The calls started coming in on Tuesday morning saying that a plane was lost and suspected down in the huge Ituri rain forest about 130 nautical miles west of Kisangani. Would we send a plane to the area to look for the downed plane? Of course, we will start getting ready but it will take a while and even we are so far away. Lots of calls to our brothers in Kinshasa to see if they are closer but, we are definitely willing to go.
Imagine looking for an aircraft in this kind of forest for an area of 850 square nautical miles. It is a daunting task.
It is a Turbo Thrush, crop duster on a ferry flight from Kenya to Cameroon. The pilot had just fueled up in Kisangani and had over 2000 liters of Jet fuel on board for the 8 hour flight. The plane had just installed spider tracks, which is a satellite tracking system that shows where the plane is every 2 minutes. It also has a feature where the pilot can push a button alerting that there is an emergency but this had not been done. Along with the tracking stopping, the Emergency Locater Transmitter (ELT) was not sending a signal. This radio is set off by a sudden stop and transmits an alarm that other pilots can hear on the emergency frequency, 121.5. These signs were not hopeful but the MAF guys got our 206 fueled and loaded with survival stuff to drop to the pilot and our search and rescue kit ready. With all this done, Dave Jacobsson and I flew off to find the missing plane. It was over 3 hours just to get into the search area from where we were, but we took some extra fuel so we could do as much searching as possible and for the trip back.
Kids at the Lokutu airstrip happy to play with me as we waited to get permission to leave after landing.
As we got into the area we descended down to a good search altitude, about 1000 feet due to the thickness of the trees. It was a bit high, (800 might have been better), but we only had the two of us and I had to fly the plane first. I have done a bunch of game counting and 300 feet is best for that, but that is in clearer areas without 100 foot high trees and thick undergrowth. We went to the last known co-ordinates and set up an expanding square search pattern. We were asked to search out to 5 miles, which we did with nothing seen. We spaced out 1 mile squares which is normal but doesn’t take into account the thickness of this forest. We finished the first run and then went back to the last transmitted site and started again. This time we slanted the transects 45 degrees with the hope of covering any gaps we might have had on our first search pattern and to give us different light and angles of looking. Still we found nothing. There was an airstrip for a palm nut plantation about 27 miles away, so we headed there to refuel and see what we should do from there. We fueled but it was getting late, so Dave went to town while I looked after the plane. He didn’t come back for 2 hours. And it was all due to the bureaucracy of Congo, with immigration, police, security, chiefs and all the people hoping to make a buck from someone else’s bad fortune. We finally stayed the night at the Catholic mission guesthouse and hoped to get started early in the morning. People were there before 6:30 to “help us with paperwork…and payment”. First we had to check into the country just as if we had come internationally, pay for a first entry information form and then go to meet with the all other government offices to pay. We finally got in the air at 9:00 a.m. to start the search again. The night before we had gotten word of an unconfirmed report that villagers had seen the plane on the ground about 29 miles from us, almost 10 miles from the last spider track site. It didn’t make sense but we went there to start the second day’s search. We were told the plane was close to a river south of the village of Yahuma. We flew up and down the two streams south of town and then flew patterns across the streams. Then we flew over the village and people in front of the government building all pointed in the direction of the area we had flown. The forest is so thick all around but in this area people were clearing fields, cutting down trees and burning, which really threw us off as we had to check each clearing and fire to see if it was the plane. We were running out of fuel for searching but thought we would fly the route between this new area and the last sited coordinates again so headed off in that direction. It was just a tenth of a mile short of 10 miles and we searched in river areas as we went with no joy. We circled the last sited coordinates one more time but were thinking that since the people had already found the plane on the ground it was a waste of time and fuel to continue. As we were now running short of fuel, we flew the 3+ hours back to Nyankunde with a huge respect for the size of the forest and the thickness of the trees.
An ocean of trees for as far as the eye can see, right off the horizon, and one little airplane is somewhere out there. What if we had no idea where to start looking. But we had a last known position and that make all the difference. I know it is a boring picture but that is what we were seeing for hours as we searched.
The team from Kenya was coming in by Caravan and would be in Kisangani by noon to walk in to the crash. Emmanuel was also flying up from Virunga in his Cessna 182. That was great because he should have better results with the government people because of his position with parks. We wished we could be a part and finish what we started, but we were out of fuel and it appeared that the situation was under control. As it turned out, it was not. There was still much government red tape to work through for the Kenya team and when they got to Lokutu and drove to the area where people had supposedly seen the plane they were told that people had heard it increase in pitch and then go quickly silent. They only had a general direction of the sound!
So the Caravan that had brought the people from Kenya got in the air and went to the initial area where contact was lost and started a search. They worked a very tight segment search and after 2 hours saw something. They could see an area of burn and a hole in the ground. A few scraps of stainless steel and that was about it. As they circled and the light changed, they made the comment that it would have been difficult to see the area from any other angle. The plane had gone almost straight in and exploded on impact. So no ELT, no more sat tracker and no more aircraft. All was lost, most tragically the pilot.
It is very sad to think that a husband and father will not come back to his wife and kids ever. We want to learn from this and hopefully we can be safer at the end of the day. The first thing is that we need to get Satellite trackers in ALL our aircraft as soon as we can. Not next year! They had just installed the Spider Tracks unit in this plane for this flight. This was the first trip it had been on and if it had not been in the plane the company said they probably wouldn’t have even done a search. The search area would have been somewhere between Kisangani and Cameroon, a search area of almost 850 nautical miles. The fact that we were right over the sight of the crash at least twice but did not find it highlights the impossible task of an 850 square mile search area of thick forest like this. Because of the speed a Caravan goes, even with our standard HF radio calls done twice an hour, in a situation like this if our last call was a half hour ago we could have a search area of 75 nautical miles. That is a huge area. If we can get these trackers in all our aircraft we could be turning a search and rescue into a rescue.
The second thing we learned is that in thick forest the search patterns need to be very tight and we need to have more observers in the plane, at least 2 besides the pilots. This is in our SAR manual but we were going such a long distance to the search area and needed to take as much fuel as we could that we were limited to 2 people. We could not take our guys from Nyankunde all the way for the search. And stopping to pick up others in Lokutu would have, as we found out, stopped or put off the search.
We pray for the family of the pilot and plan to do all in our power to not need to use the experience we have gained from this event.