Massive search for missing Newcastle pilot and his plane
DURBAN - A massive air search and rescue operation was still under way on Saturday for a pilot and his light aircraft which went missing off the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Johan Christiaan Fourie, 61, from Newcastle, took off on Wednesday morning at 8am in his Foxbat, call sign ZUPCB, a high-wing, tricycle-gear ultralight aircraft.
According to Hennie Coertzen, a family friend, Fourie had 33 years of flying experience.
“Flying is in his blood. His father owned planes, and Johan and his late brother both flew regularly,” he said.
“Johan is a professional mine surveyor and did a lot of aerial photography. He always wanted to get the general outlay of a mining area, whether there were features such as a cliff or a hill,” said Coertzen.
“On this flight nobody was sure whether he had decided to suddenly undertake such a fact finding flight.Maybe he had taken such a decision while in the air.”
Trying to bring clarity to the mystery, Coertzen said Fourie’s scope was far-reaching.
“For instance, Johan measured heaps of coal using modern technology and if he came across something which might not be quite right, he would report back on this as soon as possible.”
During the course of the morning, Fourie had taken aerial photographs of both Lake Sibaya and the St Lucia estuary, and at around midday he had transmitted these to his wife, Charmaine, along with a message that he wanted to chat to her.
When she tried to call him back, about 15 minutes later, there was no response. She tried again but, according to Coertzen, had not been particularly concerned when she could not get through.
“When he went down in a mine, he was out of reach. When he was in a meeting, he did not respond, so Charmaine thought he was just busy.”
However, as the hours passed she began to frantically call friends to see if they had heard from her husband.
She had brought Coertzen into the loop on Thursday morning.
“Johan and Charmaine lost their only child, a son (also Johan) some years ago,” said Coertzen. “She is still confident that Johan will be found, as the people searching are putting in so much effort.”
Confirming this, Santjie White, the chief of the Aeronautical Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (Arcc), based in Johannesburg, said several people were pulling out all the stops.
“The Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, the SAPS, the SANDF’s 19 Squadron, NSRI, KZN Parks Board, Air Traffic Navigation Service, the Arcc team and Alpha Security northern KZN” have all been involved.
South African Police divers from as far afield as Durban and Port Shepstone were focusing on an area between Mabibi and Sodwana Bay on the coastline of northern Zululand.
While helicopters had also scoured the area, searching for debris, White said this was proving to be a particularly difficult search. “The last radar sighting of the aircraft placed it over the ocean in the area of the Thonga Beach Lodge at Mabibi,” she said.
“We have concentrated our search on the beach and surf section of the ocean. Given the structure of this aircraft, if it went in nose first and did not break up, the cockpit could act like a bubble. In some cases the pilot could stay within this bubble, as could any debris like books, his pilot’s licence etc,” she said.
“We keep telling people to contact their nearest NSRI or Maritime Rescue co-ordinators should they see anything.”
White said farm workers had witnessed an aircraft flying from west to east near Thonga Beach Lodge.
“We launched an amazing ground and air search, checking for a small aircraft. Given the specifics of X being the spot - in this case radar plus eyewitnesses - we have been able to target the specific area,” said White.
The shore currents would play a crucial role in finding any debris if the plane had broken up and was not submerged intact in the ocean, she said.
“If the debris is close to the shore, the current will take it north. If it’s further out to sea, it will be taken south by the Agulhas current,” said White. “So we are looking for debris working its way northward along the shore and alerting people as far south as East London to keep an eye open for debris should the plane have broken up in deeper water,” she said.
Provincial police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane said police and Civil Aviation were working around the clock to find the aircraft. “The police have not made a breakthrough. We appeal to the community to contact the nearest police station if they notice something,” said Zwane.