A series of conflicting reports published Dec. 16 and 17 tell of a Britten-Norman Islander that crashed the previous day near the Turks & Caicos Islands with 11 or 12 people aboard. Apparently it crashed during the afternoon of Dec. 15.
The Reuters and Associated Press wire service reports raised numerous questions about the flight, few of which have yet been answered. Some reports said 11 people were aboard, some said 12; aviation officials in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic gave conflicting reports on the twin-engine plane’s origin, destination and where it was last reported. The aircraft’s registered owner, Linea Aerea Puertorriquena Inc, an air courier service that does business as Apele Air out of Puerto Rico, said the airplane was stolen.
The plane took off from the Dominican Republic and had been scheduled to stop for fuel in the Bahamas en route to New York, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman told Reuters. Search crews had found neither wreckage nor signs of survivors by midday Dec. 16. “The weather was really difficult to search in last night. We had 6- to 8-foot seas, lots of whitecaps and next to zero visibility,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson told Reuters reporter Jane Sutton. “It’s been clearing up but the seas are still a little rough.” The pilot had made a mayday call as the plane flew near the island of Providenciales, local media reported.
Jose Tomas Perez, director of the Dominican Civil Aviation Institute, told the Associated Press that the aircraft sent an emergency signal before disappearing from the radar 35 minutes after taking off from the Dominican Republic on Monday afternoon. He said his records showed the Britton-Norman Islander was on a regional flight for a small operation called Atlantis Airlines, but later said the plane is registered to a company called Puerto Rico Airline, based in Carolina, Puerto Rico. That company’s owner, Luis Perez, told the AP that the aircraft was for sale and was only supposed to be inspected in the Dominican Republic. He said he planned to report it as stolen.
The plane’s pilot filed a flight plan saying he planned to land on Mayaguana Island in the southeastern Bahamas, said Santiago Rosa, the Dominican Civil Aviation Institute’s aerial navigation director. The Bahamas Aviation Authority, however, said the plane never landed there. Dominican aviation officials initially said 11 people were on board and that the plane was headed toward the Turks and Caicos Islands but never arrived. Rosa said his records show 12 people were on the plane, including the pilot. Relatives of those missing told the U.S. Coast Guard that the passengers were trying to reach New York, USCG Petty Officer Barry Bena said.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration told a different story, saying the plane disappeared shortly after taking off from Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands, southeast of the Bahamas. Sgt. Calvin Chase of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police said airport authorities are still trying to locate records to determine whether the plane landed in Providenciales. FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the plane’s destination was not immediately known. “There’s still a lot of unanswered questions here,” she said.
A Dominican newspaper reported that the passengers aboard the plane that went missing Monday had no visas, but Dominican Immigration Agency director Jose Sanz denied that. According to Sanz, all the passengers, including pilot Adrián Jiménez, had visas for the Providenciales Islands, but Dominican Pilots Association president Pedro Domínguez reportedly said in a radio interview that Jiménez made the flight using a student license issued in that country. He said he regretted that the authorities at Cibao International Airport, from which the flight departed, and the Dominican Civil Aviation Institute, didn’t know Jiménez didn’t have a valid license. “But also the fact that just around 15 days ago, this gentleman (Jiménez), while landing in the Santiago airport, one of the landing wheels of the 3-engine Islander plane collapsed but wasn’t even investigated. If it had been investigated to depth then, it would’ve been detected that this gentleman didn’t qualify to be flying and this tragedy would’ve been avoided.”
The missing plane’s U.S. registry is as N650LT, operated by Atlantic Aviation. According to the Web site elcaribe.com.do, the flight plan said it was headed for Mayaguana island near the Bahamas, but an hour after take off from Cibao Airport the pilot radioed a distress call monitored by Miami Airport controllers.