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By Gill Gifford, Melanie-Ann Feris, Graham Hosken, Themba Sepotoleke, Hanti Otto and Farouk Khan
Five people, including two top professional cyclists, were killed when the aircraft in which they were flying in crashed into a hill in the Free State.
The light twin-propeller aircraft, a United States-registered Aerostar piloted by Pretoria aircraft sales assistant Dirk de Vos, crashed on the farm Ergernis in the Cornelia area, near Harrismith, on Tuesday afternoon.
De Vos was transporting cyclists and best friends Jaco Odendaal and Jaco de Witt, along with Gerhard Bekker and Durban engineer Edwin Mahabeer, to Harrismith when the crash occurred.
It is thought that De Vos, who was taking Bekker and Mahabeer from a construction site in Thohoyandou in Limpopo, had landed at Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria to refuel and pick up Odendaal and De Witt.
De Vos was De Witt's flying instructor and it is believed that he was giving him extra flying hours. De Witt obtained his pilot's licence two months ago.
What actually happened before the crash, and what went wrong, is a mystery, but it is thought that bad weather may have caused the crash.
One of the passengers apparently called a relative about 20 minutes before the aircraft was due to land and said they had encountered rain and that visibility was poor.
What is known is that the aircraft took off from Wonderboom at 4.40pm on Tuesday and headed for Harrismith.
Bethlehem emergency services spokesperson Fred Slippers said the aircraft was last seen near Roadside at Warden, flying in a westerly direction, according to reports.
According to Arthur Bradshaw, the head of aeronautical search and rescue for the South Africa Search and Rescue Organisation, no flight plan was filed before take-off and no search-and-rescue effort was immediately requested when the plane failed to arrive in Harrismith at about 5.30pm.
Flight plans, which contain search-and-rescue information, are used by air traffic control to keep an aircraft under surveillance.
Without a flight plan, a pilot must fly at 1 500 feet or less above ground level, and it is the pilot's responsibility to keep in contact with local air traffic control.
The wreckage - strewn over a distance of more than a kilometre - was found at about 11.45 am on Wednesday after a massive search involving two fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter, as well as a ground team.
An appeal for information was also broadcast over the Marnet radio network to local farmers, and a lot of reports of all kinds were received, according to Bradshaw.
Each one had to be followed up and checked out. We eventually lost count of everything that was coming in.
Bradshaw said the search was launched after a call for help on Wednesday morning from a family member of one of the passengers who said the aircraft had not arrived at Harrismith.
The search continued for several hours, and at 11.45am on Wednesday, plane wreckage was sighted seven kilometres south of Cornelia.
It took just over half an hour to confirm that the wreck was that of the missing aircraft.
The damage seemed to indicate that there could not have been any survivors.
The search operation was immediately stopped and the matter handed over to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the police.
CAA spokesperson Moses Seate said they sent a team of investigators to the site of the wreckage to establish the cause of the accident. He said they would be working closely with the police.
As the sun set on Wednesday, members of the CAA combed the crash scene.
Items such as safety belts, shoes, the aircraft's speedometer, an engine, torn clothing and business documents were strewn around.
Free State police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Sam Sesing said the badly mutilated bodies were taken to the Vrede mortuary, where a postmortem would be conducted.
Tony Harding, the manager of the national cycling team, said it was possible that De Witt had flown the plane to gain extra flying hours.
He said both cyclists had returned from overseas last year. De Witt had given up cycling to concentrate on obtaining his pilot's licence and to further his studies. Odendaal was based in Pretoria and had continued his cycling.
Both were very talented cyclists, and very nice kids, Harding said.
Odendaal's father Koos, speaking from his Mossel Bay home, said his son and De Witt were closer than brothers.
They had been friends since the age of 12, when they both took up cycling as a sport.
According to Odendaal, the two friends were planning to start a business together after De Witt finished his studies in Bloemfontein.
Odendaal said he had received a missed call signal on his cellphone from his son at 4.10pm on Tuesday. When he returned the call, there was no answer.
Bob Aldridge, of Supa Cycling magazine, who knew both cyclists, said their death was a major tragedy to the cycling community.
He said Odendaal had been due to join the rest of the Microsoft team for a training ride down to Pietermaritzburg before their next race, the Belgotex Carpets/Witness Capital Cycle Classic, on Sunday. He had been expected to shine in this year's season.
Mahabeer, 53, was on Wednesday night described by brother-in-law Gabriel Moonsamy as a devout Christian and a dedicated family man who had been an extremely talented engineer-technician.
He said Mahabeer's wife Margaret and three children were devastated.
Colleague Lianne Graves described Mahabeer as a wonderful, special man. He had gone to Limpopo to check a building site and was returning home when the accident happened.
A close friend of De Vos's said De Vos had been a highly experienced pilot with more than 10 years of flying under his belt.
He knew how to handle all sorts of situations and was extremely safety-conscious, so whatever went wrong must have been really bad, he said.