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Admiral John Borland heads investigation team into deaths of BDF soldiers

It has just been over seventy two hours since the bodies of Major Adran Ramirez, Major Radford Baizar, Corporal Raineldo Choco and Corporal Yassir Mendez were retrieved from the Gales Point Lagoon.  The military men met their demise when the U1H1 chopper went down sometime on Thursday. 

It has just been over seventy two hours since the bodies of Major Adran Ramirez, Major Radford Baizar, Corporal Raineldo Choco and Corporal Yassir Mendez were retrieved from the Gales Point Lagoon.  The military men met their demise when the U1H1 chopper went down sometime on Thursday.  The wreckage was removed with the assistance of CISCO Salvage and Wreck Removal along with the Honduran Navy who had deployed a chopper and a fixed wing aircraft along with human resources.  Tonight, there remains more questions than answers.  In a press conference on Friday, it was noted by the Minister of National Security, Michael Peyrefitte, that an investigative team would be put together; that was done over the weekend with several international agencies assisting Belize.  Admiral John Borland is leading the investigative team.  He met with the media this afternoon and gave an update on what progress was made over the weekend.

Admiral John Borland, Chief of Defence Staff: The downed chopper is now located over at the Williamson Hangar Complex where the air wing base is at. The team assembled this morning again in Price Barracks to continue with the investigation – the internal investigation. The team consist of members of the Coast Guard with Captain Bennett as the lead investigator, members of the BDF with Col. Lorea the Deputy Commander of the BDF as the assistant lead and then a team of expertise from the US MLO Office, the Mexican Navy and Army and Air Force attaches, the BATSUB Commander, a member of the Ministry of National Security Col. Amoa as well as a retired member of the BDF Air wing he was brought on board in the form of Major Lizama, he is a retired not only commanding officer of the air wing but he is also a career pilot in the air wing. The team again has a number of things to do that was charted, it was mapped out to conduct intensive and in depth investigations over at the air wing, over the force headquarters operation cell, over at the JIOC, with all the teams that were deployed as a part of the ground forces that supported the counter drug operation which this helicopter was deployed in support of. The team that is doing the air accident investigation under the leadership of the folks from our Civil Aviation Department also commenced their work on Saturday along with the forensics and the ballistics folks. Tomorrow they shall be joined by a team out of Fort Worth Texas from Bell, Bell Air Service and as you know Bell are the makers of the engines for these helicopters and so they are definitely the expertise that we need as they are qualified in air accident investigations. So that is how the investigations are shaping up. We’re looking forward to give a preliminary report at least by Wednesday. There are a lot of people to assemble, interviews to be done, questionings to be done, a lot of documents to be examined, documents meaning manuals, standard operating procedures, and anything that had to do with the conduct of air operations, that had to do with flight safety, you know procedures and manuals. So the investigation is ongoing following two prongs. The forensics and ballistics reports should be in sometime today  because they needed a chance to look at the remainder of the helicopter that was below the surface of the water to really establish if indeed what some folks were saying that there were bullet holes on the helicopter itself. The preliminary reports from what we examine on the surface both by our Honduran counterparts they are experts as well, will suggest that those are not bullet holes but indeed the forensics report because they have to do the swabs and testing for residue and everything on these holes to really ascertain so that report should be in sometime later today and as soon as that becomes available we shall make that knowledge known to you and to the public.”

Perhaps one of the main questions in everyone’s minds is the delay in realizing that the men had not returned to base.  According to Admiral Borland several persons in the BDF are being questioned while logs are being reviewed.  What he has been able to verify is that the chopper was in the air from as early as 2am but did not deploy to the mission until about 4am.  Borland says that part of their investigation will entail the review of standard procedures versus what really transpires.

Admiral John Borland, Chief of Defence Staff: “We’re now looking to examine systems, procedures, and to look and try and determine and develop while we have a fair idea of what the timelines were by now we have to establish these chain of events, these sequence of events that has led to the aircraft crashing and so that is what’s taking place right now. So that investigation like I said involves questioning and interviewing a number of people and examining all the process the procedures, the flight safety manuals, and everything that has to do with the procedures for that aircraft being deployed for maintaining contact, maintaining communications for that aircraft to follow a flight plan, a flight schedule and all of that. So while we have an idea it has to be verified and it has to be put into the report format before it can be presented as factual and truthful and the end result is to like we say find out what happened. The objective here is not to lay blame on anyone as we are investigating but if it points to negligence, if it points to dereliction of duty then those who are involved will have to be held responsible. As you rightly said there are standard operating procedures for an aircraft to be listed as lost communications. Now I can attempt to tell you what those SOPs say but until that investigation team does that investigation, received copies of what those SOPs say and present them as factual then I am not speaking to the facts but I do know as you seem to allude to that there is a communication schedule that there is a flight plan that when an aircraft has missed a communication schedule either to make a comms check or to make a situation report and then for a period of time to elapse when that aircraft will be identified based on the flight plan as an aircraft overdue. So those are the things we’ll be looking at but until I have that presented to me in a report form I cannot present it as facts upfront to you and to the rest of the public.`”

Among the rumors and speculations floating around on various social media platforms was a voice recording reportedly from a BDF personnel who says he was on duty when the the chopper was deployed.  For reference we bring you the recording that speaks of no one being aware of the mission that the men went on along with Borland’s response to the recorded statement.

“Guys listen to me. That flight for that chopper was not reported at none at all because I worked the night when the plane land. That chopper flew from the night the plane landed. Nobody knew about it not even the watch keeper not even me not even operation Mr.Pop. Now the thing that really gets to me is because this morning now when Mr.Pop came to question me about that chopper, gone through the SITREP book, and he didn’t find any report about it he wanted to even put me on charge. I explained to the man I didn’t know anything about it. Now when we got called across to the air wing we found out that the plane was flying from two o’clock the morning when the actual drug plane entered into the country. Now guys listen to me that chopper has been flying from then right so do the maths. Do the math. “

Admiral John Borland, Chief of Defence Staff:“It doesn’t seem to be a phantom mission from the investigation so far. It seems to have been an authorized mission. The young man in that interview if he is who he says he is will be interviewed as well. All members of the air wing who were on duty at the time of this operation and involved in the planning of this operation will be interviewed. Everyone who is involved with preparation of the aircraft, with running that watch which we call a Command Duty Officer Watch he and his team all of them will be interviewed, information will be gathered from everyone and we shall be able to piece this together. I heard that story, it’s very compelling, it seems very convincing but for now we have to stick to the evidence and to the facts that we have collected.”

As we noted the speculations are many and there is a lot of ground for the investigative team to cover.  Those speculations are accompanied by criticisms of the men going out on a mission in the dark without night time capabilities.  According to Borland the Airwing has restricitions on flying at night and so it remains a mystery as to why the men would go out under those conditions especially with a view on the weather conditions at the time they flew out.

Admiral John Borland, Chief of Defence Staff:  “That indeed that is the case. Those reports have been made not recently but in other times that there is a shortage of equipment that would allow the air wing to operate at night but we do know that the air wing has restrictions on night flying and it is very unusual that those guys would do any night flying because of the restrictions they face, the limitations of not having adequate night flying equipment to equip the aircraft or for the pilots in the form of night vision devices or in the form of night vision equipment for the aircraft itself that would be the forward looking infrared or the radar sets and so on. While we do know that there is a plan to acquire these items, expensive as they may be but that is one of the reasons why the air wing has done limited night operations because they face these restrictions. I cannot speak directly to what the plan is, I cannot speak directly to the responsibilities of those in the chain of command, I cannot speak directly to the funds that are allocated but I know that certainly the air wing operates under restrictions that allow them to do limited night operations. The air wing to some extent were in the process of getting their aircraft repaired”

Reporter: On Wednesday night at around 10:30 a strong cold front came in, there were very strong gusts coming in off the sea, we know that the cruise ship calls for Thursday they had to be cancelled and they were cancelled because the massive cruise ships did not think it safe to enter Belize’s waters with I’m told as many as 50 knots heading their way. How much of a factor was weather, or how much it might have been affecting the ability to stay airborne for a helicopter. 

Admiral John Borland, Chief of Defence Staff: “These helicopters as we know are very robust and can certainly operate to a certain extent of winds and rain and visibility etc. I cannot give you the exact specifications as to what limitations these aircraft can operate as it applies to weather. Yes we know we had foul weather, poor I would say, little to know visibility but for an aircraft to fly the decision ultimately lies with the pilot, he is the one who makes that call whether or not he can fly. These words will be said by professionals when they do the accident investigation, I am telling you from an operator’s perspective based on my experience working with helicopters not operating helicopters but as a part of the delivery for my patrols etc. And so if the weather was such that it deemed it unsafe for the helicopter and for the crew to be out there operating it was the responsibility of the pilots to make that judgment call, no one in command or no one in management can force you to fly in conditions that are not safe to operate in and I’m saying this now based on my background as a mariner because we used to face the same challenges to put to sea when no one else would go out there in gale force winds or almost in tropical storm force winds but we would have to be the ones, the operators of the craft, to make that decision whether or not we would deploy.”

Retired Major Lloyd Jones of the Belize Defence Force today was the spokesperson for the Belize Peace Movement that are making demands to the Government of this tragedy.  Major Jones first spoke on the incident and his experience in the BDF along with the unanswered questions.

Retired Major Lloyd Jones, BMP Spokesperson

Retired Major Lloyd Jones, BMP Spokesperson:There were a number of red flags for me as a former military officer the first is that the aircraft could have been deployed and apparently without the knowledge of the commander of the BDF. This is what we would call a high value asset, it’s extremely important to the operations of the BDF and for it to be deployed it would require the authority, the authorization of the Commander of the BDF. The rumors coming out of the BDF is saying otherwise although the Commander with not much confidence did say to us that it was a sanctioned mission. The troubling thing is that the chopper left very early in the morning and it took them all day to realize that the chopper had not returned that is a serious red flag particularly because the standing operating procedures sets out clearly at what point you ought to be making what we  call radio checks, communications back to base to let them know you are okay. These are routine radio checks. It’s a simple message let me give you an example; for example the pilot would radio in to headquarters and would say – I won’t give you the exact details because it’s a bit confidential but they would say for example ‘Hello headquarters this is the chopper. Radio check over.’ that means that I’m checking with you to let you know I’m here and to make sure I have communications with you, very simple message and the headquarters would reply to say that they acknowledge the message, that is to be done routinely. Additionally where an event happens so for example if the pilots were to come across the aircraft that would require what we call a SITREP, a situation report and that situation report would go back to headquarters to say look we have located the aircraft, it is at this position , we see men around it, we see vehicles around it etc. There was no such call by the helicopter as far as the general reported. Or if there were any mechanical failure- challenges- with the aircraft that’s also a reason to call back to base and say look there’s a problem. There were no communications at all it appears since the helicopter left, that is an obvious red flag that something is wrong. When you are on a foot patrol or a vehicle patrol or in a boat if we don’t hear back from you in twenty four hours it triggers an immediate response that we go and look for you and that is if you’re on a foot patrol, if you are in a boat or in a vehicle you can stop in the boat you can anchor and wait for help to arrive you can’t do that with an aircraft and so it should have triggered an immediate response to say look something is not right, we have not heard from them, nobody on the ground where they were supposed to go have seen them something is not right and they should have activated that emergency response. It should not have taken them more than twelve hours to recognize that this aircraft was missing.”

We will have more on Borland’s interview in tomorrow’s newscast.  Funeral services for the men will be taking place separately throughout the course of this week.  Corporal Yassir Mendez will be laid to rest tomorrow in Douglas Village, Orange Walk.  Corporal Raineldo Choco’s funeral service will be held in Big Falls, Toledo District on Wednesday at 9am.  Major Adran Ramirez will be laid to rest in Corozal Town on Thursday at 10am and Major Radford Baizar’s funeral service is scheduled for Firday afternoon in Belize City at the Saint John’s Anglican Cathedral.