said the fly-past formation involved two HOM helicopters, four Fennecs and one Super Lynx military helicopter built by Italian-British manufacturer AgustaWestland.

Details about the victims have emerged from their grieving relatives.

Just days before the crash, Nor Rahiza was excited about organising a special Eid celebration with her family, even roping in her siblings and their children to shoot a video to commemorate the annual Muslim festival, her brother Abdul Latif Anuar said.

“She was so excited … in past years she was not like that,” Abdul Latif told local broadcaster TV9 at their family home in Yan town in Kedah state.

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Joanna was described as a caring individual who provided for all her family’s needs even though she was stationed in her base thousands of kilometres away from her hometown of Serian in Sarawak state.

“I found out when I came home from school. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it,” Joanna’s teen sister Diyanne told news channel Astro Awani.

“She hardly comes home because she’s always busy working. We last spoke on Saturday and she told me to take care of our grandparents, eat well and study hard … I’m very proud [of her].”

The tragedy was also reported by global news organisations, some of which shared the crash video. The Malaysian government asked the public and media on Tuesday to stop sharing the 21-second clip out of respect for the families of the victims.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said the tragedy was a loss to the country and has left a deep impact on Malaysia’s armed forces.

I pray they find the strength to face this difficult time
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim

“My condolences to the families of the victims and I pray they find the strength to face this difficult time,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

The collision happened on the fourth day of rehearsals for the navy’s Fleet Open Day scheduled for next month at its main base in Lumut.

The navy said the Fennec was on its fourth day of rehearsals while the HOM had just arrived from its base in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to be part of the fly-past formation.

Its anniversary celebration has been cancelled and special prayers for the victims will be held in its place, Khaled said.

The crash was the latest in a long list of accidents over the decades involving military aircraft, many of which were ageing and well past serviceability.

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In 2021, a Malaysian Air Force Hawk 108 fighter jet crashed during routine training at its Butterworth base in Penang state, killing one pilot and injuring another. It was the 10th crash involving the jet model since 1996.

There were also four crashes involving military helicopters between 1989 and 2016, which killed 38 personnel in total and injured 14.

Last year, Malaysia signed a US$920 million deal with Korea Aerospace Industries to buy 18 FA-50 light combat aircraft and replace its fleet of Hawk 108 jets, with delivery expected from 2026.

The government has also approved a plan to procure 12 new military helicopters under its 2024 budget.

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