Missionary pilot blamed in Peruvian shootdown

 - May 19, 2008, 11:24 AM

With the final report by a joint Peruvian-U.S. investigation due before the end of last month, conflicting reports are emerging from a variety of sources, most of which place the blame on the pilot of the missionary-operated Cessna 185 shot down by Peruvian military jets on April 20.

The single-engine floatplane was shot down by two Peruvian Cessna A-37s near the village of Huanta, Peru, about 70 min flying time east of Islandia on the Amazon River. The shootdown came after the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) pilot allegedly strayed from Peruvian airspace and back again, triggering an alert by the crew of a U.S. manned drug surveillance aircraft. Minutes after being intercepted by two Peruvian jets, at least one pilot opened fire on the Cessna 185.

Aboard were pilot Kevin Donaldson and missionaries Jim and Veronica Bowers and their six-year-old son and infant daughter. One of the shots fired pierced the heart of Veronica Bowers and continued into the baby’s head. Both died instantly. Donaldson, Bowers and Bowers’ son Cory survived the subsequent ditching in the Amazon. Donaldson continues to recover from serious injuries, according to ABWE.

In a report aired on CBS news on June 4, it was alleged that Donaldson had filed a round-trip flight plan but, contrary to Peruvian requirements, failed to refile before embarking on the return leg to Iquitos, Peru, from Islandia.

CBS also alleged that Donaldson did not have his radio tuned to the proper frequency, and as a result he did not hear a warning from the Peruvian jet pilots. Another account said Donaldson’s radio was turned off.

Language may also have been a factor, according to Hank Scheltema, aviation director for ABWE. In an interview with Reuters that would seem to conflict with allegations that Donaldson’s radio was turned off, Scheltema said he understood that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency crew of the surveillance aircraft had minimal command of the Spanish language, “nor did the one Peruvian [on board the Citation] speak English well.” Early reports had suggested that the U.S. crew of the Cessna Citation surveillance airplane had tried to call off the intercept.

At least part of the final investigation will hinge on videotape of the aerial disaster which was reportedly filmed from the CIA-operated aircraft.

In response to the CBS news broadcast, ABWE would say only that “several points in the news story were erroneous or misleading. We believe,” ABWE concluded, “our pilot acted in accordance with his standard procedure for flying a floatplane in the region, and nothing he did or is alleged to have done, or not done, justifies or explains the shootdown.”

In the months since the shootdown, it has been revealed that an estimated 50 aircraft have either been forced down or shot down during drug-interdiction efforts by the U.S. and its war-on-drugs allies in South and Central America.

At the same time, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) continues to urge Congress to repeal the law that permits the assistance of U.S. civil or military employees in the interdiction of aircraft suspected of running illegal drugs.

“The use of deadly force against aircraft is fundamentally wrong and a violation of international law intended to protect civilian pilots and their passengers,” AOPA said.

AOPA’s efforts include support of H.R.1818, a bill introduced in May by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), a pilot and AOPA member. The bill would “eliminate the authority for employees and agents of the U.S. government to assist foreign countries in interdiction of aircraft suspected of drug-related activities.”

AOPA may introduce the subject next year at the 21st World Assembly of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA), Sept. 23 to 27, 2002, in São Paulo, Brazil.