2 Oct 2018

Survivors of Chuuk plane crash demand answers

7:41 pm on 2 October 2018
The Air Niugini plane after it crashed into the sea short of the runway at Chuuk, in Federated States of Micronesia.

The Air Niugini plane after it crashed into the sea short of the runway at Chuuk, in Federated States of Micronesia. Photo: Supplied / US Navy

For Bill Jaynes, it seemed like a normal landing. Air Niugini flight PX073 to Chuuk was descending smoothly, the weather was clear, there were no weird noises, there was no warning.

But at the last minute, something wasn't quite right.

"My thought as I was watching the vapour trails off the wing as we descended was: usually when we're this low, we're on the runway.

"And then we were in the water," he said.

The Boeing 737 had crash-landed into the ocean about 200 metres short of the runway at Chuuk, one of the main islands in Federated States of Micronesia.

Mr Jaynes, who is the editor of Micronesia's Kaselehlie Press newspaper and a regular visitor to Chuuk, said he was thrown forward by the impact, which caused a head wound.

He then turned around to see water pouring through a gash in the side of the plane.

"It's not what you want in your plane," he chuckled.

Within minutes, passengers poured out of the emergency exits and gathered on the wings, which were the only things floating as the fuselage rapidly took on water.

Chuuk locals, who saw the crash, rushed out in about a dozen small boats to meet the passengers, and a US Navy construction team who happened to be nearby also raced to join them.

"If it had been full we would not have made it off," Mr Jaynes said.

Air Niugini claimed that everyone on board had been saved.

Four of the passengers were transferred from Chuuk to Guam on Sunday for further medical treatment, as the Papua New Guinea-based airline then announced that, in fact, one person was unaccounted for.

On Monday, Air Niugini said a man's body had been recovered by divers from the wreckage, which by now has sunk to the sea floor, about 90 feet below.

RNZ Pacific understands there were problems with the plane's manifesto, and one crew member was not marked properly, which led to the mix-up.

But as Navy divers scour the scene for clues and to recover the plane's black boxes, which PNG authorities say will be sent there, those who were on board are demanding answers.

Mr Jaynes said the pilot had claimed that there was no visibility as he came in to land, which is something he and several other passengers disputed.

"It wasn't raining, as the pilot claimed," he said, citing the fact that as the plane was descending, he could clearly see the Chuuk docks, which sit more than a mile-and-a-half from the airport.

"There was no wind shear that a passenger felt. There was no downward push. It was just a normal landing, except that it was ridiculously low," said Mr Jaynes.

"I simply thought that we had landed awfully, awfully hard for a landing in Chuuk, until I looked over and saw a hole in the plane behind me and water was coming in."

"In my personal opinion and the opinions of many of the passengers I talked to is that it was pilot error, he was too low, and that at the last moment he made the best of the bad situation that he had perhaps created" by landing on the water.

Several investigations into the crash are now underway. Papua New Guinea authorities say they are investigating, and the Federated States of Micronesia has asked the United States to investigate on its behalf.

The Air Niugini plane in the lagoon off Weno airport in Chuuk.

The Air Niugini plane in the lagoon off Weno airport in Chuuk. Photo: AFP or licensors

Mr Jaynes said US Navy divers were at the scene when he left Chuuk, and investigators from both the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board had arrived. The US is responsible for airports and aviation in Federated States of Micronesia, which is an associated state of the US.

On Tuesday, Mr Jaynes had returned to his home in Pohnpei, one of the other states that make up FSM. He had lost all his camera gear, and apart from what he was wearing - denim shorts and an aloha shirt - his entire wardrobe had gone down with the plane.

"I'm thankful to be alive," he said.

"There were dozens of local boats that came out and approached this dangerous wreck, kind of at risk of their own life and brought us back to the main dock in Chuuk."

"I'll never forget the local Chuukese who pulled off the rescue, they weren't officials they were private citizens."