Missing, without a trace

By Time of article published Aug 15, 2011

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AIR and ground searches for the two Albatross aircrafts that disappeared in Tzaneen with 12 passengers on board were delayed early this morning because of bad weather.

Just over 24 hours after the two aircraft left a Tzaneen airstrip, family and friends of the passengers were still in the dark.

The planes, which flew in formation, are believed to have lost signal about 30 minutes after their departure at around 9am yesterday.

Searches were called off at 7pm yesterday when the dark made it impossible to continue looking for the planes. They were meant to resume at 6.30am today.

But by 9am, Limpopo Police provincial spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed that the search had not yet started.

“We will survey the area with helicopters and drop sniffer dogs and their handlers (via rope from the helicopters) to the ground,” said Mulaudzi.

He said the necessary search parties could only get to the area, Georgie’s Valley, by helicopter.

“Everyone is on standby, the only problem is the low-lying clouds. We can’t fly over this mountainous area because of this,” said Mulaudzi.

He said police had applied for a section 205 to check the cellphone records of passengers on board to determine at which point they had lost signal.

Staff from Henley Air, an aviation company with links to the aircraft, began searching for the planes at 2pm yesterday.

John Wright, part of the team co-ordinating the search in Tzaneen and speaking from the Henley Air offices at Rand Airport, said the last they heard from one of the two pilots was when he announced via a radio signal that the plane was about to go through cloud.

He was unable to say what time this was.

Mulaudzi said police had only been informed of the disappearance at 4pm.

They immediately began looking for the missing aircraft.

According to Mulaudzi the area was this morning covered in low-hanging clouds, and it had started to rain.

Some of the people believed to be on the plane include well-known aviation photographer Frans Dely, Tess Spence and Louise Warden, the wives of renowned pilots Dennis Spence and Glen Warden, and Linda Pierce, the fiancée of Aviation magazine editor Athol Franz.

It is believed that one of the flights was being piloted by Brian Gruar. At this stage it is not known who piloted the second plane.

Guy Leitch, the editor of SA Flyer magazine, was supposed to have been on one of the two aircraft, but got a lift on another plane.

Speaking to The Star last night, he said everyone who had been at the airshow was looking for lifts home.

“The weather was not great. There were clouds on the mountain tops,” he said.

Leitch said the aircraft were using visual flight rules, which meant that they had to have the ground in sight.

“We got back managing to do that, but they may have lost sight of the ground,” he said.

Leitch said the aircraft were ex-airforce aeroplanes that were very strong, and there was a chance that they could have had a successful crash-landing.

“But then we would have had cellphone communication from them,” he said.

Last night, messages of support and prayers flooded aviation websites and social networking sites.

In one such post a user named Mary-Anne posted: “This is my Aunt and my Uncle and two young girls, we as their family are in a state. It is now 21h30 and we have still not heard if they crashed and where their bodies are. God bless you Aunty Marian and Uncle Brian we love you for ever. xxxxxxxx”

Last night, relatives of some passengers gathered at the head office at Rand Airport in Germiston, anxiously waiting for news.

A teary eyed woman wearing a white jersey said no one could imagine what the family members were going through.

Another family member who spoke briefly to The Star said they had been told there were no signs of a fire or wreckage.

“We are all trying to be as positive as possible. There is still hope,” said the woman, believed to be the sister-in-law of one of the pilots.

Another woman, who asked not to be named, told The Star that her mother, Marietjie De Witt, had been on board one of the planes.

In tears and clutching a tissue in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she told The Star about how the uncertainty was unbearable.

“For all we know, she could be lying there, waiting for help,” she said. “The only consolation is knowing how many people are out there looking for them.”

Director of Henley Air Johan Coetzee said more than 200 on-foot search and rescue personnel were gearing up in Tzaneen to start searching. Two of Rand Airport’s Henley helicopters were already on their way to meet with nine other aircraft in their search, and more volunteers were set to join the search. Coetzee said the two planes had been flying for just 20 minutes before contact was lost, and yesterday’s attempts to triangulate the plane’s position had been affected by the weather.

However Coetzee said conditions were improving, and was optimistic about further attempts to find the planes.

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