Thursday, April 05, 2012

Search for plane that ditched over Palau waters ended

Today, Thursday, April 5th marks the fourth day of the search and rescue mission for the missing Cessna plane with an American pilot and two Palauan public safety officers on board. To date, neither the plane nor its occupants have been sighted despite ongoing efforts of the United States Coast Guard and generous private individuals who have donated helicopters for the search effort. However, the Octopus, a 414-foot super-yacht owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who had donated his two helicopters onboard departed Palau yesterday.  

 Anyone with additional information concerning this case should contact Coast Guard Sector Guam immediately at 671-564-USCG. 

 Pilot Frank Ohlinger (right)

 Officers Earlee Decherong and Willy Mays Towai

There will be a vigil held Friday night April 6th to pray for the missing in downtown Koror, Palau at Bethlehem Park at 8:00 pm.  All are invited to attend.

The Coast Guard suspended its active search in Palau today for three men aboard a Cessna airplane that went missing on Sunday, according to a press release from the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam.

Coast Guard, Palau government vessels and a flotilla of local supporters covered a total of 9,000 square miles during the search for 58-year-old pilot Franklin Ohlinger, 47-year-old Detective Willie Towai and 33-year-old Police Officer Earlee Decherong.

“A decision to suspend a search is never quick or easy,” said Capt. Casey White, Sector Guam commander.

“We completed a thorough review of all available information and search activities to date, and took in account the large area we were able to search under good conditions with a large number of different resources. Ultimately, we made the tough decision to suspend the active Coast Guard search effort. Authorities in Palau have not stopped searching and Sector Guam will continue to support their efforts.”

Coast Guardsmen aboard a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and C-130 from Air Station Barbers Point, the Honolulu-based crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis, Palau’s Pacific Patrol Boat H.I. Remeliik, and a number of other local supporters came together for the search.

Anyone with additional information concerning this case should contact Coast Guard Sector Guam immediately at 671-564-USCG.

This tragedy is part of a series of events that began last Friday when a Kayangel fisherman spotted a suspicious vessel nearby.   After he and other Kayangel officials were unable to confront the foreign fishing boat, Kayangel state governor Edwin Chiokai notified Palau Fish and Wildlife authorities who arrived at dusk to begin tracking the fishing boats in the early morning.

On Saturday, the Marine Law officers went to Kayangel’s conservation area in an attempt to apprehend the Chinese fishermen and their craft.  The fishermen tried to escape, and at one point attempted to ram the police boat.  Police fired at the boat’s engines in an attempt to disable the vessel when a bullet reportedly ricocheted off the engine wounding one of the Chinese fishermen who later died of blood loss.  The airplane was sent to assist in the mission and identified the mother ship North of Kayangel.  After being spotted by the plane, the mother ship pulled up anchor and began traveling northwest of Palau, pursued by the Patrol Boat Remeliik.  Realizing they could not outrun the patrol boat, the crew of the mother ship set their own ship on fire and got into the two smaller support boats.  The officers on the Remeliik attempted to put out the fire but were unsuccessful.  The ship sank and the crew were arrested and now are being held in the Palau prison.

On Sunday April 1st, Palau’s Criminal Investigation Officers Earlee Decherong and Willy Mays Towai and Cessna Pilot Frank Ohlinger went on a 2nd “police mission” to photograph the site where the Mother ship sank destroying evidence of what was onboard.  OTV was told that  this mission was for the purpose of aerial photography of the “debris” and ashes of the burned mother ship.

Police statement 

Rock Islands of Palau

The Cessna ABA Sky, Inc. aircraft took off around 3:00p and immediately returned to the airport to repair a malfunctioning GPS.  In an interview today with the Minister of Justice, OTV learned that the Ministry of Justice offered the pilot a back up GPS to take on the mission, but the pilot declined the offer.

At 3:25p the aircraft departed again with a scheduled return of 5pm.   The trip was to take approximately 4o minutes each way. When the aircraft missed the scheduled rendezvous point 175 miles northwest of Palau, the Remeliik patrol boat made numerous attempts to establish communication. The Palau Aerodrome Flight information Service was able to establish communication however, attempts to maintain consistent and clear communication was not successful.

It then became clear that the aircraft’s navigation system was not working properly and the pilot was having difficulty in determining the aircraft’s exact position and heading.  The pilot declared an emergency or “May Day” at approximately 8:00 pm on Sunday, April 1, 2012.  All possible attempts were made from ground level to provide visual reference for the aircraft after dark when the Public Safety Director ordered all emergency vehicles to drive to the highest points in Koror and turn on their flashing lights.  The lights at Asahi ball field were also turned on and Angaur State was notified to turn on as many lights as possible.

Just after 8:00p, the two police officers on board the aircraft were able to contact the police personnel on the ground via the Police VHF radio for approximately three minutes prior to their final total loss of communication with the aircraft around 8:15 p.m.

The last transmission by the pilot indicated that they were traveling “north” at an altitude of 6,000 feet at 65 knots.  The plane was out of gas and gliding.  The plane is assumed to have gone down with no lights visible to aid in the landing.

Immediate assistance was sought from the United States Coast Guard, all available local resources and the visiting Meaga-Yacht The Octopus owned by Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen.  Coordination and efforts for search and rescue operations began immediately that Sunday evening.   The Search and Rescue operations have been on going on a 24-hour basis for four days with coordination between Palau and the United States through the United Stated Embassy, here in Palau.  As of this afternoon, there were still no signs of the aircraft or its passengers despite a search of over 6500 nautical square miles.