The Peruvian Air Force identified the U.S. missionary plane shot down by mistake in April but the message never reached those responsible for deciding whether it was on a drug smuggling mission, according to a joint U.S.-Peruvian report released today.
The mistake was one of many, compounded by language barriers and communications overload, which led to the death of missionary Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter during the flight over northern Peru on April 20.
After the accident, Peru and Colombia suspended their U.S.-backed programs to intercept drug courier flights in the Andes, easing the pressure on the traffickers who supply most of the cocaine to the U.S. market.
The report, from a team led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers and Peruvian Air Force Maj. Gen. Jorge Kisic Wagner, did not assign blame but concluded that the people running the program had diluted over the years the procedures set out in a 1994 agreement.
In the Peruvian program, U.S. surveillance planes staffed by Americans and Peruvian Air Force fighters are meant to work together to deal with suspect flights over the jungle.
The report said: "By the late 1990s references to the full range of procedures ... became less detailed and explicit in implementing documents."
"The language limitations of Peruvian and American participants — particularly under stress — played a role in reducing the timely flow of information.
No Flight Plan
"Communications systems overload and cumbersome procedures played a role in reducing timely and accurate compliance with all applicable directives," it added.
Other factors were that the pilot of the missionary plane, Kevin Donaldson, did not file a flight plan for his trip from Islandia to Iquitos and did not hear vital messages from the Peruvian fighter because his VHF radio was turned off.
But perhaps the biggest surprise in the report is that the Peruvian fighter co-pilot correctly reported the registration number of Donaldson's plane — OB-1408 — at least eight minutes before the fighter opened fire on the missionaries.
The crew of the U.S. surveillance plane, including the Peruvian who traveled with them, did not hear this message because they were busy with other conversations.
Earlier in the flight Peruvian personnel on the ground had asked air traffic controllers in the region for the location of OB-1408 because they wanted to be sure it was not confused for a plane suspected of carrying drugs.
Complicated Exchange of Messages
But the air traffic controllers told them erroneously that the missionary plane was still at Islandia.
When the fighter plane did open fire, Donaldson had already spoken to the Iquitos control tower. He told them that military aircraft were in the area but the control tower did not respond to that part of his message.
On several occasions during the complicated exchange of messages, the language barrier between the Spanish speakers and the English speakers mean that they did not receive vital information or respond to requests.
The 12-page report does not make any recommendations about the future of the interdiction flights.
The former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Morris Busby, is preparing a separate report on that, but State Department officials say they do not know when it will be ready.