The Nationa, Monday July 16th, 2012
By CLEMENT KAUPA
A WEEK-LONG search in the jungles of the Gulf of Papua for a missing helicopter and ended last Friday with the recovery of the bodies of its three crew members.
They were Australian pilot Russel Aitken, 42, his co-pilot Anthony Annan, 49, a New Zealander, and aircraft maintenance engineer Emmet Flynn, 36, another Australian.
The wrecked body of the Hevilift Bell 206 helicopter was discovered in a dense jungle area 8km from the Purari River in the Gulf.
“We knew then that the area where we had been searching was correct and we concentrated the ground search teams upstream of the location of where the debris was found,” Hevilift group managing director Paul Booij said in a statement.
“Unfortunately our worst fears were realised this morning.”
Hevilift said the chopper’s tailboom was sighted from the air just after 7am and ground crews were immediately sent to the location.
The company said the wreckage indicated a crash landing.
The three men were declared dead at the scene.
It was believed the trio had been heading to Hou Creek to refuel before returning to their main base at Mt Hagen at the time of the crash.
The helicopter had put out a mayday signal shortly after it took off from a nearby InterOil site on July 7.
A search was launched involving seven civilian helicopters, a fixed-wing aeroplane fitted with electronic surveillance equipment, ground crew and planning and air support from the Australian military.
But it was a villager who spotted the first sign of the crash, a week after it had happened.
Finding a piece of the chopper’s “Fly-Away” kit alongside the Purari River, the villager alerted rescuers who soon found more pieces of helicopter equipment.
“We are devastated that this has happened. Every one of us had hoped to find them alive and now we have to deal with reality,” Booij said.
“This is a harrowing time for everyone, our staff and their families, the searchers and all those supporting this massive search effort.
“It is a time for grieving for our colleagues and their families and for us to look after all our other staff,” Booij said.
“We will be conducting a thorough investigation of what went wrong and why it went wrong, and we will also be cooperating fully with all authorities in their investigations.
“Until those investigations are complete, we will not be entering into any speculation,” Booij added.
“We can assure everyone that no one wants to know what happened more than we do. We operate in rugged terrain and challenging conditions in Papua New Guinea and we have very strict protocols within our operations,” he added.
It is estimated that the Bell 206 helicopter crash brings to total 117 aircraft accidents with 54 casualties in PNG since January 2000.