We Failed Byron Ferguson: How Pilot’s Plane Crash Became A Perfect Storm For Bahamian Authorities

By Rogan Smith |
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Tellis Bethel Press Conference

We failed Byron Ferguson and his family. Big time.

It’s been nearly two weeks since the young pilot’s plane crashed in waters near Nirvana Beach. We still don’t have a body and seem to be no closer to finding additional wreckage.

Pieces of Byron’s plane and a flight plan that miraculously survived after being submerged in water for a week were recently recovered. Not by law enforcement officials, but by a group of civilian divers who decided to take matters into their own hands. Those divers made the discovery less than an hour after looking for wreckage. There was no sophisticated equipment involved. Just a group of people on a boat searching for answers. And last Thursday, they got it.

As video of the discovery spread on social media, many started to question how civilians were able to do in less than an hour what police and defence officers could not do in a week.

Prior to the discovery, the Fergusons, the media and inquiring members of the public had been begging for more details. Law enforcement officials, for the most part, thought it best to keep quiet.

That all changed a day after those divers’ discovery. In a widely televised news conference, senior Defence Force officials stepped in front of a firing squad of microphones and began damage control. While they refused to admit that they were negligent, they did cop to doing a poor job of communicating the details of their investigation. The focus, they said, was on searching for signs of life.

There’s no doubt that conditions were challenging. Defence Force Commodore, Tellis Bethel admitted as much during the news conference, noting that the search area was saturated with reefs and had low visibility. He said officers could not search properly without compromising their safety.

Failed Rescue Efforts

Rescue efforts may seem very simple, but rarely are. Things like weather, poor visibility, etc. could seriously complicate a search and rescue. But, the public is unforgiving to carelessness and negligence be they real or perceived. And while no one wants an officer to lose his or her life while trying to make a rescue, people want to see and feel action and they want to be kept in the loop along the way.

Instead, what the public sees is a missing husband, father, son and brother and no signs that he is coming back. They see a family in anguish over its loss and that loss being compounded by a lack of information by those in authority. They see, yet again, everyday men and women having to take matters into the own hands in order to get results and, in their minds, doing a better job than those paid to do it. The people’s tolerance level is low. Understandably so.

We failed Byron on so many levels.

Byron Ferguson
Missing pilot, Byron Ferguson.
This Makes No Sense

Firstly, it was reported that the pilot was forced to pass several smaller airports while en route to Lynden Pindling International Airport due to lack of lighting, one of those airports was in Chub Cay. Had it been lit, he could have possibly made a normal landing.

Of course, it didn’t help that Tourism Minister, Dionisio D’Aguilar couldn’t confirm whether the airports Byron passed had working lights. He stressed that there are 28 airports and said he would have to get a report on that. Ok, but someone should know. He also told reporters that whenever there’s an emergency and a distressed aircraft needs to land at a Family Island airport, pilots are supposed to contact Air Traffic Control in New Providence.

“They contact ATC and then ATC reaches out to that particular airport. [At] some airports there is obviously no one there, so they have to call someone to get in their car to go down there and turn on the lights,” he said.

That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard in my life. It is archaic and nonsensical. Who drafted that policy? Clearly someone who has no clue about night operations.

So, while a pilot is in distress and in absolute fear, he/she has to call Air Traffic who then has to turn around and call someone on the island where the pilot could possibly land, hope that person answers and then wait for them to drive to the airport to turn on the light? During emergencies, nanoseconds matter. I wonder if the good minister would find this practice acceptable if his family member were on board that plane.

Weighing The Costs

Making matters worse, Mr. D’Aguilar says the government has no plans to change this practice because doing so would come at a significant cost.

“I do not want to belittle this situation, but I am sure that this problem arises so infrequently that there is a cost that we need to take into consideration. There are many airports in The Bahamas and it’s a very expensive proposition. So, right now, we are going to maintain the status quo,” he said.

I hope this “infrequent” situation does not happen when the good minister is on a plane. This is our problem. We identify a problem that could have deathly consequences and still don’t do anything about it. It’s called negligence.

I don’t even want to begin imagining what Byron went through while alone in that aircraft in the dead of night and what conditions he was facing while fighting to gain control of an unstable plane.

Secondly, we’re just not properly prepared. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 95 per cent of aircraft accidents occur within 10 miles of an airport. It’s a serious hazard, which is why we should be properly prepared to respond. The immediate aftermath of a crash is crucial.

Several pilots have confided that our officials are simply not equipped in basic search and rescue techniques. Had they had more sophisticated equipment and been properly trained, we may have been able to recover more wreckage.

I cried for two hours straight after watching an Eyewitness News video of Byron’s mother, Agnes Ferguson and brother, Bjorn Ferguson breaking down at the scene. That family has gone through every emotion humanly possible and still, it has no closure due to the fact that Byron’s body has still not been found.

Sadly, there will be more Byrons until we wake up as a country and demand change at all costs. We cannot maintain the status quo.

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