Aviatour planes grounded as gov’t readies full-scale probeBy Matikas Santos
MANILA, Philippines – The entire fleet of Aviatour Air, owner of the airplane that crashed off the coast of Masbate Saturday and killed Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and two pilots, has been grounded pending investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).
Transportation and Communications Secretary Manuel Roxas II said in a statement released Wednesday that he has ordered CAAP director general William Hotchkiss III to conduct a thorough investigation into the plane crash.
Following the order, senior members of the aircraft accident investigation and inquiry of CAAP were seen at the command center in La Sala Resort, which is less than a kilometer from the crash site.
Aviatour operates a fleet of 54 aircraft. It has the largest fleet of Cessna 152 and Cessna 172 aircraft in the Philippines, according to its website.
Captain Jessup Bahinting, chairman and CEO of Aviatour Air, was the pilot of the Piper Seneca plane with co-pilot Nepalese flight student Kshitiz Chand. The plane had requested to make an emergency landing at the Masbate airport after it encountered engine trouble but crashed 500 meters from the runway.
A composite team, headed by Captain Amado H. Soliman, an aviation industry expert in flight safety for over four decades, Captain Ramon V. Flores, and Captain Elmer F. Pena, has been formed to conduct the investigation, it said.
“General Hotchkiss said a suspension order has been issued by CAAP grounding all aircraft used by Aviatour Air pending result of the full-blown investigation,” the statement said.
The wreckage of the plane will be kept in Masbate airport under tight security so it can be thoroughly examined by the CAAP investigation team to determine the cause of the accident, Hotchkiss said.
The investigation into Saturday’s crash will start as soon as the wreck is raised from the bottom of the Masbate Pass.
Army Major General Eduardo del Rosario, head of “Task Force Kalihim,” made this announcement at a news briefing in Masbate City on Wednesday.
The Coast Guard ship BRP Edsa, which is equipped with a decompression chamber to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness or “bends,” and Navy’s BRP Ang Pangulo, are both on standby to assist the divers in the difficult task of retrieving the bodies of the pilots and the plane’s fuselage itself.
“In spirit, he is here. Ang Pangulo (the President) is here,” said Del Rosario, when asked about the presence of the Navy ship bearing the official seal of the President.
Two smaller vessels, two aircraft and a handful of rubber boats are what’s left of the massive air and sea search and rescue operations that started over the weekend and were presided over, for at least two days, by President Benigno Aquino III.
Until Tuesday, before the body of Robredo was finally retrieved from a depth of 54 meters, the massive search was a combined effort of uniformed services—Coast Guard, Navy, Army Philippine National Police— and volunteer divers, involving 600 individuals, 17 ships of various sizes, and 9 aircraft.
But with fewer people and without the presence of top honchos of the government, a semblance of order has been restored on the ground.
This is a far cry from the frenzy of the first three days of the search and rescue operations, when the top brass of the AFP and most influential members of the Cabinet surrounded Aquino as he personally supervised the search and rescue operations.
On Wednesday briefings for the media were conducted on schedule, food and beverages provided by the provincial government flowed freely, and military divers were accessible to the press. With a report from Michael Lim Ubac, Philippine Daily Inquirer