Australia Mourns Its Plane-Crash Victims

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Perhaps the deaths of nine Australians in a plane crash in Papua New Guinea this week has been so deeply felt because they were visiting a place that to many Australians is almost a sacred site. Or maybe it was that the group, collectively, had so many young children waiting for them at home. Whatever the reason, the nation was in mourning this week after nine members of a tour group died in a plane crash on their way to the famous Kokoda track in PNG. Five Papua New Guinea nations were also on board the Twin Otter when it collided with a hillside, killing everyone on board on August 11.

Even before investigators had reached the site this week of one of the worst plane crashes in Papua New Guinea's history, theories were circulating about the causes. Some blamed the experience of the 25-year-old pilot, a Papua New Guinea national Jenny Moala who only had 2500 hours flying time. Others speculated that the Airlines PNG twin otter might have experienced a technical problem that showed up when the pilot tried to climb.

For those who have flown into the area, the answer is less complicated but equally tragic — on the morning of August 11, Moala's luck just ran out. "It would have been absolutely terrifying. There probably wasn't anything she could have done," says Ken Grant, a retired pilot who has flown in PNG regularly over 30 years.

Flying in the tiny Pacific country is not for the faint hearted. Vast, mist-shrouded mountains cloaked in 200 foot high rainforest dominate the terrain. Huge storms towering up to 45,000 feet high are a regular occurrence and airstrips range from muddy tracks to un-mown fields on the edge of cliffs which require planes to jump from zero altitude to thousands of feet in minutes. "You are talking 200 foot trees and you can hit them and fall to your death. Very few aircraft survive accidents like that," says Grant, 63. Though there are few navigational aids for pilots operating in PNG, Grant doesn't think they would have made much of a difference. "There's not a pilot flying in PNG that hasn't been in a similar situation."

But in PNG, as the nation is often referred to, there's often little choice. The lack of roads and the incredible remoteness of thousands of tiny hamlets and villages throughout the island mean flying is usually the only option to get around. Moala's flight was ferrying a group of 12 passengers to the tiny village of Kokoda, 50 miles northeast of the capital Port Moresby. Onboard flight CG4684 was co-pilot Royden Soauka, and a tour group of nine Australians and their local guide Steven Jaruba, a local businessman. By early on August 14, three days after the crash, authorities reported a 14th person may have been on the plane, a local mine worker who was not listed on the passenger manifest.

The tour group was due to hike along the Kokoda Track — something of a bucket-list favorite for Australians looking to relive the battle their soldiers fought to keep the Japanese from advancing on the capital Port Moresby and pay tribute to the 625 killed on the track in World War II. On the morning of the flight, Moala reportedly radioed that she was descending on the grassy airstrip at Kokoda and then, about ten to 20 minutes later, she radioed that she had not landed and was ascending. Locals in the area heard the sound of a crash and later found the plane's wreckage on the side of a mountain about five minutes flying time from the airstrip.

The track has great significance to Australians as it was the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting of the Second World War between Australian and Japanese forces. Australian troops eventually prevailed, forcing the Japanese to pull back and abandon plans to launch further attacks on allied bases and the Australian mainland. Yesterday tributes poured in from around the nation for those killed in the crash, with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who walked the track in 2006, saying in a statement published in Australian newspapers that Kokoda evokes the memory of the thousands of young Australians who gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom and democracy. "For nine more Australians to have lost their lives there this week is unbearably sad," Rudd said.

Australian Federal Police, soldiers and PNG officials have reached the crash site, which is in the mountains at an elevation of 500 feet, with locals reporting bodies and wreckage strewn across the jungle. Three days after the crash, four bodies had been recovered, and Airlines PNG chairman Simon Wild has said recovering the rest of the bodies might take some time due to the conditions. He has defended the crew's experience and said the exact cause will not be known for some time and the company would assist authorities with any investigation. PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare has also called for a full inquiry into the crash. In 2008, Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Foreign Correspondent program revealed that 19 of most recent plane crashes in PNG, in which a total of 16 people were killed, none had been properly investigated. Sadly, it looks like it has take the deaths of another 14 people to prompt a proper inquiry into aviation safety in the country.