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Search continues for missing plane off Venezuela

Wednesday - 1/9/2013, 9:58pm  ET

In this photo provided by Venezuela's Ministry of the Interior and Justice Press Office, a member of Venezuela's National Civil Aviation Institute looks out at the ocean during the search for a plane that went missing near Los Roques, Venezuela, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013. The search for a missing plane carrying Italian fashion executive Vittorio Missoni and five other people has entered its third straight day on Sunday with no signs of the aircraft. The small, twin-engine plane was reported missing hours after taking off Friday from Los Roques, a string of islands and islets popular among tourists for their white beaches and coral reefs. (AP Photo/Venezuela Ministry Interior and Justice Office Press)

IAN JAMES
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The owner of a plane that disappeared off Venezuela carrying the CEO of the Missoni fashion firm said that his company hadn't yet received its certification as a small airline but that the plane met all safety requirements.

Asdrubal Bermudez, president and owner of the company Transaereo 5074, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday that the plane was flown by an experienced pilot and its maintenance was up-to-date.

Venezuelan authorities have been searching since the twin-engine plane was lost Friday off the resort islands of Los Roques. On board were Vittorio Missoni, the head of the company, three other Italians and two Venezuelan crew members.

The pilot, 72-year-old Hernan Merchan, had many years of experience flying for Venezuelan airlines as well as the state oil company, and he knew the area well, Bermudez said.

Bermudez said he has no idea what might have gone wrong, and noted there was no contact between the pilot and air traffic controllers when the plane dropped off radar.

"What happened? I myself am astonished and distressed about what happened," Bermudez told the AP. He said he was talking regularly with authorities and with relatives of the missing.

Venezuelan officials said more than 400 people in boats, planes and helicopters searched on Wednesday for a sixth day without success.

Bermudez said that a travel agency had asked his company to fly a group of tourists back to the mainland amid heavy demand for flights out of the islands after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

"I was getting certified as an airline," he said. "I had nothing left to go, and this happened. The only thing left for me to get certified was 15 days more."

Bermudez said the aircraft was the only one owned by his company and "was in good shape."

The islands off Venezuela's coast are popular for pristine beaches and scuba diving along coral reefs. The 58-year-old Missoni had been vacationing in Los Roques along with his companion, Maurizia Castiglioni, and two Italian friends.

Venezuelan authorities have said the BN-2 Islander dropped off radar about 11 miles (18 kilometers) south of Los Roques during a flight to Caracas.

The plane was built in 1968 by British aircraft manufacturer Britten-Norman and was operated by more than 10 different companies in Florida, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho and North Carolina, according to London-based Flightglobal's aviation advisory service, Ascend, which maintains a detailed aviation database. It said that in the early 1980s the plane had been operated by Air Rajneesh, the airline of the sect led by guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

After passing through other owners, the plane eventually was purchased in the U.S. and exported to Venezuela in 2009. Bermudez said it had been used recently for corporate flights.

Dan Cutrer, an aviation safety expert who used to be a search and rescue pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard, said planes can drop off radar at various altitudes and still continue to move for a time before going down. Cutrer said searchers have to take into account that any wreckage would drift in the currents, and the area expands by the day.

"The problem with maritime searches like that is every day that goes by, that search area grows exponentially because the winds and waves are still moving," said Cutrer, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

He said that while such a small plane wouldn't have a cockpit data recorder as larger planes do, many such small planes carry an emergency locator transmitter that the pilot can turn on to send out a distress signal. But, he added, "they are subject to fail."

Italy's ambassador to Venezuela, Paolo Serpi, said the chances of finding survivors decreased with each passing day.

"We have to maintain hope up to the last moment," Serpi told the AP in an interview Tuesday.

Serpi acknowledged that it was possible the wreckage or bodies might never be found, pointing to the similar disappearance of a plane off Los Roques exactly four years earlier, on Jan. 4, 2008.

That plane, on a flight from Caracas to Los Roques, vanished with 14 people aboard, including eight Italians, a Swiss man and five Venezuelans. The pilot radioed to controllers that he was having engine trouble before the plane went down as it approached the islands. The body of the Venezuelan co-pilot later washed ashore, but no wreckage was recovered.

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Associated Press video journalist Christopher Gillette contributed to this report.

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap


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