By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE search and rescue effort for Byron Ferguson after his plane crashed last year exposed gaping loopholes in this country’s civil aviation regime, the final report into the accident reveals.
Investigators concluded Mr Ferguson, 34, could have survived the crash for up to five days under the most optimistic scenario.
However, the Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) has noted in its report that the country does not have a designated search and rescue entity that meets international standards and has recommended that international requirements be fulfilled.
The AAID report also reveals that it took rescue teams one hour to reach the vicinity of Mr Ferguson’s downed plane after the pilot reported engine problems and crashed.
As a signatory to the Convention on the International Civil Aviation, the country is required to comply with Annex 12 by designating an appropriate entity to perform search and rescue services, by granting the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority the power to provide oversight of that entity and establishing a rescue coordination centre to support rescue services, according to the report.
AAID Chief Investigator Delvin Major said this country has done none of this.
“There are 12 annexes and (search and rescue) has not been given much emphasis,” he said yesterday. “There is a need for legislation and the designated body has to meet many specific requirements relating to budget, training, manpower, rescue plans and infrastructure and the defence force does not meet the requirements. It’s difficult therefore to blame any one particular body for how the rescue was conducted because none of them are legislatively mandated to be the official search and rescue entity for The Bahamas. The defence force, BASRA, the US Coast Guard, they all assist but none are officially and legally approved to perform the function. We need to designate a body and in doing so equip them according to ICAO requirements.”
An effort to pass legislation for a designated body stalled under the previous administration, Mr Major said, with the current administration hiring an American consultancy group to boost compliance with the annexes.
The AAID concluded that because Mr Ferguson and his Piper Aztec aircraft were never recovered, it is impossible to determine his survival chances.
“The seat occupied by the pilot, or safety restraints used (which in some cases can aid in survivability) could not be determined. Therefore crash survivability is undetermined,” the report said.
The US Coast Guard nonetheless conducted a Probability of Survival Decision Aid (PSDA), examining air temperature, water temperature and the pilot’s physical attributes to produce an estimated survival time. It was concluded that Mr Ferguson’s timeframe of survival was five days.
Mr Major said this could have happened in the most optimistic scenario, one where Mr Ferguson conducted a controlled landing in water, remained conscious after impact and escaped the downed plane.
“We don’t know what happened,” he said. “Because this was at night, he may not have known which way to go after landing. We don’t know if he was conscious after impact or whether he sustained serious injuries. The status of the cargo and whether that could’ve impeded his efforts to escape the plane is unknown as well so we can’t reach a conclusion on his survivability.”
Mr Ferguson’s plane departed the West Palm Beach County Park airport at 7.26pm on November 8, 2018.
Communication between the aircraft and both the Miami and Nassau air traffic control centres was difficult.
Eventually the pilot received and confirmed various instructions from Air Traffic Control, including to land.
However, at 8.50pm he said: “Tower, eight three Charlie, I’m having engine problems.”
Two minutes later, radar contact with his aircraft was lost and the emergency locater transmitter installed on the craft was activated “presumably when the aircraft made impact with the ocean,” the report notes.
ATC immediately initiated emergency response protocols, informing the Royal Bahamas Police Force, Royal Bahamas Defence Force, the US Coast Guard and BASRA.
However, the first RBDF vessel did not arrive on scene until 9.50pm, followed shortly after by vessels from BASRA, a RBPF marine unit vessel and the US Coast Guard helicopter.
The RBDF reported observing the tail section of the aircraft above water but Mr Ferguson nor his plane were retrieved. Search and rescue efforts were called off at 2am on November 9, 2018 and resumed four hours later.
The RBDF recovered parts of the airframe of the craft and other debris between November 9 and 13.
Civilians with the HeadKnowles non-profit organisation found components of the craft and additional cargo on November 15.
The AAID said the “probable cause of the accident was loss of control inflight resulting in uncontrolled flight into” the ocean and that weather was not a factor in the accident.
Mr Ferguson was in full compliance with laws to operate the plane and was certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
The search and rescue efforts for him came under withering criticism from his family and relatives have filed an application for judicial review into the situation.