Search for plane in Caribbean

December 16, 2008 10:51:53 AM PST
Authorities were searching near the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday for a missing plane that reportedly had 11 people on board. Aviation officials gave conflicting reports on the twin-engine plane's origin, destination and where it was last reported. The aircraft's registered owner said he was reporting it stolen.

Jose Tomas Perez, director of the Dominican Civil Aviation Institute, said the aircraft sent an emergency signal before disappearing from the radar 35 minutes after taking off from the Dominican Republic at about 3:30 p.m. Monday.

Perez initially said his records showed the Britton-Norman Islander was on a regional flight for a small operation called Atlantis Airlines.

But the plane is registered to a company called Puerto Rico Airline, based in Carolina, Puerto Rico. That company's owner, Luis Perez, said the aircraft was for sale and was only supposed to be inspected in the Dominican Republic. He said he planned to report it as stolen.

The plane's pilot filed a flight plan saying he planned to land on Mayaguana Island in the southeastern Bahamas, said Santiago Rosa, the institute's aerial navigation director. The Bahamas Aviation Authority, however, said the plane never landed there.

Aviation officials initially said 11 people were on board and that the plane was headed to the Turks and Caicos Islands but never arrived. Rosa said his records show 12 people were on the plane, including the pilot.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said the plane disappeared shortly after taking off from Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands, just southeast of the Bahamas.

Sgt. Calvin Chase of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police said airport authorities are still trying to locate records to determine whether the plane landed in Providenciales.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the plane's destination was not immediately known.

"There's still a lot of unanswered questions here," Bergen said.

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, Nick Ameen, said rescuers searching for the plane were told the crew intended to refuel in Turks and Caicos. Relatives of those missing told the U.S. Coast Guard that the passengers were ultimately trying to reach New York, Petty Officer Barry Bena said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies were searching in the Atlantic Ocean about 4 miles (6 kilometers) west of West Caicos island but have not found any wreckage, Ameen said.

Bad weather in the area was causing large swells and low visibility, making the search difficult, Bena said.