Australia –– An Australian helicopter pilot missing in Papua New Guinea was an experienced flyer and a hero of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.
The search is continuing for Russell Aitken, 42, New Zealander Antony Annan, 49, and another Australian man who were on board a Bell 206 chopper that went down near Mt Hagen in the PNG highlands on Thursday.
The 37-year-old Australian pilot has not been named at the request of the family, Singapore based helicopter operator Hevilift says.
Mr Aitken previously flew a surf life-saving rescue helicopter and was involved in the daring 2009 chopper rescue of three people from a burning property in the Yarra Valley during the Black Saturday fires. Advertisement
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said two ground teams were expected to be airlifted into the search area on Monday.
“The terrain being searched is extremely densely forested with the forest canopy rising up to 70 metres above the ground,” DFAT said in a statement.
“We understand up to seven aircraft are currently involved in the aerial search. The aircraft include at least one helicopter leased by the PNG government and are marked in PNG Defence Force colours.”
The search began in dense bushland on Thursday, within hours of a mayday call.
There are currently seven helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft sweeping the area with electronic surveillance.
Thick forest and periodic fog have hampered the search.
Life Saving Victoria manager Greg Scott said Mr Aitken’s former colleagues were thinking of him.
“We worked very closely with him,” Mr Scott told AAP.
“He flew with us for our first two years and was an integral part of getting us started and training our pilots.
“He’s a fantastic person. Our whole crew and organisation are with him and his family. We hope it’s a good outcome.”
Mr Annan is from a well-known flying family from Alexandra in Central Otago, New Zealand. His brother Matthew was killed in a light plane crash in Australia more than 10 years ago.
Central Otago Flying Club president Russell Anderson, who went to school with Annan, visited the missing pilot’s brother-in-law in Alexandra on Monday morning.
“I’ve known (Antony Annan) all my life,” Mr Anderson told AAP.
“His father was the president of the aero club for a period of time and was a life member. Antony grew up flying.”
Australia’s high commissioner to PNG, Ian Kemish, says everything possible is being done to find the three pilots.
“For the moment we think the most effective search is the search being conducted by people with local knowledge,” Mr Kemish said.
“We want to be as effective as possible and that’s by using local knowledge and resources.
“The area is almost unpopulated. There’s the occasional village and significant areas are not accessible even on foot. It is rough topography.
The Australian and PNG defence forces, Australian search-and-rescue teams, ExxonMobil PNG workers and Hevilift clients have been assisting in the search.
Australia currently has military aircraft and military advisers in PNG as part of the joint Australia-NZ Task Force to assist with the national elections.