A massive hunt by military and civilian agencies for two missing air force pilots was launched yesterday afternoon in the Central Mountain Range after their AT-3 aircraft lost contact with air traffic controllers about midday during a routine training flight.
The air force dispatched a Eurocopter EC225 from its air base in Chiayi, while soldiers and firefighters from nearby towns conducted ground searches.
The helicopter conducted sweeps over Hualien, Nantou and Chiayi counties, before thick cloud cover that limited visibility forced air force authorities to call the chopper back to base at about 4pm.
As of press time last night, no trace of the pilots or the plane had been found. The air and ground search operation was to recommence at first light this morning.
“When reaching the target area, the EC225 helicopter encountered thick cloud cover and it could not descend to lower altitudes. It made short flights and hovered in the area for three hours, but the clouds did not disperse,” an air force officer said on condition of anonymity.
“The air search was called off later on because the helicopter had almost expended its fuel supply, as well as concerns over the poor visibility conditions and the safety of the helicopter making nighttime flights. The EC225 returned to its base shortly after 4pm,” the officer said.
The missing pilots are Major Wang Ching-chu (王勁鈞), 32, who as the aircraft instructor was sitting in the plane’s front seat, and First Lieutenant Huang Chun-jung (黃俊榮), 23, who was in the back seat.
Wang has a total of 1,489.3 flight hours, while Huang has 116.45.
They departed on an “instrument flying” training session from the Air Force Academy in Kaohsiung’s Gangshan District (岡山) at about 11:55am.
Major General Huang Chih-wei (黃志偉), deputy head of the academy, told a news conference in Kaohsiung that the flight appeared to be a routine one, and the pilots had not issued any abnormal calls before the plane disappeared from radar at about 12:24pm and contact with the pilots was lost.
The AT-3 aircraft was believed to be flying near the 3,785m high Mabolasishan (馬博拉斯山) at the time, Huang said.
There was no indication of mechanical problems in the aircraft’s flight record in the past three months, he said.
At the time of the incident, there were 10 AT-3 trainers conducting routine flight training, and the nine other planes returned safely to their bases, Huang said.
All air force training involving AT-3s was later suspended, pending the conclusion of the investigation into the aircraft’s disappearance.
Nantou County authorities last night said a team of experienced mountaineers and firefighters was on standby, while Hualien County officials said they had mobilized a 60-strong team of military personnel and firefighters in Rueisuei Township (瑞穗) who were on standby.
The last deadly incident involving an AT-3 occurred in October last year, when two of the planes collided during a routine training mission of the Thunder Tiger Aerobatics Team over Kaohsiung.
Colonel Chuang Pei-yuan (莊倍源), one of the pilots, died after ejecting too late from his plane after his parachute failed to fully open.
Prior to that incident, there had been a total of four crashes or accidents involving AT-3s — in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2012, in which four pilots or trainee died.
Additional reporting by CNA
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