A massive air and ground search is underway for two medium-sized aircraft that went missing after taking part in an air show in the northern town of Tzaneen, each carrying six people at the time they disappeared.
The aircraft, two civilian Piaggio P.166 Albatross types, are able to carry two crew and four passengers and were headed for Rand Airport, News24 said. The Albatross planes, formerly South African Air Force (SAAF) maritime patrol planes, went missing in the mountainous feature called the Escarpment, which separates the central South African plateau, the Highveld, from the coastal plain where Tzaneen is situated.
The area the planes disappeared variously identified as Georges Valley or the Wolkberg Mountains (literally “Cloud Mountains”.)
Like Tzaneen itself, the range is in the northern part of the country. They were headed for Rand Airport in Germiston, near Johannesburg. The Star newspaper said the aircraft lost communications with Tzaneen Tower at five p.m. Sunday. It added the families of those missing were being flown to the search area.
TimesLive reports the search continued overnight using foot patrols but the air search had to be called off at night. It resumed 05h00 Monday morning. Both civilian and SAAF aircraft are involved in the search.
Independent Online (IOL) said a SAAF Cessna Caravan plane was also involved. The Caravan is able to stay aloft for hours and is used in anti-crime operations to film and follow criminals after a break-in or hijack.
Digital Journal spoke to the South African Aeronautical Search and Rescue Centre (SAMSA)’s Johnny Smit. The spokesman said all search aircraft were grounded because of heavy cloud. A SAAF helicopter had been up, but had been forced to abandon the search:
“Yes, it also landed due to the bad weather. It’s on the ground and that’s hampering our search efforts; the bad weather and obviously, the terrain as well. (It is) very mountainous, so for safety reasons, and all the right reasons, they’re not flying.”
This did not mean the search had been called off. Smit said:
“However at the same time, we do have the Mountain Club of South Africa as well as the Offroad Rescue Unit in the area busy with a ground search.”
Smit also confirmed that the search parties had not yet found anything. Local people were being roped in to assist:
“We do keep leads from the local people there, somebody that saw something; heard something and those leads we are following up on foot and four-by-fours.”
At noon, local time, I asked Smit if SAMSA had any idea when the weather might clear enough to allow the aerial search to begin:
“From where I’m sitting, we (had) hoped it (would be) already clear and flying because as soon as it gets a little bit warmer the fog breaks up and then we start flying. So we’re just waiting for it to break up and in the air and flying as well.”
The northern parts of eastern South Africa are experiencing an unseasonal cold front which is bringing rain to these parts of the country. A local weather report says Tzaneen is overcast to rainy with this usually hot region at 12 degrees Celsius (53,8 degrees Fahrenheit).