Why Was the Missionary Plane Shot Down?

ByHoward L. Rosenberg

May 24, 2001 -- On the morning of April 20, something went terribly wrong with a military program designed to stop the flow of drugs from Peru. Before the day was over, two American civilians were dead and U.S. and Peruvian officials were scrambling to explain why.

That's because of a controversial drug interdiction program that uses U.S. surveillance planes to track and target suspected drug traffickers. Since the shooting down of an American missionary plane over the Amazon River last month, which severely injured the pilot, Kevin Donaldson, and killed Roni Bowers and her infant daughter, the intercept program has been suspended until an inter-agency investigation and report of the incident is completed.

According to a U.S. official, some of the Peruvians "may not have … fully or properly adhered to" well-established rules and procedures governing the operation.

The only mission of the U.S.government personnel in this program is "detecting and tracking suspect aircraft," according to U.S. officials. Once the Peruvian air force (PAF) decides to intercept a suspect plane and interceptors are launched, "the mission is under the control of the Peruvian Air Force." A Host Country Rider (HCR) aboard U.S. surveillance aircraft, who is a Peruvian air force officer, serves as the relay between the Peruvian command center and the Peruvian interceptor.

What Happened with the Missionaries?

Things apparently did not go according to plan in the skies over the Amazon River. Aboard the Cessna Citation that day were four U.S. crew members and a Peruvian air force liaison officer. (The Citation jet is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and operated by a U.S. CIA contractor identified as Aviation Development Corporation and based at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.)

While some of the U.S. crew knew a little Spanish, none was fluent. The HCR is supposed to serve as an interpreter and is proficient in both English and Spanish. The Citation was equipped with sophisticated radar, and a video camera with a long range lens. In the videotape, which may or may not be released at the time of the final report, the missionaries' plane can be seen only in a black-and-white image, "motoring along, straight and level." Occasionally, the Peruvian air force A-37 crosses through the frame quickly.

It is unclear from the tapes whether the A-37 fired any warning shots. During most of the intercept and engagement, the CIA plane remained about a mile behind the missionaries so as to not be detected, in case the suspect plane was actually a drug-runner.

According to the U.S. official, even after reviewing the videotape and listening to the audio tape, it's still unclear exactly what happened since the recordings picked up several transmissions.

Excerpts and a Timeline

But excerpts from the tapes and a timeline put together by U.S. officials show in incident unfolding this way:

At 9:43 a.m. local time, the U.S. plane notifies its base "of the radar sighting of an aircraft that crossed 3 to 4 miles into Brazilian territory."

A copy of a flight plan Donaldson filed the day before the incident with Peruvian civil air authorities in Lima outlined a round-trip from Iquitos to Islandia, indicating the journey would be made in one day. Also, still under investigation is whether Donaldson should have actually filed his flight plan with military authorities. Though the pilot was in contact with the air control tower at Iquitos when he took off on the first leg of his trip on April 19, authorities in Peru told ABCNEWS that Iquitos was never contacted by the Peruvian Air Force when they were trying to determine whether a valid flight plan had feen filed for the plane they were tailing.

At 9:55 a.m., a second sighting is called in as the unidentified aircraft re-enters Peruvian air space. Following standard procedures, the U.S. crew requests the PAF officer in charge at the nearby military airfield in Pucallpa to determine if the aircraft was on an approved flight plan.

According to the U.S. official, the PAF "was unable to locate a flight plan for an aircraft in that area," so the PAF scrambles its interceptors. Now, the mission is technically under the command of the PAF. (In this case, only one A-37 was sent up, although the U.S. pilots apparently don't know that because they occasionally refer to the A-37 in the plural.)

Quickly, the intercept procedure kicks in as the PAF A-37 closes in on the suspect plane. Aboard the CIA surveillance plane, the HCR communicates with his ground controllers and directly with the A-37.

At this point, the HCR also tries to hail the missionary plane at least twice, according to the audio and videotapes. Speaking on an emergency frequency in Spanish he radios, "You have been intercepted by the Peruvian air force. Change course and turn to 270 and go to Pulcallpa [military] airfield. Should you not obey, we will proceed to shoot you down."

Shortly thereafter, the Peruvian liaison says, "We've finished phase one and we're proceeding to phase two." The U.S. pilot expresses doubt that the plane they are tracking is carrying drugs. "This guy doesn't fit the profile," he says and asks the PAF officer, "Are we sure this is a bad guy?" The officer answers simply, "No."

Authorized to Fire

Speaking in Spanish, the pilot of the Peruvian air force A-37 interceptor asks if he is authorized to fire on the suspect plane. The command center answers quickly, "Phase three has been authorized," and then the Peruvian liaison aboard the CIA surveillance plane repeats the message, "Phase three has been authorized."

"But he's not taking any evasive action, he's not trying to run is he?" asks the U.S. pilot. There is no answer from the Peruvian liaison officer who checks again with his ground controllers. "Could you confirm phase three?" Even though the operation is technically under command of the Peruvians, the U.S. pilot tells the Peruvian to "Have the A-37s pull up in front of him and try to see who he is!"

The Peruvian liaison on the plane repeats the order again, "Phase three is authorized." The U.S. pilot urges the Peruvians to slow down once again. "Yes I understand" he says, but asks frantically, "Is it possible for the A-37s to identify? ID? ID? Tail number?" The Peruvian jet now apparently tries to radio the missionaries' plane, calling to it by its tail number.

"Oscar bravo one, four, zero eight. Air Force!"

Again the jets controllers on the ground repeat their fatal order. "Phase three is authorized."

"Jeez," the U.S. pilot says and asks again, "Are you sure it's a bandito? You're sure? It's a fact?"

"Yes," the Peruvian liaison answers and asks, "OK?"

"OK," the U.S. pilot replies, "if you're sure."

Then the pilot of the Peruvian jet fighter asks again, "Is Phase three authorized? Is it authorized?"

"Affirmative," the Peruvian liaison on the CIA surveillance plane answers, "Phasethree authorized."

'I Think We're Making a Mistake'

Once again, the U.S. pilot expresses his doubts, "I think we're making a mistake, but …" His co-pilot chimes in, "I agree with you."

The pilot of the Peruvian A-37 radios, "I'm firing. I'm firing." And just a moment later, the air traffic controller in the Iquitos tower is heard responding, apparently, to a call from missionary plane pilot Kevin Donaldson. Even though the Peruvian jet pilot has already said he was firing, the tower controller reportedly speaks in a very routine tone, without a hint of urgency.

"Oscar bravo one-four zero eight," the Iquitos controller says, calling the missionaries' plane by its tail number. "Good day. Go ahead."

The U.S. pilot, surprised at hearing the radio exchange calls out, "He's talking toIquitos!" He realizes that drug-runners don't engage in routine communications with air traffic controllers. Then the tapes on board the CIA surveillance plane record Donaldson, say, "There are military here. I don't know what they want!" Donaldson continues to communicate routinely, giving the tower his altitude and speed. The U.S. pilot is startled to hear Donaldson and cries, "He's talking to the tower! VHF-1. He's talking to them! He's talking to oscar bravo one four zero eight. He's talking to the tower on open VHF."

"OK. OK," the Peruvian air force officer aboard the CIA plane says, but it's too late. Seconds later, the audio tapes aboard the U.S. plane record Donaldson's frantic screams in Spanish: "They're killing us! They're killing us! "

The U.S. pilot yells into his intercom, "Tell him to terminate! Tell him to terminate!Don't shoot! Tell him to terminate! No mas!" The Peruvian liaison radios the jet fighter, "No mas. No mas!" The U.S pilot mutters just one word: "God."

The Investigation

An investigation headed by Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers into the incident is under way. Shortly after Beers' team returned from Peru, he told ABCNEWS in a brief interview, "I would caution that nobody has the full story yet about what happened there, including me."

However, recently declassified documents show that some U.S. officials warned as far back as 1994 that the drug interdiction program, "could affect the safety of innocent U.S. citizens." A Feb. 9, 1994 State Department position paper classified as "secret" also predicted that "a single tragic accident from the use of tracer bullets (regardless of the best intentions of those in command of the pursuing aircraft) would, needless to say, be disastrous in every respect."

Nevertheless, the program moved forward.

A U.S. official tells ABCNEWS: "You need to understand that it was a confusing situation" and that the U.S. crew was trying to "slow it down. It's pretty clear that things moved too rapidly. There is still an ongoing investigation and I don't want to come to any final conclusions, but it certainly appears that what you can hear from the tape that it moved awfully quickly from step one to two to three. It certainly gave the U.S. crew cause for concern at the time it was happening."

The U.S. official continued that "obviously, this was a very tragic situation. We're still trying to figure out what went wrong. This has been a very successful program, but in this case, the investigation is trying to determine what went wrong and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The official stresses that the "U.S. crew is not in the chain of command for decisions regarding how intercepts are ended."

Also, according to the U.S. official, since March 1995, the Peruvians "shot, forced down, or strafed more than 30 narco aircraft and seized more than a dozen on the ground. Since July 2000, there have been three endgames — a shootdown on July 17, 2000 and forcedowns on Dec. 18, 2000 and Jan. 21, 2001."

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