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Lauren Anthony, Lee Rondganger and Tim Whitfield
Durban - Rescuers on Thursday found the bodies of two pilots in the wreckage of a missing plane by tracking the cellphone signal of one of them.
The bodies of pilots David Grosvenor and Alick Rennie - chief flying instructor at the Pietermaritzburg Aero Club - were recovered in a sugar cane plantation, in Richmond, on Thursday morning.
Rennie was an Olympic canoeist who represented South Africa in Barcelona in 1992 at the first games since the country’s readmission.
Rescuers had searched for more than 12 hours for the small plane that went missing on Wednesday.
They triangulated a cellphone signal from Rennie’s phone, which had remained on after the accident, and were able to narrow the accident site to an 8km radius.
The pilots had taken off from Underberg to fly to the Oribi Airport in Pietermaritzburg.
An alert had been issued for the men after communication between them and the Oribi Airport was lost. A search started after the pilots did not land at 1pm as expected. It was called off late on Wednesday night because of rain and mist and resumed at first light on Thursday.
Grosvenor and Rennie had between 3 000 and 4 000 hours each of flying time. The plane, which belonged to Grosvenor, was spotted early this morning by an aircraft flying over the area identified by the cellphone.
Spokesman for ER24, Werner Vermaak, said members of the Pietermaritzburg SAP K9 Search and Rescue Unit were helping.
Vermaak said while the team was searching the surrounding areas on Thursday morning, the SAPS K9 Search and Rescue Unit received a report from another aircraft that they had spotted the crash site.
Ground rescue units found the light aircraft in the field. Both pilots were still inside the wreckage.
Vermaak said they had been dead for some time.
Spokesman for the South African Civil Aviation Authority, Phindiwe Gwebu, said two investigators had been sent to the scene.
Chairman of the Pietermaritzburg Aero Club, Gary Keyser, said Rennie was the chief flying instructor at the club, but had assisted Grosvenor in his private capacity to renew his pilot’s licence.
“They were flying in Dave’s private plane for his pilot’s renewal licence. It is something that has to be done every second year.”
Keyser said it was unclear what had happened.
He said he doubted it was weather-related because the plane had landed intact.
“We can’t say at the moment but it might have been engine failure or something went wrong with a procedure. It’s terribly sad…”
Rennie finished 36th at the slalom kayak event in Barcelona.
The engineer had been one of the country’s top paddlers in the 1980s and 1990s, winning multiple SA slalom championship titles, as well as a host of other events in other canoeing disciplines and finishing 12 Dusi Canoe Marathons. He was also a respected canoeing administrator and is a former president of Canoeing South Africa.
As successful a canoeist as he was, he was also passionate about flying and mixed his success in the water with long hours spent in the air piloting a hang-glider as well as fixed wing aircraft.
Rennie was described in the Pietermaritzburg Aero Club’s current newsletter as having a “remarkable passion for flying, and the advancement thereof in all its many aspects”.
He is survived by his wife, Caron, baby daughter Ali, as well as son Iain and daughter Katey from a previous marriage to former South African champion canoeist Nanette. Iain is also a former South African slalom canoeing champion and qualified pilot.
‘Planes must carry transmitters’
In an effort to improve safety in the aviation sector, the South African Search and Rescue (Sasar) has called on the installation of Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT) on all general aviation aircraft.
Sasar will raise this in a meeting with the South African Civil Aviation Authority.
Head of Sasar, Tshepo Peege, said because of the increased number of general aviation accidents recently, the regulation regarding ELTs would be addressed as “a matter of urgency”. “It’s a way of helping to find aircrafts that are missing and preventing further accidents.”
He said the ELTs would be installed on all registered aircraft. Talking about the recent aircraft crash, Peege said this was a huge loss.
“We can’t keep losing pilots like this. It doesn’t help our country,” he said.