Dec 08, 2023 News
Kaieteur News – Five of the seven occupants of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Bell412 helicopter which disappeared on Wednesday between Arau and Ekereku in Region Seven died after the aircraft crashed in the jungle, the army has confirmed.
Those confirmed dead are: the pilot-in-command, veteran aviator Lieutenant Colonel Michael Charles, Colonel Michael Shahoud, Lieutenant Colonel Shaun Welcome, Staff Sergeant Jason Khan and Brigadier (Ret’d) Gary Beaton.
Lieutenant Andio Michael Crawford, a pilot on board the aircraft, and Corporal Dwayne Johnson survived the crash. The GDF said the Force entered the second day of its search and rescue operation on Thursday to locate the helicopter, bearing registration 8R-AYA, which went missing since 11:20hours Wednesday when it encountered bad weather. A Special Forces team was inserted into the area on Wednesday and arrived at the crash site at approximately 14:30 hours on Thursday afternoon when the men’s deaths were confirmed.
The next phase of the operation involves the extraction from the area, followed by the commencement of an investigation into the incident, the GDF said. GDF’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier Omar Khan said on Wednesday night at a press conference that the chopper had departed Base Camp Ayanganna around 09:23hrs for Arau, located at the country’s western border with Venezuela. Colonel Shahoud, who was commander of the First Infantry Battalion of the GDF, was in charge of the mission and the duty of the team was to visit soldiers stationed at the border location. Khan told reporters that the helicopter had stopped at Olive Creek in Region Seven to refuel but shortly after taking off, contact was lost with the crew. The Chief of Staff said it received no report of anyone seeing what had happened to the helicopter when it took off from Olive Creek.
The Bell412 helicopter was commissioned by the GDF in June this year. The GDF extended sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of those who perished. “The Guyana Defence Force is committed to providing unwavering support to these families during this unprecedented and challenging period of mourning. These Officers have served and given excellent service in the defence of our country and will be duly recognized,” the Army said.
The Army also expressed gratitude to the search and rescue team, “for their tireless efforts, working around the clock to navigate adverse conditions and challenging circumstances. Their dedication and resilience have not gone unnoticed, and we commend them for their selfless service during this trying time.”
On social media, tributes poured in Thursday afternoon after news of the men’s death circulated. Leading the tributes was President Irfaan Ali, who in a statement, said he knew each of the victims of the crash personally. He said his respect for them was boundless. “They were not just military men; they were guardians of our sovereignty, defenders of our values, and champions of our freedom. Their commitment to duty was unwavering, as evidenced by their willingness to embark on missions even in the most treacherous conditions to ensure the safety of our Motherland,” he said. “For our nation and the Guyana Defence Force, this is a blow that words fail to capture adequately. Their sacrifice, made in the line of duty, will forever be etched in the annals of our history, a testament to their courage and devotion,” Ali said.
President Ali expressed condolences to the relatives, friends and colleagues of the casualties of the crash. The Office of the Opposition Leader expressed condolences to the families of the soldiers who perished in the crash. “We will forever honour these current and former Army officers as genuine and brave sons of the soil who gave dedicated service and their lives in defense of our dear homeland, Guyana.”
It noted that it shares the “mixed emotions” of the families of the victims. “Our thoughts and prayers are also extended to you.” The Opposition Leader’s office said it expects that the survivors and their families will have the full support of the GDF in particular, and the Government of Guyana in general, as they seek to overcome the trauma associated with the accident. In a message to the GDF officer corps and servicemen, the Office of the Opposition Leader said it stands with military “in this moment of bereavement. At this moment when our country is under threat from abroad, we know you are standing resolute and brave, despite the loss of your comrades.”
Vice President, Bharrat Jagdeo said it is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that “I extend my sincere condolences to the families, friends, and colleagues of the five brave Guyana Defence Force soldiers who tragically lost their lives in the helicopter crash on December 6, 2023.” Jagdeo a former president said during this difficult time, “my thoughts and prayers are with you as you navigate the pain and sorrow that comes with the loss of your loved ones. The sacrifice and dedication of Brigadier Gary Beaton- Project Engineer, GOG; Colonel Michael Shahoud- Commander 1st Infantry Battalion; Lieutenant Colonel Michael Charles- Pilot; Lieutenant Colonel Sean Welcome- Commanding Officer Reserve Battalion; and Staff Sergeant Jason Khan- 31 Special Forces Squadron, to the service of their country will forever be remembered and honoured.” “May you find strength in the cherished memories you shared with your loved ones and in the knowledge that their commitment to duty has left an indelible mark on the nation. We share in your grief and stand united in offering support and solidarity during this trying period.”
He said in honouring the memory of these valiant soldiers, “let us also acknowledge the selflessness and bravery they displayed in the line of duty. Their service to Guyana will be remembered as a testament to their unwavering commitment to the principles of duty, honour, and sacrifice. As you mourn the loss of these heroes, please know that you are not alone. The entire nation joins hands in expressing our deepest sympathies, and we are here to offer any assistance and support that may bring comfort in this challenging time. May the souls of the departed soldiers rest in eternal peace, and may you find solace in the collective embrace of a grateful nation. I want to extend my heartfelt wishes for the swift and complete recovery of the two surviving soldiers – Lieutenant Colonel Andio Michael Crawford and Corporal, Dwayne Jackson – who endured this harrowing incident. Their strength and resilience in the face of adversity are a testament to their courage and commitment.”
The Ministry in Home Affairs said it “deeply mourns” the devastating loss of the servicemen. The ministry extended heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families, the country and the GDF. Former Chief –of-Staff of the GDF, Rear Admiral (ret’d) Gary Best said he was saddened at the loss of the men. “It is with great sadness in my heart that I express deepest condolences to the families of the four GDF Officers and soldier of valour who lost their lives in service to our great country,” he said.
The Private Sector Commission (PSC) in statement, said its thoughts are with the victims of the crash, adding that in the “face of adversity, we acknowledge the courage of those who survived.” It said the soldiers “contributions to the defense of our nation will be remembered with gratitude.’ The Bar Association expressed sadness at the deaths of the soldiers. The body also it is praying “for the good health and recovery of the two servicemen who survived.”
Charles, whose popularity has grown immensely over the years given his decades of experience as a helicopter pilot, has been described by many in aviation circles as aviation extraordinaire and promoter of Guyana’s rich tourism potential. He regularly posts photographs and videos of his many trips on social media platform Facebook, showcasing a range of scenes of the landscape of Guyana. Outside his military duties, he produced several tourism documentaries, including the ‘Guyana: Yours to discover” series which gives viewers insightful views of the country.
In January 2021, Prime Minister, Brigadier (ret’d) Mark Phillips hailed Charles, as a pioneer in showcasing Guyana’s tourism product to the rest of the world. At the time, the late pilot had presented his fourth video- “Sounds and Colours of the Rainforest”- the fourth video in a “Guyana -Yours to Discover” series. Known popularly as “Mike Charles,” the late aviator was awarded the Medal of Service in 2011 for his contribution to military aviation and for showcasing Guyana to the world through video and photography.
A decorated and well-known military man, Charles told Kaieteur News previously that he joined the GDF at age 18. The second of four boys, he was born and raised at Soesdyke, East Bank Demerara and lived there until his passing. Charles was trained for one year as an Officer Cadet after which he became a Second Lieutenant. He was commissioned in 1982 by then Head of State, Forbes Burnham, whom he had previously met when he was just a young boy during a school play.
He swiftly scaled the ranks in the GDF and always had his eyes on the Air Corps as he always dreamed of becoming a pilot since he was a little boy. So enthused was the young Charles in flying, that viewing the aircraft from the distance of his home at Soesdyke was not enough, thus he would hop on his bicycle and head for the airport regularly to get a closer look in order to satisfy his fascination.
Charles retired from the army in 2010, but he was re-employed by the government to fly the Bell 412 the following year. He was an integral of the crew which ferried to Guyana from the United States, a new Bell 412 helicopter acquired by the GDF in 2021.
Shahoud, who gained his formal education in Berbice at the St. Theresa’s Primary School in New Amsterdam and later, the St. Margaret’s Primary and North Georgetown Secondary Schools in the city, has been described as a distinguished officer. Upon the completion of his secondary education, Shahoud enlisted in the GDF and studied law at the University of Guyana. He benefited from training on several courses both locally and overseas. During his service, he has held numerous appointments, and served as Legal Officer, in the GDF’s Legal Services Department. Shahoud, proceeded to read for a pre-law programme at UG, in 2008, and later received a military scholarship to pursue the Bachelor of Law Degree -gaining a distinction – and the Legal Education Certificate at the Hugh Wooding Law School. In 2018, Shahoud headed the GDF promotion list, he was promoted from Substantive Major to Lieutenant Colonel along with three others. Earlier this year, he was promoted to Substantive Lieutenant Colonel.
Brigadier (ret’d) Beaton served the GDF for 35 years until his retirement in March 2021. Beaton enlisted in the GDF in 1985 and was commissioned as an officer in 1987. At a ceremony to mark his retirement in March 2021, he said, “The Force being the parent, and I the child, like with any good parent, the Force began to shape me and mould me into the person I am today. The shaping and moulding came in many different forms, such as advice from my seniors, peers and juniors as well as tough decisions in situations regarding career choices and occupation experience.”
During his tenure in the GDF, he served as Officer Commanding Construction Company, Commanding Officer 4 Engineers Battalion and Commander Engineers Corps among other positions. He also completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Guyana and a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering at the Auckland University, New Zealand. Brigadier Beaton is also the recipient of the Military Service Medal, MSM. He was the husband of Member of Parliament, Dr. Jennifer Westford.
Khan’s family and friends recalled fond memories of the late soldier who was a paratrooper. He was also an integral member of the GDF’s basketball team. Paratroopers, never die; we regroup and come again,” one of the friends posted on Facebook on Thursday afternoon. “Our flag doesn’t fly because the wind moves it. It flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it,” Khan’s friend said. Earlier on Thursday, his wife spoke highly of the soldier, she expressed optimism that he was okay.
Welcome, who graduated this year from the University of Guyana with a Master’s degree in Strategic Development Studies, was described as an all-rounder. During his career in the GDF, he served in the Civil Defence Commission (CDC). He is a former student of the Centre for Communication Studies at UG. In 2018, Welcome, who was at the time a member of the Guyana Peoples Militia, was adjudged the top graduate of the GDF’s Senior Command and Staff Course (SCSC) Number 15. Longtime UG lecturer, Valarie Monica Goorasammy Smith, noted on Facebook that she will always recall Welcome’s smile while he was one of her students at the St. Joseph’s High School.
Twenty-nine years ago, a small aircraft crashed in the area where the chopper went down on Wednesday.
On December 6, 1994, a Trans Guyana Airways Cessna 206, bearing registration 8R-GGS, crashed after departing the Ekereku Bottom airstrip. Three people, including the pilot Nyron Mirza, died in the crash.
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