Missing tour plane: All 3 on board were killed
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After six days of searching over land and sea, the wreckage of a missing tour airplane was discovered yesterday in dense vegetation 5,200 feet up the southwestern flank of Mauna Loa.
The bodies of the pilot and the two passengers were recovered by helicopter crews because the crash site is eight miles from the nearest road.
Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira said Fire Department personnel reported that the plane broke into as many as five pieces, but a federal investigator could confirm only that one wing had sheared off.
In a statement, Island Hoppers, the tour operator, said, "Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to all the families of the aircraft's occupants."
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HILO » A search helicopter yesterday morning found a missing Cessna 172M tour plane upside down with a wing torn off in dense forest on the slopes of Mauna Loa, officials said in a press conference.
Katsuhiro Takahashi, 40, of Kailua-Kona, was the pilot of the single-engine airplane operated by Island Hoppers.
The pilot and two passengers did not survive the crash. They were previously identified as pilot Katsuhiro Takahashi, 40, of Kailua-Kona and passengers Nobuhiro Suzuki, 53, and his wife, Masako, 56, of Urayasu, Japan.
The plane was spotted at 5:53 a.m. by a Volcano Helicopters aircraft piloted by county pilot David Okita, who is also owner of the private company. Okita was flying his own helicopter because the county's Chopper One was undergoing maintenance, said Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira.
The site was about eight miles due west of Pahala at about the 5,200-foot elevation of Mauna Loa.
The plane lay upside down amidst trees up to 40 feet tall and ferns up to 10 feet tall, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jim Struhsaker, speaking on a conference call from Kona, where he is stationed.
The vegetation is so dense that the helicopter had already flown over the site once before discovering it on a second pass, he said.
Oliveira said Fire Department personnel reported that the plane broke into as many as five pieces, but Struhsaker could confirm only that one wing had sheared off.
Struhsaker said five fire rescue personnel were lowered to the site on lines from a helicopter.
Unable to land in the forest, rescuers had to set up an operations zone and a subzone on upcountry gravel roads.
Rescuers had to move the recovered bodies from one site to another down the mountain because bad weather was moving in so fast, Struhsaker said. They finished the removal by 9 a.m.
From the lower operations site, a private body-removal service took the remains to Hilo Hospital. Autopsies are required by the NTSB, and results should be available by tomorrow, Struhsaker said.
Island Hopper's insurance company is making arrangements to remove the plane, he said.
In a statement yesterday, the company said, "We are shocked and saddened to learn that there were no survivors. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to all the families of the aircraft's occupants. Our pilot, Mr. Takahashi, was universally respected and loved among his peers and students."
The Federal Aviation Administration says a Big Island helicopter pilot found the downed tour plane
The plane left Kona about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday on a clockwise tour around the island and was last heard from over the coastal lava flow area between 11:30 and 11:45 a.m., Oliveira said.
That conflicted with earlier
reports that the plane was contacted as late as 12:45 p.m. over Kilauea Caldera, about 20 miles to the west.
Searchers were able to narrow their focus Friday after receiving a report late Thursday from Nature Conservancy workers who had been camping out of contact on Mauna Loa. They said they heard a plane's engine suddenly stop about 1 p.m. Tuesday.
The location of the crash indicated the pilot was planning to fly over the hump of Mauna Loa's southwest rift zone.
Struhsaker said Island Hoppers has a "general track" that it follows, but there is some variation depending on weather conditions and whether the standard 2 1/2-hour tour is running late.
Regarding the difficulty of the search, Struhsaker said "vog and weather" typically build up early in the morning on the mountain slope, but he added that he is not sure if that was the case the day of the crash.
Oliveira briefed the wife and mother of pilot Takahashi and separately briefed the Suzukis' eldest son, Kosuke Suzuki, and his two uncles, Toshihiro Yamada and Shigeru Araki.
Yamada issued a statement through the mayor's office saying that days of unsuccessful searching had given the family doubts that the plane would be found.
"They're very grateful to know at least what happened to them," said mayoral spokeswoman Janet Snyder.