Fiji’s small knit aviation community was engulfed in grief and lots of sadness early in the month when a trainee pilot and her instructor died in a plane crash in Fiji’s north. Just like the death of pilot David Tong who in January lost his life when his small plane crash in rugged mountainous terrain in Papua New Guinea, rescue arrived too late for young Merelesita Lutu and flying instructor Iliesa Tawalo.
As a New Zealand expert arrives to begin an investigation into the tragedy, I am reminded of two equally harrowing episodes involving domestic aviation. The first was taking one of the most terrifying plane rides of my entire life from the capital Suva in a small plane in 2016 bound for a remote island in Fiji’s eastern region as part of a documentary I was producing for the US Embassy.
Nothing could be seen out of the plane’s windows during the entire 60 minute flight and for the whole time, both pilots had their hands firmly on the plane equipment. They say the weather on that day was somewhat similar to the day the small Cessna plane of which Lutu and Tawalo were in went down.
The rain was relentless and thunderstorms could be heard. The kind of weather that should see one holed up in the warmth of a blanket at home instead of being contained in a small metal machine flying hundreds of metres up in the sky. The other incident in 2010 involved another small plane though a bit bigger than a Cessna aircraft. It was a Twin Otter belonging to Pacific Sun, forerunner of what’s Fiji Link today.
About five minutes away from landing at Nadi Airport, the plane flew through dark, ominous black cloud formations. The plane was struck by lightning seconds later and it dropped. Fortunately for the passengers, the crew led by a woman captain from Tonga recovered from the shock, stabilised the plane and with its instruments knocked out by lightning, flew the aircraft out towards the sea off the city of Lautoka.
Using their own visions, they safely landed the plane some 10 to 20 minutes later at Nadi. This incident forced the airline to ensure that all its planes are fitted with weather radar equipment. It’s a real tragedy when lives of our aviators are lost but such incidents will continue to be isolated and far between it is hoped, and that it ought not take away the respect and admiration we have for these bunch of brave professionals who skilfully deliver us to our destinations safe and sound day in and day out.