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PAF jet with 2 on board missing over Kalayaan

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By Joel Guinto, Tarra Quismundo
INQUIRER.net, Inquirer
Last updated 06:54pm (Mla time) 11/26/2007

MANILA, Philippines — A Philippine Air Force (PAF) reconnaissance jet with two pilots failed to return Monday from a rescue mission in the South China Sea during raging tropical storms, officials said.

The missing jet was one of two S211 aircraft sent to the Philippine-held Kalayaan Islands group in the Spratlys to search for 26 Filipino crewmen whose fishing vessel capsized Thursday in stormy weather.

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Onboard the aircraft were lead pilot Captain Gavino Mercado Jr. and co-pilot Captain Bonifacio Soriano III.

Two aircrafts took off from Antonio Bautista Airbase in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, at 8:45 a.m. Monday to search for the Filipino sailors, said PAF chief Lieutenant General Horacio Tolentino said.

But only one jet returned to the airbase by 12:45 p.m., he said.

“We don’t know what happened. We don’t know if it crashed. We lost contact … it’s missing,” said Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Epifanio Panzo Jr.

Contact with the aircraft was last made at 10 a.m., before it went missing, Tolentino said in a phone interview.

“The clouds were not thick but it spanned a wide area. The two aircraft entered the clouds at 6,000 feet. The lead plane talked to the wingman to ask if they he could still see him (lead plane). The lead pilot decided to go up to 8,000 feet,” Tolentino said.

“But at that point, when the lead plane tried to contact the wingman, there was no more answer,” he said at a press conference late afternoon Monday.

Asked of the chances that the plane might have crashed, Tolentino said: “The probability is big of course.”

Panzo said the aircraft’s fuel capacity would allow it to fly for a maximum of four hours. The S211, an Italian-made two-seater trainer jet plane acquired by the military in the early ’90s, is a trainer converted into a combat aircraft.

Tolentino could not say if the bad weather brought by tropical storm “Lando” (international codename: Hagibis), which is approaching Palawan, could be a factor in the jet’s going missing.

He said the pilots may have experienced vertigo midflight, disorienting them while trying to pull the plane up.

“We can only speculate that they experienced vertigo because they were at an inadvertent altitude,” said the official.

On PAF’s request, a US military P-3 Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft, was dispatched from the Clark Air Base in Pampanga to scour an area spanning an 80-kilometer radius from where the S-211 had last made contact. A Philippine Navy ship was also called to help look for the plane and the missing pilots.

The PAF is counting on the emergency locator transmitters on the pilots’ flight suits to help lead search and rescue workers to their location.

The S-211 also has a beacon that could help search crews find where it is.

Colonel William Ona, deputy chief of the Air Staff for Logistics, meanwhile said the missing aircraft took off airworthy and had a good maintenance record. The plane’s October and November maintenance logs showed that the jet was well-maintained and flew without hitches in past missions.

The PAF’s fleet of five S-211s (including the missing plane) have been used for a variety of missions including pilot training and aerial combat operations. With The Associated Press

Originally posted at 02:36 pm

View article as posted on INQUIRER.net

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Written by joelguinto

Mon+00:002007-11-26T09:14:53+00:00+00:0011b+00:00Mon, 26 Nov 2007 09:14:53 +0000 22, 2006 at 12:45 am11

Posted in Uncategorized

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