Former SAAF maritime aircraft go missing in mountainous terrain

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Two Piaggio P. 166S Albatross aircraft, formerly of the South African Air Force, have gone missing in mountainous terrain near Tzaneen in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province.

Air authorities lost contact with the planes near last light yesterday and search efforts have been hampered by heavy cloud in the Wonderberg area, where locals have reported sightings of the aircraft. The area where the planes disappeared has been variously identified as Georges Valley or the Wolkberg Mountains (literally “Cloud Mountains”.)

Well-known aviation journalists and photographers are feared to have been on board, including aviation magazine editor Athol Franz’ fiancée, Linda Pierce and world famous aviation photographer Frans Dely. This information has not been confirmed. The aircraft were on their way to Rand Airport in Germiston, near Johannesburg, The Star newspaper said. It added the families of those missing were being flown to the search area.

Reports say a SAAF Cessna C208 Caravan light utility transport and a Denel Oryx medium transport helicopter has searched for the missing aircraft but all search aircraft were grounded because of a severe spring cold snap that has caused heavy cloud and safety concerns along the Escarpment between the Highveld and Lowveld. A ground search continued in the meantime, the South African Aeronautical Search and Rescue Centre said.

The gull-winged Piaggio P.166 was also used by the Italian Air Force and Coast Guard. The P.166S-variant built for SA was built with a longer nose, entry doors on either side of the fuselage for the pilots and enlarged wingtip tanks each containing 320 litres, allowing for eight to nine hours flying time. The first Piaggio P.166S, construction number 417, SAAF registration 881 (pictured), made its maiden flight in 1968, was certified in February 1969 and delivered to the SAAF from October that year. More than 20 of the twin-engine pusher-type aircraft were shipped to South Africa and served with 27 Squadron in the inshore patrol role. The type was retired in 1993. 27 Squadron was then disbanded.

The Albatross served with a minimum of incidents, including one hard landing and one crash, with aircraft 894 disappearing near Dassen Island in May 1976.