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MAY DAY! - Occupants of mystery plane still on the run; JDF ill-equipped to respond to airspace breaches, says airman

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2021 | 8:56 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
A look inside the twin-engine plane resting on the beach in Rocky Point, Clarendon. A week after its landing, its occupants are yet to be located amid speculation as to the purpose of the aircraft entering the country’s airspace illegally.
The burnt-out wreckage of a plane suspected to be carrying marijuana, which was found by police in February 2008 in mangroves near the Rocky Point port in Clarendon.
A man walks atop the mysterious plane which touched down in Rocky Point, Clarendon, last weekend, triggering much speculation.

A twin-engine plane half sunken in the Caribbean Sea, tight-lipped police investigators, and a community divided, teetering even on distrust from a mystery most feel is “bigger than we”.

It is a quaint scene, probably a welcome attraction for a sleepy fishing village malnourished from underdevelopment, and where – apart from seagulls, clanking dominoes and a few expletives in-between – not much grabs the attention.

“It up di top a di beach. Follow me, but you have to roll up your pants foot fi cross the seawater,” warned ‘Duppy Flim’.

The lonesome mystery plane perched neatly nearby stood out like a twig in the white sand, its Mexican flag conjuring fantasies of dark, clandestine voyages.

To its left sprawled the open sea and to its right stretched a trek into knee-high mud and crocodile-infested swamp lands – if not into the path of excited Rocky Point residents darting towards the crash site – or landing site, depending on which theory you believe.

Whatever route they took, 15 minutes later, the plane occupants – said to be three foreigners – disappeared into the night on January 23. Some say by boat; others say by land and with the help of waiting eyes, ears and wheels on the ground.

Nonetheless, a week after being chased by Jamaica’s most intelligent amalgamation of law enforcement units, the fugitives, who reportedly do not speak fluent English, remain at large.

Head of the Police Narcotics Unit, Senior Superintendent Jervis Moore, while admitting on Friday that his team steers aspects of the probe, directed Sunday Gleaner queries to Deputy Police Commissioner Fitz Bailey, head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s crime and security portfolio. But like Moore, Bailey kept his cards close to his chest.

“There is no more update than what has been provided. The investigation continues. We can’t say if it is a drug investigation or what,” offered Bailey, when contacted.

“We want to find out why the plane came to Jamaica and what was the mission. The plane came illegally into the country, it crashed, and we have done what we need to do in terms of our scenes of crime. There is nothing more so far as the [physical] plane that can help us,” he emphasised when pressed.

Drug missions gone wrong

Whether anyone has been charged for tampering with or removing evidence from the crash scene is still unclear but the cops seem to have bigger targets.

According to Jamaica’s Civil Aviation regulations: “An aircraft registered (unregistered) in a contracting state other than Jamaica or a foreign country shall not take on-board or discharge any passenger or cargo in Jamaica … except in accordance with a licence or permit … .”

“The operator or the commander of an aircraft referred to in paragraph (1), which is being flown over any foreign country, shall not allow that aircraft to be used for a purpose which is prejudicial to the security, public order or public health or to the safety of air navigation of that country,” the law continues.

Gleaner archives reveal at least four plane crashes and an interception since 2008 that were believed to be part of a drug trans-shipment network spanning the Caribbean, North America and Europe – with Jamaica at its hub. At least two foreigners died in those incidents; and another two still not located to this day.

One of those crashes and a police interception occurred in Clarendon, the latter at the informal Vernamfield airstrip, a former World War II United States Army airfield in the parish. This strip is among 145 unofficial ports across Jamaica, and is notoriously tied to drug trafficking.

Similar to the crash two weeks ago, in February 2008, a plane slammed into mangroves in Rocky Point. Its burnt shell was later found with parcels of compressed ganja and the occupants missing. Two months later, cops swooped down on the airstrip, located not far from Rocky Point, and arrested two men refuelling a suspected drug plane.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said there were more than 400 unofficial ports. The correct figure is 145.

Not much we can do, say air traffic controllers

As it is – with the scrapped unregistered plane left to the whims of residents, with no evidence of drugs, money or other contraband in it – the police must shy away from stating with certainty that they are hunting foreign drug mules.

Besides, it is not uncommon for aliens to illegally enter Jamaica’s airspace, according to pilots and air traffic controllers who spoke to The Sunday Gleaner. It is as easy as flicking off the plane’s transponder or ignoring calls for identification from local authorities. For more nefarious activities, it means flying between mountains out of direct sight of Jamaica’s archaic radar systems, and ensuring that the air is busy with other planes and fuel is aplenty.

“You have what we call primary radar and secondary radar. The primary radar can pick up a lot more than the secondary, can but it tends to use up a lot of electricity, so you find a lot of people (countries), Jamaica as well, moving away from it,” explained one source.

“The primary radar works on its own, while the secondary radar gets help from the transponder in the airplane. That way, it doesn’t use so much electricity,” The Sunday Gleaner was told. “The problem with that now is that somebody can just turn off their transponder and they just disappear.”

There are at least two secondary radars at the Norman Manley and Sangster international airports; and a primary radar system in Manchester. Whether or not the primary system was still operational was unclear last week.

“How the radar works is line of sight, and as you know Jamaica is a hilly island. If the radar doesn’t have line of sight with a target or an airplane out there, it will not see it,” explained one air traffic controller.

“I don’t think our problems are unique to us. From time to time, you will have unidentified aircraft flying in our airspace. Sometimes they are military airplanes, sometimes it is just an airplane flying privately in uncontrolled airspace. But you can’t say every unidentified plane that pops up on the radar is for drugs,” he explained.

“I don’t think our problem is from the civil aviation side. I think we have a defence problem,” continued the source. “Let’s say that plane was detected on radar and let’s say we believe it is involved in drugs and we call the JDF (Jamaica Defence Force). The JDF cannot do much because the propeller planes they are equipped with cannot keep up with that kind of twin-engine airplane.

“So now it becomes a matter of what to do even if you do detect something?” continued the airman, explaining Jamaica’s allure for drug smugglers due to geography and its lax security systems on the ground.

“They find Jamaica as one of the easiest places to move the drugs. It is easy. You just want to make sure you fly during busy periods when there are a lot of planes in the sky; and you want to ensure that you stay on the ground as short as possible,” explained another.

It was an emergency landing, suggests insider

In Parliament last week, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who is also the minister of defence, in response to criticism about the silent treatment regarding the mysterious plane and in response to questions from the Opposition, said, “We know when the planes are flying. We know who is coming into our waters … . You know what? Let me not say too much.”

Residents of Rocky Point believe that understanding what really went down last weekend is beyond the capacity of the average man. All they can do is speculate. And they are not short of theories, even as they blame the authorities for using them as scapegoats.

“Is [high-level] work this. ... This plane you see there is bigger than Rocky Point people,” argued relatives of Nicholas Graham, owner of the White Sand Beach Seafood Restaurant in Rocky Point.

Hours after the crash, Graham was detained and his business place ransacked by cops searching for the fugitives. He was released on Wednesday, but directed Sunday Gleaner queries to his attorney when contacted. Residents protested his detention last week.

“Everybody is talking about Rocky Point and this plane, but everybody did sit down here and watch when the plane a fly low, low before it crash into the water. Nobody a Rocky [Point] don’t know what them up to. So why arrest innocent people? Dem fi go look for them friends,” one resident charged.

Meanwhile, the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority (JCAA) has said that it received an aircraft in distress – or may day – call from the aircraft at about 6:20 p.m. last Saturday. Repeated attempts to communicate with the aircraft proved futile and the JDF was notified, it added.

The JCAA said that no flight plans were filed with local air traffic control nor was the aircraft in contact with Jamaican air control officers prior to or after the may day call.

One drug insider told this newspaper that despite its apparent Mexican link, the plane was arriving from The Bahamas empty and was supposed to pick up a shipment of drugs en route from Colombia.

The pilots, however, drifted into risky Cuban airspace, the source said, using up too much of the plane’s fuel to reroute. This forced them to make an emergency landing in Rocky Point as the vehicle would not be able to climb over mountains to nearby Vernamfield.

“The entire time the pilots were circling, they were in communication with people on the ground. So the minute they landed, a vehicle was there to pick them up. Some residents from the area help them to move. Dem never take no boat,” said the source. “But this is a high-level operation, just watch and see if you are going to hear anything come out of it.”