MANILA/JEDDAH: The brother of a Saudi aviation student, who went missing over a week ago while on a training flight in the Philippines, on Sunday criticized the government for its “very weak” search efforts and the Saudi Embassy in Manila for its lack of help.
Abdullah Khalid Al-Sharif, a 23-year-old student at the Orient Flying School, was on a training flight on May 17 in Occidental Mindoro province when contact was lost with his plane. His flying instructor, Capt. Jose Nelson Yapparcon, is also missing.
The Philippine Navy told Arab News that the BE55, a light twin-engine aircraft, was believed to have crashed in Mindoro Strait, about 42 km from the nearest shoreline.
“There are efforts made by the Philippine government but they are very weak,” Abdul Majeed Al-Sharif, Abdullah’s older brother, told Arab News. “No cooperation from the (Saudi) embassy.”
“Still searching through our personal efforts. My uncle, my elder brother and my cousin … We brought, by our own efforts, a sonar to search under the water. We needed the embassy’s efforts to facilitate our work with the authorities, but they didn’t help unfortunately.”
A civil aviation authority spokesman, Eric Apolonio, said the flying school had hired two private divers, two technicians and sonar equipment to continue the search operation.
The Saudi embassy said on Sunday it had set up a team that was working around the clock with Philippine authorities to find the missing trainee and his instructor.
“The Saudi Foreign Ministry constantly follows up with the embassy on the search for the student,” the statement said. “We will continue to make efforts to search for him in coordination with the Philippine Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the civil aviation authority and other agencies.”
Philippine Navy fleet commander Rear Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo said the supposed crash site, based on the aircraft’s last known location, was about 42 km from the nearest shoreline with depth of waters in the area exceeding 600 feet, beyond the capacity of technical divers and equipment.
“You can’t do any salvage operations with our equipment given the depth of the waters in the area,” Bacordo told Arab News, saying the side-scan sonar being used by the navy could only penetrate up to about 180 feet. “It’s also beyond the capacity of our technical divers, who can only go as far as 100 to 300 feet.”
Previous search operations conducted by the navy, along with the Philippine Coast Guard immediately after the crash, have failed to yield results.
Apolonio said the Orient Flying School had hired a sonar with a greater capacity than the equipment used by the navy.
“It can detect more than the expected depth of the area,” he told Arab News, and the (Orient Flying School) operators already coordinated with the navy in the area so they can start new search operations.”
But weather conditions in the area were also hampering the search effort, he added, and the search area may have to be expanded because of the undercurrent.
Apolonio also confirmed that the plane had been involved in a previous accident, in Palawan province in July 2015, but that as far as he knew the aircraft had passed all safety protocols before the May 17 flight.
“We have safety procedures and a checklist and it (aircraft) passed all these. It has been used as a trainer aircraft for years now,” he said, adding that the possibility that the aircraft had developed a problem could not be ruled out.
The spokesman said a statement about the pair would be released only after they were found.
“As of now, we can’t announce what really happened,” he said, adding that the aviation authority was closely communicating with Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic mission in the Philippines.
The Al-Arabiya news website reported Al-Sharif as saying that he believed his brother and the instructor were still alive.
Al-Sharif said a friend of his in the Kingdom had called his missing brother’s number on Saturday several times and that a stranger had answered the call on the fourth time.
It was a five-minute call with a Filipino, according to the Al-Arabiya report.
“My friend did not understand what she was saying, she was talking loudly. After asking her if she can speak in English, she answered yes, then the call was cut off.” Al-Sharif said his friend called again, but the mobile was switched off.
Al-Sharif also said a fisherman had found a bag containing the instructor’s identity card, bank cards and pictures but that none of his brother’s belongings were found. He said his brother may have been kidnapped.
Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the Philippines Dr. Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Busairi said the embassy knew about the call. “We have handled it delicately. We sent all the information to security services for site monitoring, and we confirm that the embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia are very interested and concerned with following the details of the case,” Al-Arabiya reported the ambassador as saying.
The ambassador also denied the embassy had been unhelpful. The lack of publicity was at the request of the family, who did not want to talk to the media, he told Al-Arabiya.