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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 29, 2006

Plane lost off Moloka'i

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

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Search crews yesterday found no sign of survivors, a fuel slick or any wreckage of a missing Cessna 177B that apparently plunged into the ocean off Moloka'i Thursday night.

High seas and gusty winds forced crews to suspend the search for the plane, which had a flight instructor and student pilot aboard.

The Coast Guard and Maui Fire Department will review their search options this morning, said Coast Guard petty officer Michael De Nyse and Maui Fire Department acting Battalion Chief Jeff Murray.

The plane made an unexplained turn toward the Moloka'i cliffs before apparently plunging into the sea at 8:54 p.m. Thursday.

The Cessna Cardinal left Ho-nolulu Airport at 7:54 p.m. Thursday with two people aboard, having filed a visual flight rules flight plan for Maui's Kahului Airport, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer. The plane disappeared from FAA radar and the FAA reported losing radio contact an hour later at 8:54 p.m. when the plane appeared to be north of Moloka'i.

The instructor and student pilot have not been identified. The plane is a 1969 single-engine Cessna, tail number N30652. It is owned by Anderson Aviation, a flight training company that operates out of Honolulu Airport.

Anderson Aviation operator Kelly Anderson, who is also the company's chief flight instructor, yesterday said he would have no immediate comment.

"It's still early. We don't know what's going on yet," he said.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Nicole Charnon said her investigation was just starting, but had already turned up details about the flight, most of them from Navy radar records collected on O'ahu.

The records indicate the Cessna passed north of 'Ilio Point at Moloka'i's northwestern corner heading generally east. It crossed north of Kalaupapa and continued in an easterly direction at an elevation of 5,000 feet for about five miles.

Then, the radar shows, the plane turned right, directly toward the cliffs of north Moloka'i before entering its catastrophic dive.

"After flying along at 5,000 feet, it turned south a beeline toward those cliffs," Charnon said.

When the plane was between a mile and a half-mile from the island, it dropped, plunging nearly a mile in less than a minute. Sweeps of the Navy radar at 12-second intervals picked the plane up at 5,000 feet, then 3,700 feet, then 1,400 feet, then 200 feet.

It was "a relatively vertical descent," Charnon said.

She would not guess what could cause such a flight path.

Charnon said an apparent witness a kayaker staying on a ridge near Pelekunu Valley reported seeing what could have been the plane in distress.

"He saw airplane lights descending from the bottom of the clouds. The lights were wobbling and descending very fast," then disappeared behind a ridge, Charnon said.

Early reports were that the sky was clear for flying in that region Thursday, but the witness reported clouds had appeared in the area shortly before the aircraft arrived there, and then dissipated afterwards. Charnon said an investigation in another crash in the region raises suggestions that clouds can form quite quickly in the region, even when surrounding weather remains clear.

In Kalaupapa Village, National Park Service employee Jennifer Cerny said she was looking out to sea about 9 p.m. Thursday night and saw what appeared to be a string of yellow lights to the northwest of the peninsula. It could have been flames from an aircraft, but she could not be sure, she said. Cerny said the wind in the vegetation was loud, and she did not hear aircraft noise.

The Coast Guard launched a C130 search plane Thursday night after receiving the report of the missing plane. The search aircraft flew all night, using night vision equipment. It was joined in the morning by a Coast Guard HH65 Dolphin helicopter, and by the Maui Fire Department's helicopter, which focused on searching the shoreline. At late morning, a 46-foot Coast Guard lifeboat from Maui and the 87-foot cutter Ahi from Honolulu joined the search.

They withdrew all aircraft and boats due to worsening weather yesterday afternoon, pending an assessment of whether to resume searching this morning.

"We were getting 12-foot seas," which was beyond the safe operating limits of both Coast Guard boats, De Nyse said.

Maui Fire Department's chopper was recalled, Murray said, because "we had some high winds and the seas were rising."

The firm that owns the missing aircraft was founded in 1992 by Billie Anderson, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot and later a pilot for Princeville Airlines. The current company manager is his son, according to a company Web site.

It offers training in five different types of four- and five-seat aircraft, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 1999, two people flying a twin-engine plane owned by Anderson Aviation escaped serious injury when their plane was hit by a strong crosswind and went skidding on a 400-foot belly-landing at Dillingham Airfield. After its landing gear broke off, the plane skidded onto a taxiway and stopped near an access road.

Charnon said she had already visited the company yesterday to collect maintenance records from the missing aircraft as well as the company's training manuals and other information.

Advertiser staff writer Mike Leidemann contributed to this report.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.