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Doomed flight

Luke Rawalai
Wednesday, August 09, 2017

IT is said to be the first civil aviation disaster recorded in Fiji.

Nine people, including the pilot, perished when their aircraft crashed into the mountains in Bua on a misty morning.

The incident happened on July 12, 1979, something that no one in the country

may have ever imagined would happen.

It was not until hours after the aircraft failed to arrive at the airport that villagers hunting for food reported of hearing a loud crash in the mountains.

A search and rescue mission was

carried out and the nine bodies

were recovered on the third day after

the crash and flown to Suva.

Last week, The Fiji Times visited the place which was once the Dama airstrip, where the aircraft landed and took off from on an almost daily basis.

Today, we take a look back at the day

of the crash and talk to some residents

of the area who can vividly recall

what happened.

IT was 9:46am on July 12, 1979 when a Fiji Air, Britten-Norman BN-2A-9 Islander left Nausori Airport for Bua on a routine flight.

The aircraft was scheduled to arrive at the Dama airstrip in Bua about 10:15am or a little after that time but it failed to do so.

On that particular morning, Maya Ram was sitting outside his home about one kilometre away from the airstrip, waiting for the aircraft to fly over the area as it did every morning.

But it did not although he and his two small sons at that time heard the sound of the aircraft from another side, near the mountain ranges in Naruwai.

"The aircraft would normally come from the Nabouwalu side but on that day, the sound of the plane was coming from the opposite side and it seemed to have been heading towards the mountains," he recalled.

"We didn't see the plane heading towards the airstrip. It was very, very misty on that particular morning."

Mr Ram said at midday, he saw a bigger aircraft fly past the Dama airstrip, which he believed came from Labasa.

He was unaware of what was happening with the aircraft until that evening when he had a chat with a villager, who had gone to tether his animals in the forest.

"The villager, Waisale, told me that he heard a crash in the forests further up in the mountains from where he tethered his animals but couldn't confirm anything," he said.

Kelepi Dravu, 75, of Dama Village recalls that villagers were helping construct a house in the village, which is about three kilometres from the airstrip, on that particular morning.

Mr Dravu said it was so misty that morning that people could not see each other even if they were standing two metres apart.

"At about 10am, someone, who had driven to the village to get our tea, came back with the news that the early morning flight had crashed in the forests above the village," he said.

"Since no word had come from the authorities, we had to wait before we could begin our search for the aircraft and the people who were on board.

"For obvious reasons, there was sadness in the village as villagers talked about the possibility of finding survivors from the wreckage.

"The fact that we had to await instructions from the authorities at that time was disheartening because we could have started the search and at least got to those who may have survived the crash but later died," said Mr Dravu.

On July 13, 1979, we reported that hunters from Naruwai Village, about five miles inland from the central west coast of Vanua Levu, said they were in the hills when they heard a loud crash at about 10am.

Their report reached Nabouwalu police post about 4:30pm and it was the first hint of where the plane, its eight passengers and the pilot might be, it was reported.

It was also reported that two Fiji Air planes, two other Islanders and a Queen Air which began a search for the missing plane less than three hours after it had been reported overdue returned to Nausori at nightfall on the day of the crash, having found no sign of it.

The searchers could hardly see a thing because of poor visibility.

The pilot of the plane, Captain Gary Cope, who was about 25 years old and from Australia, gave a routine radio report at 9:48am that he was airborne and on course for Bua, it was reported.

Nausori Airport control tower contacted Fiji Air at 11:40am to report that the missing plane, FQ-FBO, was overdue in reporting its position.

The first search plane left Nausori Airport at 12:05pm on the day of the crash.

The then Director of Civil Aviation, Mike Varley had told this newspaper that there was nothing to indicate why the aircraft was missing.

"It's strange how it could disappear on such a short flight. This is the mystery of it," he had said then.

Also, we had reported that some aircraft had searched the sea areas and some government vessels were also on standby to carry out a sea search if there was a need to.

"On July 14, 1979, we published the names of the eight passengers who were on that doomed flight and its pilot.

They were Mrs Ruth Manulevu, 53, of Lami; her sister-in-law Mrs Mary Ah Tong, 42, of Vatuvia Rd in Lami; Elizabeth Peckham, 30, of Lami; her brother William Peckham, 26, of Lami; Esala Delana of Suva; Aritema Warua of Macuata; John and Sandy Stevenson of Gisborne, New Zealand; and the pilot, Captain Gary Cope.

* NEXT WEEK: A visit to the crash site

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