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Search of sea finds airplane seats, papers _ no survivors or bodies

September 15, 1997

WINDHOEK, Namibia (AP) _ Searchers found airplane seats and a few papers Monday, but no bodies or survivors of the apparent collision between a U.S. military transport and a German plane believed to have been flying in the same air route.

Air corridors often are shared, although planes traveling in opposite directions are supposed to fly at different altitudes. Namibian officials said the probable collision site was off their radar and they didn’t know the German plane was coming because they had not received a flight plan.

The Atlantic is 3,000 feet deep in the area of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast where the U.S. C-141 Starlifter and the German air force plane apparently collided and crashed Saturday, and some officials doubted much wreckage ever would be found. Nine Americans and 24 Germans were missing.

Military officials from Germany, the United States and South Africa _which is responsible for sea rescue operations in the area _ converged on Windhoek to coordinate the search. They also want to determine why it took 24 hours before rescue officials were told the planes were missing.

``We are about to hire some divers,″ German air force Maj. Gen. Gerhard Buck said in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, which is northwest of South Africa on the continent’s south Atlantic coast.

Searchers found seats from the German plane and papers in German in two areas of the sea Monday near where the planes may have collided, about 115 miles west of Cape Fria on the Namibian coast.

American officials said they could not say why it took so long to initiate a search or what steps were taken when the U.S. plane did not arrive at Ascension Island from Namibia as scheduled.

``I cannot reconstruct that for you. We simply do not have that information. I’m not sure what the time line would be, but they would obviously inform people in the United States,″ said U.S. Army Col. Michael Mensch.

The German plane vanished en route from Germany to Cape Town, South Africa, and Namibian officials said they never received its flight plan.

``No departure signal, no flight plan. That’s why we were not aware that the airplane was coming,″ said Jochen Sell, Namibia’s chief air traffic officer.

He told reporters such critical procedures are often absent in Africa.

``It is normal in Africa,″ Sell said. ``We have a big problem, a major problem.″

Buck said a flight plan for the German plane had been filed before takeoff from Germany. But Sell said it was never passed on, as required, by controllers in the central African nation of Niger.

Louie Lourens, Namibia’s deputy director of aviation security, said the site of the apparent collision was out of range of Namibian air traffic control radar.

The two planes were traveling on the same air route in different directions, ``although they should have been height-separated,″ South Africa’s Brig. Hap Potgieter said Pretoria, South Africa.

A French aircraft flying over the apparent crash site Sunday night picked up a faint distress signal which may have come from an automatic emergency beacon. U.S. Air Force monitors in the European command also picked up the distress signal at about the same time, South African officials said.

However, the presence of a signal ``does not mean there is a survivor,″ Buck said.

The American plane, assigned to the 305th Air Mobility wing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, unloaded personnel and 32,000 pounds of equipment in Namibia on Saturday and was returning to Ascension Island, a British territory in the South Atlantic.

Soldiers aboard the German air force plane were to have participated in a boat race in Cape Town marking the 75th anniversary of the South African navy.

The nearly 24-hour delay in reporting the missing aircraft had hurt the rescue effort, Potgieter said.

There were 12 German marines, two of their spouses and a crew of 10 aboard the German aircraft.

McGuire Air Force Base identified those on the American plane as Capt. Peter C. Vallejo, the aircraft commander; Capt. Gregory M. Cindrich, pilot; Capt. Jason S. Ramsey, pilot; Staff Sgt. Robert K. Evans, flight engineer; Staff Sgt. Scott N. Roberts, flight engineer; Staff Sgt. Stacy D. Bryant, loadmaster; Senior Airman Gary Bucknam, flight engineer; Senior Airman Frankie L. Walker, crew chief; and Airman Justin R. Drager, loadmaster. None of their hometowns were released.

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