20 September 2000

Nine saved from hijack plane lost at sea

By Ben Fenton, in Nashville

Nine survivors were picked up from the sea last night after a light aircraft apparently hijacked in Cuba disappeared in the Florida Strait.

One body was found. The plane, with up to 18 people on board, was being flown towards America when it disappeared from radar screens. Two of the passengers were children. The US Coast Guard, which was co-ordinating a search for the plane, said it believed that the
people picked up by a merchant ship were survivors from the plane, but could not be certain.

The pilot of the antiquated Cuban An-2 biplane, which has a maximum range of 560 miles, told air traffic controllers in Havana that he and his passengers had been hijacked after taking off from Pinar del Rio in the west of the island. The single-engine plane vanished 60
miles south-west of the Dry Tortugas, the closest American soil. Cuban authorities told American air traffic controllers the pilot reported that he had only 90 minutes of fuel left.

There were reports that the aircraft was a seaplane, but Cuban authorities said it belonged to the country's agriculture department and was equipped for crop dusting. They claimed that the pilot had dropped his technician off at an airport near Pinar del Rio and then taken off, heading to the north-east, and this was the last time the aircraft was seen by anyone on the ground. After receiving the alert from Cuba, the US air force launched two F-15 jets from Homestead Air Force Base to intercept the plane, but a Pentagon spokesman said they had never seen the AN-2 on their own radar.

An Awacs radar aircraft, several military jets, Coast Guard search planes and helicopters as well as several surface vessels, joined the search, concentrating on an area where a signal from an emergency beacon had been picked up.