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Two Missing In Plane Disappearance

Two Missing In Plane Disappearance
Student pilot Merelesita Lutu (left) and flight school instructor Iliesa Tawalo.
February 27
12:19 2018

Mosese Baledrokadroka and his family yesterday maintained a prayer vigil for missing stepson, flying instructor Iliesa Tawalo and student Merelesita Lutu.

The Nadi-based Pacific Flying School pilot and student were on a routine training flight on board a Cessna 172 aircraft when it disappeared in the mountainous interior of Macuata in Vanua Levu yesterday.

A similar Cessna aircraft at the hangar of the Pacific Flying School on February 26, 2018. Photo: Waisea Nasokia

A similar Cessna aircraft at the hangar of the Pacific Flying School on February 26, 2018. Photo: Waisea Nasokia

Villagers who heard a loud bang said it was rain­ing heavily, foggy and the visibility was poor.

As the search and rescue operation by Police and the military was suspended last night, to continue today, Mr Baledrokadroka said: “We just have to pray and hope for the best for both of them. If that is God’s will, we have to respect the out­come.”

The plane left Nadi at 7.30am for La­basa. Pacific Flying School confirmed Mr Tawalo and Ms Lutu and another student were on board. The second stu­dent, Kalara Derederenalagi, got off at Labasa.

The plane left Waiqele Airport at 11.30am for Savusavu. At 11.56am, Sa­vusavu Airport tower was told that the plane was heading to Labasa because of atrocious weather. That was the last contact when the plane was flying over Navakuru Village.

PFS said: “apparently the weather was not conducive for the aircraft to land and they decided to try to get to Labasa.” It said “that was the last communication between the aircraft and the AFL Tow­er.”

Ms Lutu’s relatives in Suva were too distraught to talk.

Mr Baledrokadroka, at their residence in Beverly Hills, in Votualevu, Nadi, said a PFS team visited him and told him of the incident and that a search was un­derway.

Step-father Mosese Baledrokadroka holds a shirt belonging to Iliesa Tawalo at their residence at Beverly Hills in Votualevu, Nadi on February 26, 2018. Photo: Waisea Nasokia

Step-father Mosese Baledrokadroka holds a shirt belonging to Iliesa Tawalo at their residence at Beverly Hills in Votualevu, Nadi on February 26, 2018. Photo: Waisea Nasokia

“This morning at around 4.30am Tawa­lo had woken me up saying that he was going to work,” Mr Baledrokadroka said.

“I was reading my Bible outside when he came sat down with me before his pick up came. The last words he told me, was to look after the children and I re­plied alright. That’s it we said goodbye to each other.

He said normally Mr Tawalo would call him or the sister during the day but yesterday it was strange that he did not call.

“He did not say that he would fly to Labasa.”

Mr Tawalo did not drink nor smoke cigarettes, said Mr Baledrokadroka while holding one of Mr Tawalo’s favourite church shirts.

“This is Mr Tawalo’s fifth year as an instructor.”

Mr Tawalo is a former student of Namaka Public School, attended Nadi Muslim College before com­pleting his secondary school educa­tion at Queen Victoria School.

He joined the Flying School after he graduated. He was recruited by PFS as an instructor on contract basis.

Ms Lutu, 21, was trying to meet her required flying hours when she flew with Mr Tawalo.

Ms Lutu would need the hours to graduate next month.

She completed her first solo flight on January 19, 2017 and was set to graduate next month.

Worried fellow students also awaited word on Ms Lutu’s where­abouts. Ms Lutu is one of five sib­lings. A peace vigil was also held at the PFS last night.

Navakuru Village headman Ratu Vere Wawatabua confirmed that the search would resume today.

He said they had heard the plane when it flew past the village at around mid-day.

The path of the missing Cessna 172M aircraft. Infographic: Naisa Koroi.

The path of the missing Cessna 172M aircraft. Infographic: Naisa Koroi.

“We heard it fly over the village, however, we could not see the plane because it was raining heavily and very foggy,” Mr Wawatabua said.

“After a while we received a call that one plane was missing at the intersection leading to Savusavu and that was how we knew about the incident.”

Mr Wawatabua said they waited for Police and officers of the Fiji Navy who led the search with a group of villagers.

“We searched deep into the for­est up to the mountain near the slope leading to Savusavu. While we were searching we received a call for us to return to the village as it was getting dark.”

He confirmed that they were on standby till this morning for con­tinuation of the search.

Meanwhile, Dogoru Village head­man Semi Radradra said a group of 10 officers from the Republic of Fiji Military Forces arrived at the village between 4:30pm to 5pm fol­lowed by a team of Police officers.

He stated that some villagers were planting kava in their farms when they saw the plane circling by a mountain at around 12:15pm before they heard a loud noise.

“It was raining heavily and it was foggy and they did not think much of it and they only found out about the missing plane when they re­turned to the village,” Mr Radradra said.

He confirmed that the villagers who had spotted the plane were Pio Gaunavou, Meredani Lutua, Jeme­sa Vosabale and Latileta Teresia who have given their statements to the Police.

The PFS was established in 1986. More than 200 commercial pilots have graduated from the school.

From left: Flight school instructor Iliesa Tawalo, with student pilots Merelesita Lutu and Kalara Derederenalagi at Waiqele Airport, Labasa, on February 26, 2018.

From left: Flight school instructor Iliesa Tawalo, with student pilots Merelesita Lutu and Kalara Derederenalagi at Waiqele Airport, Labasa, on February 26, 2018.

TIMELINE – WHAT HAPPENED

7:30AM – The Cessna 172M aircraft left Nadi International Airport for a scheduled training run to Waiqele Airport, Labasa, with flight instructor Iliesa Tawalo and student pilots Merelesita Lutu and Kalara Derederenalagi on board

11:30AM – Flight instructor Iliesa Tawalo and student pilot Merelesita Lutu left Waiqele Airport, Labasa, for Savusavu.

11:56AM – Last contact between the flight instructor and Savusavu Tower established where Mr Tawalo informed the tower that they were returning to Labasa. Last location showed to be over Navakuru Hills. No further contact made. Three search parties including officers from Fiji Police Force and Republic of Fiji Military Forces started the search for the aircraft.

4PM – Search teams were at Delaikoro with help from villagers.

6PM – Search party focussing on Navakuru returned to the village hall and called off the search. Search parties also combed Suweni area and Delaikoro but went on to Doguru. At Doguru Village, DPC North SSP Verani Nakauyaca and Commissioner Northern Jovesa Vocea reconvened waiting for the military and police officers to return from their search who were still out conducting search well after 10pm.

10:30PM – Search suspended to resume today

Edited by Naisa Koroi

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

 

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