Investigators say communications problems, procedural problems led to missionary plane shootdown
WASHINGTON (AP) – Peruvian officers involved in the downing of an American missionary plane did not hear or could not understand warnings from a CIA-hired crew that might have saved the lives of a missionary and her infant daughter, a videotape released Thursday showed.
The American pilots repeatedly expressed doubts that the missionary’s Cessna float plane was a drug flight, as they had initially suspected, but didn’t explicitly try to stop the Peruvians until the shooting began.
”No! Don’t shoot! No mas! No mas!” – no more – the unidentified American co-pilot shouted after the Cessna was fired on.
The videotape and accompanying audio were released along with the results of a joint U.S.-Peruvian investigation that found procedural errors, language problems and an overloaded communications system all contributed to the accident.
The report did not assign blame and did not address whether U.S. drug surveillance flights, suspended since the April 20 shooting, should be resumed. That question will be addressed in a follow-up report.
The report found that procedures established in 1994 to avoid an accidental downing had been abbreviated by both countries. After U.S. and Peruvian planes collided during a drug mission in 1999, the two sides focused more on their own flight safety than on avoiding accidental shootings.
One step that had been eliminated was having the pursuing plane make visual contact with the suspect planes and gesture to it by tipping its wings, said Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers, who headed the American side of the investigative team.
The report also said the missionary plane generated suspicions because it did not file a flight plan until shortly before it was shot at.
The missionary group, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, has said pilot Kevin Donaldson was following customary practice in the area by calling in his flight plan as he came within radio range of the tower.
Beers stressed that Donaldson wasn’t responsible for the downing.
”Intercept procedures followed by both governments should be robust enough to prevent such an accident,” he said at a news conference.
Communications mix-ups were major problems. The Americans spoke minimal Spanish and the Peruvian liaison officer spoke broken English.
The audio also shows a tangle of communications in two languages with Americans and the Peruvians in the surveillance plane talking to their bases, the A-37 chase jet and each other – with many of the conversations going on simultaneously.
The Peruvian officer misunderstood the Americans when they described the plane they were pursuing. The Americans didn’t realize it when the Peruvian A-37 had detected the Cessna’s identification number.
After Donaldson didn’t respond to warning shots – which he apparently didn’t see because they were fired overhead – the Peruvian liaison officer quickly asked for authorization for a shootdown.
The American pilot sounded nervous.
”This guy doesn’t fit the profile,” he said.
The plane no longer seemed suspicious. It was flying a higher altitude than traffickers normally used and was moving toward Peru’s interior instead of fleeing toward the border.
After the shootdown was authorized, the American said to the Peruvian ”But he is not taking evasive action.”
”What?” said the Peruvian.
”He is not trying to run, is he?”
The Peruvian didn’t respond, and continued to ask for confirmation that a shootdown was authorized.
Minutes later, when the after the shootdown was authorized, the pilot asked: ”Are you sure is ‘bandito’? Are you sure?”
”Yes, OK?” the Peruvian said.
”OK. … If you’re sure,” the pilot said. Then he muttered an expletive in disbelief.
A minute before the shooting, the pilot realized that Donaldson is talking to the control tower. He thinks the plane is trying to land and he the co-pilot relax.
”The plane is talking to the Iquitos tower on VHF,” he tells the Peruvian.
”Right. OK, OK,” the Peruvian replies.
Three seconds later, Donaldson can be heard on the Iquitos frequency screaming, ”They’re killing me! They’re killing us!”
Killed in the incident were American missionary Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity. Her husband, Jim Bowers, and their 6-year-old son, Cory, survived unharmed. Donaldson suffered serious bullet wounds to his legs.
In an interview with WGAL-TV in Lancaster, Pa., Donaldson said he was disappointed with the report and said he followed normal procedures in filing a flight plan.
He said he agrees that the United States and Peruvians hadn’t followed proper procedures. ”The procedures in writing were excellent, were fine. But they were not followed at all.”
The chief of Peru’s air force, Maj. Gen. Jorge Kisic, said he hopes that the U.S. drug cooperation will resume.
”At this time we are aware that the skies of the Peruvian jungle are being inundated by narcotics traffickers,” he said after presenting the report in Peru.
Beers, however, said he has seen no evidence of increased trafficking.
Peru’s policy of shooting at suspected drug flights is credited with sharply reducing the country’s production of coca. Peru had been the world’s leading producer of coca, with traffickers flying it into neighboring Colombia for processing into cocaine.
On the Net:
State Department narcotics control bureau: http://www.state.gov/g/inl/narc/
State Department’s fact sheet on Peru program: http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/fs/index.cfm?docid2180
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