Desmond Boomer

Desmond Boomer

A 38 year old Belfast born engineer working in the Libyan oil fields

Michael Williams

Michael Williams

A 49 year old English born engineer

Matthew Aquilina

Matthew Aquilina

A 22 year old Maltese national returning to Malta

Tadeus Gorny

Tadues Gorny

A 48 year Polish national working in the Libyan oil fields

Phillip Farrugia

Philip Farrugia

A 43 year old Maltese national returning to Malta

Carmel Bartolo

CArmelo Bartolo

The pilot, a 47 year Maltese national


Aviation Incident Enquiry - Court Of Enquiry 27 June 1996

Chairman: Dr. Philip Sciberras LL.D.

Members: Pilot Franz Sturmeir
                Mr Louis Giordimaina

Date: 27th June 1996

Aviation Incident Enquiry - Court Of Enquiry 27 June 1996

Chairman: Dr. Philip Sciberras LL.D.

Members: Pilot Franz Sturmeir
                Mr Louis Giordimaina

Date: 27th June 1996

Evidence of Lieutenant Colonel Carmel Vassallo under oath

Chairman: Your position please?

Col. C. Vassallo: Lieutenant Colonel C. Vassallo, Principal Staff Officer, Armed of Malta. `

Dr. Borg Barthet: I understand that you are in charge of Search and Rescue?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes Search and Rescue operations are part of my duties. 

Dr. Borg Barthet: And you were involved in the search for the plane subject to this inquiry

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes I was involved?

Dr. Borg Barthet: Could you tell us how you got to know about the incident and how you carried out the operations.

Col. C. Vassallo: It was Sunday 3rd December at ten past seven in the morning, I received a telephone call from Mr Joe Sultana, I Director Operations of Civil Aviation, who informed me that there was a missing Maltese registered aircraft which was on its way from Djerba to Malta. He gave me some other information as there were six persons on board and it was already being declared at that moment the distress phase because the aircraft was more than 30 minutes overdue.

Chairman: Time of that phone call please?

Col. C. Vassallo: Ten past seven in the morning.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So what did you do then?

Col. C. Vassallo: I immediately contacted our operations centre by coincidence at that time there was at that time Lieutenant now Captain Alex Dalli who is also an SR mission co-ordinator, I informed him about the information that I had just received and asked him to prepare the charts in question So that by the time I reached the operations centre I would have something at least to start the organisation.

Dr. Borg Barthet: You then went to the centre?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes I arrived at Luqa barracks which were our AFM operations entre is situated and at 07:40 twenty minutes to eight.

Dr. Borg Barthet: What did you do then?

Col. C. Vassallo: Captain Dalli had already started doing something and then I tried to obtain something such as information from the air traffic control to know the whereabouts or where the aircraft was supposed to have arrived at the time it last communicated with Tunis or with Malta and we got to know that 9 Hotel Alpha Brava Uniform, the aircraft that was missing was supposed to have crossed the FIR, Flight information Region boundary at 0410 UTC that is GMT at ten past four UTC. We were also informed that at no time during the flight of 9 Hotel Alpha Bravo Uniform there was any contact with Malta air traffic control. We also tried to obtain some information as regards to the pilot‘s habit, that is we first noted the route that the aircraft was supposed to take from Djerba to Malta and we also tried to obtain information as to the pilot's habits, did he used to go according to the rule as he was supposed to do or did he go straight from Djerba to Malta.

Dr. Borg Barthet: The normal route is not the straight route?

Col. C. Vassallo: It is not exactly a straight route, it is almost by not exactly. It makes a big difference.

Dr. Borg Barthet: And you established what?

Col. C. Vassallo: We established that whenever radar track was kept by the ATC personnel of the aircraft coming or going to Djerba, because it was not the first time for Mr Bartolo to do this route he normally used or there were occasions when he used to go straight or come straight.

Dr. Borg Barthet: After that you did what?

Col. C. Vassallo: We also were informed that on a flight from Malta to Djerba with a light aircraft such as the one used by Mr Bartolo, if a flight level of ten thousand feet is kept, radar, track of the aircraft from Malta is normally maintained by ATC until about twenty to thirty nautical miles from the Malta/Tunis FIR boundary. An aircraft leaving Malta toward Djerba will continue to be seen on radar as long as it maintains about ten thousand feet altitude and up to about 20 or 30 nautical miles from the FIR boundary with Tunisia.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So with that information you established?

Col. C. Vassallo: We established that there was a high probability that the

aircraft did not approach Malta, is something happened it must have happened either before or just after crossing the FIR boundary with Tunisia. So we tried to put together a search plan and also at about twenty minutes to nine in the morning 0845, we informed the Malta radio which is a station controlled by TeleMalta to start broadcasting a distress message concerning the aircraft So that ships sailing in the area could keep a sharp look out for any survivors, dinghy or debris. In an area which we calculated to be around the FIR boundary, the junction between Libya, Malta and Tunisia.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Was that based on a straight flight or was it different?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was insignificant because the difference is not So big and in drawing our search plan we covered both options, we covered the track which the aircraft was supposed to do and the track which Mr Bartolo might have taken.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So you made a search plan and was the plan carried into


Col. C. Vassallo: We had a big problem in that the Armed Forces of Malta and the Italian Military Mission in Malta, we have two helicopters the AFM belonging to the Italian Air Force but they are based here specifically for search and rescue. We also have our helicopters but neither our helicopters nor the Italian airforce helicopters were able to proceed to the area in question because the autonomy So we started to look around to see what we could find and then we were informed that..

Dr. Borg Barthet: You do not have fixed wing aircraft?

Col. C. Vassallo: We did not have at the time. It arrived two days later but we had no pilots. Actual we had fixed wingers but not ones that could go to the area in question. I was referring to the Pilatus which arrived two days later

Dr. Borg Barthet: Excuse my ignorance for me all fixed wings are fixed wingers. I happen to know that they have greater fuel autonomy usually.

Col. C. Vassallo: The Pilatus yes.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So you did not have any aircraft that could go to the area

in question Was anything done with the maritime squadron?

Col. C. Vassallo: No, what we did we initially started by telephone. We

informed the Italian rescue co-ordination centre of Martina Franca. We informed them of the situation, later on we also informed them by fax. We asked for their assistance and after some time we were informed that there was an offshore patrol vessel based in Lampedusa which could go and proceed on a search. In fact the name of the vessel vas Squalo, it didn't immediately go out on the search because of the very rough weather. It eventually started its search at around 1730 in the afternoon, that is

half past five in the afternoon.

Chairman: When did you inform the rescue and search team of Martina Franca?

Col. C. Vassallo: Initially it was by telephone at around nine o‘clock in the morning and them we sent them a fax at 10.45.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Having done that did you see whether the Tunisian search and rescue people were doing something or the Libyans.

Col. C. Vassallo: Meanwhile what we did as soon as we were informed that Exelair Aircraft there were two fixed winged aircraft which were ready to start the search we immediately called them to the AFM operations centre, the time was at quarter to nine in the morning, we called the pilots and the crews and we gave them a good briefing. Why? Because we were aware that they could have been very pilots, they could have been highly experienced pilots but they were not search and rescue pilots. So it is not simply a question of sending somebody over an area telling him to search, you have got to give him the search pattern to use. The frequencies which you are going to use, the altitude that they have to maintain especially if there is more than one aircraft involved. So we gave them a very good briefing, we gave them the areas, we gave them the altitudes, we gave them search areas.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Do you know the names of the pilots concerned?

Col. C. Vassallo: I do not have them here. But we were aware that if something had happened it should have happened on the junction between Libya, Tunisia and Malta FIR. So our search areas were drawn up in such a way that they were partially in Malta FIR, partly in Libyan FIR and partly in Tunisia FIR. What we did was send our two aircrafts eventually, the two aircrafts belonging to Exelair to the Malta area and to the Tripoli Area. initially not telling the Libyans about this and we also asked the Tunisian to search in their area. We gave them the co-ordinates where they should search and asked them to carry out a search on their behalf for this missing aircraft. We eventually also informed the Libyans and they came back in the afternoon telling us that they intended to search in their area of responsibility.

Dr. Borg Barthet: What time did you inform Tunisia and Libya?

Col. C. Vassallo: By AFT through DCA at 10.23 in the morning, Malta time, we asked DCA to inform the Tunisians to ask them to search in the area South of Latitude 34 degrees 35 minutes north and we also asked DCA to request permission from Libya for Malta based aircraft to search in the part of the search area whose co-ordinates were given in Libyan FIR.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you have any feed back on that?

Col. C. Vassallo: Initially no So what we did we advised the pilots that they could go, being civil registered aircrafts we thought it was no problem to fly in a small part of the Libyan FIR, because it was search and rescue and it obviously was an emergency and we wouldn’t be breaking any international law. So one of the aircrafts belonging to Exelair flew also in Libyan FIR only in a small portion of it.

Dr. Borg Barthet: According to the prevailing weather conditions at the time in which direction would any debris have gone?

Col. C. Vassallo: It does not depend only on the wind. There are mainly three factors effecting floating objects, first of all it depends on what type of floating object we are talking about, if it is debris especially if it is small, it is not So effected by the wind, it is more effected by the sea currents prevailing. It is also affected by the wind current.

There is a difference, the wind has its force, it exerts force on the sea surface, if it is a strong wind and it is constant say for twelve hours or even more it creates what is call sea currents, as waves going. That effects a floating object, but a floating object is also effected by the natural sea currents in the area, one has to refer to a shipwreck chart as it is called to see how the sea currents is normally in that particular area. Another factor effecting floating object, especially if it is above the sea surface is

also leeway, that is the wind proper.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you consider these factors?

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course we considered all those factors before drawing up the search areas.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So you drew up the search areas and the Exelair aircrafts went out to search.

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes they went out, our briefing was completed at five past nine, not later than five past nine, it took a good twenty minutes to brief them. Obviously they went to the airport, they had to prepare their own maps, obviously including the information given by us as regards co-ordinates, as regards search area, as regards papers. Then the first aircraft took off from Luqa at twenty eight minutes past ten. The second aircraft three of four minutes later. But before those two aircrafts an Italian AV 212 helicopter, because although we were almost sure that something must have happened in the area. We also said, listen, if we have some kind of resources why not try to cover as much as possible of the intended route of the aircraft. And we sent an Italian air force helicopter which is placed in Malta to an area which is approximately the midway between Djerba and Luqa. That aircraft took off at ten minutes past ten.

Dr. Borg Barthet:  How did the search and rescue operation continue and what feed backs did you have then.

Col. C. Vassallo: That around noon I received a telephone call from the American Embassy here in Malta who offered us assistance. We immediately thanked, Mr Peterson I think it was, him wholeheartedly and told him yes we need your assistance and early in the afternoon a P3 Maritime Patrol aircraft based in Signonella Sicily took off and flew over the area and we also assigned him what we call on scene command duties. Because it was quite difficult for us particularly to maintain constant communication with the aircrafts which were flying and through this American aircraft, besides having all the possibilities one can imagine to detect objects in the sea and even at a certain depth, it was also assigned on scene command, So it was continuously keeping the air traffic control here in Malta abreast of what was happening and what was being found by the aircrafts which were searching.

Dr. Borg Barthet: What report did you have then?

Col. C. Vassallo: At around 15.40, twenty minutes to four in the afternoon one of the search aircraft belonging to Exelair reported having momentarily sighted a floating object which resembled a partly inflated overturned dinghy in position 34 degrees 30 minutes north, 15 degrees 15 minutes east. Despite combing of the area because we insisted that they should continue, because it was only momentarily sighted, we insisted with the aircraft to continue to search in the area because it was very close to where we were estimating where the aircraft should have ditched, if it ever ditched. But closer searching of the area, the aircraft never regained sight of the floating object, neither did the US aircraft which went to the area and conducted an all sensor check until sunset,

Dr. Borg Barthet: When you say a more censored check, what exactly?

Col. C. Vassallo: Such aircrafts have homing devices, they maintain listening watch on all emergency frequencies, frequency at VHF on 121.5 on 243 Megahertz also on medium frequencies and it also has electronic devices with which to detect and it found nothing.

Dr. Borg Barthet: After that you carried on?

Col. C. Vassallo: Then darkness fell and we had to postpone the search until the early morning on Monday.

Dr. Borg Barthet: When you say darkness fell what do you mean?

Col. C. Vassallo: I do not have the sunset timings on me.

Dr. Borg Barthet: It was winter, the 3rd of December, we can check it out later.

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes I can check it out and give you the information.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Then you started again when?

Col. C. Vassallo: On Monday morning, but we prepared many things from Sunday evening. I would like to say that through out the day owners of civil registered aircraft in Malta came to the AFM operations centre offering their help and before sunset fell we had covered the whole area which lies in the Malta FIR it was covered from Luqa up to the boundary with Tunisia.

Dr. Borg Barthet: How many planes were involved?

Col. C. Vassallo: In all we had seven.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you have any feed back from the distress signals sent?

Col. C. Vassallo: Nothing.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Neither through third persons?

Col. C. Vassallo: What do you mean about distress signals?

Dr. Borg Barthet: I mean did anybody hearing the distress signals tell you that they sighted something.

Col. C. Vassallo: No. The first message that we had in this sense arrived on Monday.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So let us go to see what you did in the evening after you stopped the search.

Col. C. Vassallo: So as from Sunday afternoon, before going on to Monday we started to draw up some calculations as well, because there was drift, as we have already said, floating objects would be drifted by various factors effecting it. So we drew up the search areas and we modified them for Monday and we also made arrangements with the Italian Navy and the rescue co-ordination centre of Martina Franca to provide again the patrol vessel Squalo and also a long range search and rescue helicopter to assist in the search which was to be resumed on Monday morning. So the search resumed on first light on Monday.

Dr. Borg Barthet: How did the search area differ on Monday.

Col. C. Vassallo: Only slightly I have the charts, and I have the overlays outside.

Chairman: You can continue with your evidence and then.

Dr. Borg Barthet: How much did it differ?

Col. C. Vassallo: Only by a few miles, you just extend it depending on the wind, on the weather prevailing at the time and also on the natural currents. So the search resumed on first light on Monday and this time a total of eight aircraft between military and civil including again the US Navy P3 aircraft and also an Italian Air force HASF helicopter, it was a long range helicopter, took part. This was based in Trapani, it took off from Trapani, it went to the search area assigned by us to effect the search. There were another three light aircrafts based here in Malta offering their help but obviously due to weather conditions we refused to send them.

Dr. Borg Barthet: What time did they resume flying on that day?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was at first light, because I remember calling all the pilots participating, obviously those who were locally based, calling them at around half past five in the morning So that by first light they would take off from Luqa.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So after they flew out did you have any reports?

Col. C. Vassallo: At ten o'clock in the morning local time, Tunis rescue aviation centre informed Malta ACC who informed us that they had started the search as requested by us, the previous day at 0700 hours that is at 0800 in the morning.

The Tunisians started their search in their area at eight in the morning. Meanwhile I personally contacted a centre in France it is called FMCC Toulouse, this is a Cospasar centre, to check with them if there had been any Cospasar satellite interception on the 121.5 megahertz between Malta and Tunisia which had not been transmitted to Malta.

In fact at around noon we received some such messages which were not validated, I can give you an explanation how they are valid or not, giving us five different possible positions of a distress signal. On plotting the positions we were assured that we had already covered those areas indicated by the Cospasar alerts. Notwithstanding this we again covered the areas but to no avail we found nothing.

Dr. Borg Barthet: When you say that you had these messages which were not validated, what do you mean?

Col. C. Vassallo: Because the 121.5 megahertz emergency frequency most of time gives false alerts. This is an inherit problem with this frequency, everybody knows about this frequency, it could be that it is activated unintentionally and it could be that it is activated intentionally, as soon as it is captured by a satellite the satellite starts giving signals, but there is a problem. It operates through what is called Doppler effect and one of the disadvantages of this Doppler effect, is that it gives a mirror image of a position and this is not a symmetrical thing this depends on the position of the satellite at the time it intercepts the message. So it could give you a distress signal which is located in the Mediterranean and at the same time giving you the distress signal being in the Atlantic. So the resolution of the position is not given on one satellite pass in fact experts say that we should disregard the first distress messages on 121.5 and await the second and the third messages in order to be more sure of a possible distress signal.

Dr. Borg Barthet: When you say you had five messages do you mean you had the same message five times?

Col. C. Vassallo: No because there are six satellites in the Cospasar system. They are mere orbiting satellites, they are called and anyone can intercept and emergency signal, if it is in view of the signal being emitted by the distress vehicle and at the same time it is in view of the land station, in our case Toulouse station in France. If it is in view of both of them it would receive it and it would transmit it to the station. The station will look into the message and see whether they have to validate it or not because through out the year, we were informed, they receive about hundred thousand messages of this type. If there are certain problems as regards the actual signal not being heard by the operator at the station, they do not normally transmit it to the RCC because it creates more confusion rather than help. There is another frequency 406, this does not create this confusion because it is uncoded, but the 121.5 is not uncoded.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Were these messages validated?

Col. C. Vassallo: They were not validated never and later on we didn’t receive any further messages in these locations but we had already covered them. In fact one of them was outside the area being searched by us and we asked the Italian air craft to go over this area on its way from Italy and they found nothing.

Dr. Borg Barthet: At what time did you receive these? `

Col. C. Vassallo: At around noon. It should also be noted that during that period the Cospasar Station in Toulouse had been receiving for about four weeks a distress signal on the same frequency from Tripoli area. Eventually I contacted the Libyan authorities telling them listen you have got this distress beacon emitting signals on 121.5 could you kindly look into the matter to see that it becomes deactivated. Because if you have at the same time that you have a distress signal from a position, if there is another distress signal which is more powerful it could interfere on their

distress signal if you want to receive the exact position.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So you asked Tripoli to do that and did they do it?

Col. C. Vassallo: Eventually yes, in fact further satellite passes didn’t register any longer the Tripoli signal.

Dr. Borg Barthet: In the afternoon the same number of aircrafts went along or did anything happen in between?

Col. C. Vassallo: At 12.30 local time the AFM operations centre received the following message from the Tunisian authorities, from Tunis tower and I quote "We inform you that the ship called Supply Asperay received a distress call at 0441 UTC on 3rd December 1995” So this was on Monday at half past twelve in the afternoon and we received that this message from Tunis tower telling us that a ship called Supply Asperay. The position of the call on 121.5 situated 6 nautical miles North East from Miscar (34.22 North 11.52 East). Although our aircraft based in that area had already search the area indicated the previous day, this message which arrived at AFM operations centre 29 hours late, I must recall this, through a new life on this mission. So what we did was we worked the drift of a dinghy because we knew that according to the flight plan had a dinghy, a six person dinghy, on board, So we worked the drift of a dinghy carried along by sea and wind currents over a period of thirty hours, because as I said this message arrived 29 hours late and having established the drift we concentrated our efforts on the new position, that is 33.54 North 11.40 East.

Dr. Borg Barthet: How many miles away from the original area?

Col. C. Vassallo: I have to see the chart please. So we sent one of the Exelair aircraft it was Charley India we directed the aircraft to search the indicated area and steps were taken also through diplomatic channels to obtain permission from the Libyan authorities for an Italian air force HA3F helicopter to contact a search in the Libyan FIR as well. The aircraft proceeded to the area but nothing was found.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did the Italian plane actually?

Col. C. Vassallo: The Italian helicopter by that time was nearing its fuel autonomy and it came to Malta to refuel but by the time that the Libyan gave us the permission it had already left for Trapani.

Dr. Borg Barthet: After that what happened?

Col. C. Vassallo: There was another sighting, this was at twenty minutes before noon of the same day. One of the search aircraft which was sent by the Malta rescue aviation centre, this message reported a sighting of a possible floating jacket or a life raft in a position of 150 degrees 25 nautical miles from Lampedusa that is 150 degrees 25 miles South East of Lampedusa. The Italian vessel Squalo which was searching in the area indicated by us was diverted to location and eventually recovered a yellow box which was not relating to the missing aircraft. In the early afternoon we were informed that supply vessel Bonasola of British Gas, a company based in Tunisia, was proceeding to position 33.54 11.40 where we had estimated the new position and the Bonasola was proceeding to the area and they gave us an ETA, estimated time of arrival, 1700 that is five o'clock in the afternoon. Also a Tunisian Dauphin Helicopter also took part in the search. At five minutes past four in the afternoon we were informed that the Libyan authorities had granted the permission originally requested by us for the Italian military helicopter to fly in Tripoli flight information region. But as I have already said the helicopter had already left Malta after refuelling and proceeding to Trapani. That was the end of that day.

During that day, the second day Monday for December a total of eight aircraft took part this besides the Bonasola and the Squalo.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you try to contact the Supply Asperay in any way?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes we tried. We immediately we asked Malta radio to start calling the Supply Asperay but it never replied.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you try to contact the owners of the ship?

Col. C. Vassallo: What I did was just direct the Malta radio to keep on calling the Supply Asperay to no avail, however at about 4 six o’clock in the evening the DCA relayed a telex message, this was in French, the message had just been received from Tunis Flight information Centre and read as follows, I’ll say it in English because I had to obtain a translation "We have just received information from Second Lieutenant Garby, Djerba coast guard informing that radio Zarzist had received a message from ship Gonfulut signalling a dinghy red and white in colour with six persons on board requesting assistance in position 33.54 North 11.40 East". Now if you recall this is the exact position which we had established previously.

Dr. Borg Barthet: When you issued the distress message to Malta radio did you give these positions?

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course, we were keeping Malta radio updated with  different positions So that in their message there would continue to give obviously an update. We insisted with the Tunisian authorities to ask if any action was being taken by Gonfulut. I mean if you see distress persons in the sea calling for help would you just pass on the message or go for them and rescue them. So we asked them whether any

action was being taken by Gonfulut and Tunisians Unit because they were telling us that they were helping us, they were flying, they were searching the areas given by us. Soon afterwards the Tunisian authorities informed us through DCA that the message concerning the dinghy and six persons had been cancelled by Gonfulut, by the same ship which had initiated it. At sixteen minutes past six in the evening the DCA relayed a message to us which had just been received by them from Tunis or Djerba, I am not sure about this and I quote the message "At 12.40 UTC" that is GMT "Sar Ali Jakubi and Sir Mike Patley from British Gas advised that they received-information from Miscar platform, the plane concerned, that is 9 Hotel Alpha Bravo Uniform, crashed on the sea near the Libyan boundary and they sent Bonasola from Sfax" they gave us

these co-ordinates "54.00 North 11.30 East, 34.00 North 12.00 East, 34.40 North 12.00 East, 34.40 North 11.30 East remark position of aircraft 34.54 North 11.40 East" This is almost our position but it was 60 miles further North because instead of 33 they gave us 34.54 that make a difference of 60 nautical miles. However at 19.29 at 29 minutes past seven Djerba cancelled this message also.

On Monday the search was suspended soon after sunset and preparations were made by us to resume search at first light on 5th December. The   US 6th Fleet and Italian navy and airforce and MRCC Tripoli and Tunis were asked to continue to assist us in the search for the missing aircraft and we prepared them for the following


Dr. Borg Barthet: Before we go to the following day, is it normal for this kind of thing to happen to have messages of this sort and then subsequently cancelled?

Col. C. Vassallo: No. I have never come across such an event.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you ask for an explanation?

Col. C. Vassallo: At that time no because at that time you would be hungry for all the possible information available.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Shall we go to the next venue which was?

Col. C. Vassallo: Bonasola the ship owned by British Gas it reached the location which we had indicated to them and at around quarter past nine in the evening it relayed a message to Malta, through Malta RCC, stating that the vessel had completed a search in the area indicated by us with negative results, to resume search on the 5th December. They offered their help also for the following day. That was Monday.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you resume operations on Tuesday?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes, early in the morning we were informed that the

American aircraft was not available, however we had two American aircraft later on the day. The Italian navy made available an Atlantic aircraft this is also a maritime patrol aircraft and eventually as I said the Americans instead of one aircraft they had two available for us. We also had an Italian HH3F helicopter, it is a search and rescue long range helicopter on stand by at Lampedusa. At twenty minutes to eight in the morning Malta radio relayed a message from Sea Surf Off spray stating that vessel had not seen any light aircraft in the morning of Sunday 3rd December, this was subsequent to our request. The only aircraft seen continued this message was in the afternoon of the same day assuming that it was taking part in the search for the missing aircraft. Malta by that time had not yet received any reply from the Oil platform JT Angel an Gonfulut. At about nine in the morning, that is on Tuesday

5th, I personally contacted Lloyds maritime information service to check on vessels Gonfulut and Supply Asperay. The their knowledge, that is to Lloyds knowledge they had no records about such ships. At around eleven in the morning the Tunisians informed us that they had conducted a search as advised by us. During the afternoon, Malta RCC requested MedAvia Company Limited, this is a company based in Libya it is a Maltese Libyan concern which operates a fixed aircraft in Libya, they offered to assist in the search of 9 Hotel Alpha Bravo Uniform by searching along the Libyan coast west of Tripoli and up to the border with Tunisia. This we did purposely because we said if Mr Bartolo might have encountered very rough weather along the route to Malta he might have turned right and perhaps something might have happened near the Libyan coast and we sent one aircraft belonging to MedAvia to search even also on any airfields in the area. Search proved negative. Eventually also on that day the Libyan authorities granted permission for the Italian Navy Atlantic Aircraft, not the HH3F to operate within Tripoli FIR. At 2300 hours in the evening

that is eleven at night, the Tunisian authorities informed Malta RCC that Tunisian aircraft had search area with no positive result. When they say, searched area, that is the area given by us. The search mounted on the third day was the most exhaustive. The entire route making allowance for drift also was covered. A total of eighteen aircraft and one ship took part, not withstanding the great effort the day ended with not a single trace of the aircraft, life rafts, survivors or wreckages or debris. We prepared to resume the search on Wednesday morning. Well we started to loose hope on Wednesday. At about ten thirty in the morning I directed Malta radio to downgrade the distress relay regarding the aircraft in question to pan pan, these are different grades of distress, it could be emergency, it could be pan pan So depending on what type of distress they transmit messages either every two hours or every one hour as we direct them. But I asked them to downgrade the message to pan pan with effect of

1600 local time, four o'clock in the afternoon. So I gave another full day before sunset to continue with the same distress message as they started off on Sunday morning.

At ten minutes to two in the afternoon MedAvia informed us that a two hour search in the area assigned to them by Malta RCC, because we asked them again to search also on Wednesday proved negative on the Libyan coast and this time they also proceeded up to twelve miles out. They could not proceed further because of US sanctions. At about 1530 local time that is half past three in the afternoon we received information that French navy ship had picked up a dead body from the sea. I personally talked to a person and if I am not mistaken from Monastir airport in Tunisia, I am very sorry I did not take his name, to enquire about this latest information. I was informed

that the recovery of the dead body was only a rumour which had gone through five different persons, starting from a certain Mr Lear, a French man. On my insistence I was informed that Mr Lear could not be traced. I immediately directed that this message be disregarded. Taking into consideration the various factors that would adversely effect survivors at sea and after ascertaining that all areas where 9 Hotel Alpha Bravo Uniform could have possibly ditched had been searched I decided to terminate the search. However as two of the aircraft participating in the search mission belonged to the pilots family I offered that if Mr Bartolo's relatives wished to continue the search on a private basis Malta rescue co-ordination centre, that is our operation centre, would be ready to co-ordinate for them. Later in the evening however I was directed not to terminate the search and to resume operations on Thursday morning. So we started preparations for Thursday morning.

Dr. Borg Barthet: On Thursday it was the fifth day?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes it was the fifth day.

Dr. Borg Barthet: What did you do on the fifth day?

Col. C. Vassallo: Nothing special we did not locate anything. On Thursday the two aircraft of Exelair had to fly by eventually only one flew. Nothing was reported. The search continued also on Friday with the participation of the US aircraft, Friday only not on Thursday. One Exelair aircraft flew on the Tunisian Coast, from Monastir to Djerba and the other in Libyan FIR, So we sent one aircraft on the Tunisian coast and another to the Libyan FIR. On Friday evening the search was officially terminated. No searches were carried out on Saturday and Sunday except for a final search which was effected by one Exelair aircraft from the route Djerba Malta to no avail,

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you get any information from the Tunisians on their search and from the Libyans?

Col. C. Vassallo: Always from the Tunisians they always gave us a negative result.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you know if the Libyans flew any from their part?

Col. C. Vassallo: They informed us once that they had helicopters searching in an area which was a triangular area. But we did not have any reply from them.

Dr. Borg Barthet: That is all from my part.

Chairman: Do you have any documents to present

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes I have photocopied practically all the messages that we received and that we transmitted.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Did you make the photocopies yourself or under your supervision?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes I did them personally.

Dr. Borg Barthet: So you can vouch that those are all the documents you if sent on this matter?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes and I certify them to be correct. They are the same things, I left out only these rough notes written by us which were not sent to anybody. Otherwise I have copied everything.

Chairman: They are exhibited at CV1. Can I ask you one question please. How long have you been aware that the Malta based aircraft did not have fuel autonomy?

Col. C. Vassallo: I knew it for a long time.

Chairman: When Mr Sultana phoned you up at seven ten in the morning, then you eventually reached the base at seven forty in the morning, If you knew that you aircraft did not have fuel autonomy why didn't you get in touch with the Italian authorities in Martina Franca the search and rescue team immediately?

Col. C. Vassallo: . Because the first thing a mission co-ordinator should do is to try and obtain all the information available in order to be able to give a particular area to search. You cannot send someone to search along the route when eventually there was information that the aircraft had never been seen on radar. We first had to establish what could have happened. Then when we eventually got to know that two Exelair aircraft were available to carry out the search we sent for them, we got to know that they had to search and rescue experience, So we had to explain to them what

they should do.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: You have personnel qualified for search and rescue but you do not have the equipment in terms of aircrafts and helicopters, do you have navigators, who are the personnel on board which you carry for search and rescue?

Col. C. Vassallo: In fact on each aircraft of the Exelair and every time that they flew they had our own personnel on board. We have a number of personnel qualified as search and rescue pilots.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: How often do you do request for training for a search and rescue in such particular instance like loss of aircraft?

Col. C. Vassallo: What do you mean the pilots, the crews or the mission co-ordinators?

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Everybody. How often in a year do you do simulation of such?

Col. C. Vassallo: We carry out search and rescue exercises particularly for our mission co-ordinators average of four or five per year and we not only do it on ourselves, sometimes we do it with the Italians, sometimes we do it as we did two weeks ago, with the Italians, the French, the Greeks and the Maltese. Sometimes we have done it with the British.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: What distance do you cover? Just around the Maltese islands or you go further?

Col. C. Vassallo: The last exercise that we had was about 30 to 35 nautical miles South East of Malta and the same distance of North West.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: So within a range of the equipment available? 

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course.

Mr L. Giordimaina: Col Vassallo can you tell me the Exelair aircraft which participated in the search, what type of aircraft they were?

Col. C. Vassallo: I cannot remember.

Mr L. Giordimaina: Would you be able to get the information?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: You are not equipped with navigation systems which you have in search and rescue aeroplanes? They are just basic navigation?

Col. C. Vassallo: No but for search and rescue you need other equipment like homing equipment or 121.5 or 243.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: You do not thing that satellite navigation would help to identify the location?

Col. C. Vassallo: It would be a great help satellite navigation in order to go to the position and search the areas which you need to search. There are instruments which one could insert all the information and it gives you the search in front of you

and you just leave the aircraft to do its bit.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Do you have portable eyenurses or portable satellite systems available at you base?

Mr L. Giordimaina: You quoted that the Italian Squalo on day two picked up a yellow box, could you give me more specific?

Col C. Vassallo: It was fishing tackle, according to the information they gave us. That was far outside the area which we were searching. `

Chairman: You said you tried to determine who was the owner of the vessel by contacting whom? I mean the Supply vessel Asperay and the Gonfulut.

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes and then eventually they also gave us another name Gomultas and I also asked Lloyds about that.

Chairman: You personally contacted Lloyds?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes Lloyds information service, I do not know the name,

Chairman: By fax?

Col. C. Vassallo: By telephone and there answer was in the negative. Also by telephone I contacted the Lloyds agent here in Malta and he also tried to find some information.

Chairman: The name of the vessel Asperay, was it correctly spelled out to you?

Col. C. Vassallo: This came written to us, we received it as a message.

Chairman: Not the Gonfulut?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes we received it as a message as well from the Tunisian authorities. `

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Yes and with the names spelt?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes Gonfulut.

Chairman: Did they tell you what flag did those vessels were carrying at the time?

Col. C. Vassallo:  No except that the Gomultas might have been a Turkish vessel but we never confirmed that.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Does distress messages which you receive through out these various days, were they ever more examine detailed, like you had one at the beginning, was it actually, identified and were there questions put to them?

Col. C. Vassallo: I was amazed how we had calculated the position, after receiving the first message from the Tunisian authorities on Monday early afternoon, 29 hours late, and we drew up the position of a drifting dinghy, eventually when we received a message from the Gonfulut, I asked myself, but how come, are we So bright that we calculate exactly the position and the dinghy is to be found in that position. I asked myself how could it be. I mean I can calculate the sea currents, I can calculate what could be the wind currants, I calculate the leeway based on the information available but I am not that good as to pin point the exact position.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: We do not know what happened to the aircraft, we have no evidence, it is very difficult to establish of course the source of the incident or accident but let us say he had an engine failure he would fall more or less within the same area were reported last, even he could have glided to a certain distance. What do you thing a gliding distance is with a small aeroplane like that?

Col. C. Vassallo: If it is gliding, it depends, I have to work it out.

Capt. F. Sturmeir:  That was also incorporated in your search that there was an engine failure and it glided.

Col. C. Vassallo: The information that we were given was that there was very stormy weather in the area. The aircraft was flying at night.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: How long do you thing an aircraft like that could keep afloat if it was intact when it hit the water?

Col. C. Vassallo: Given the fact that there was very rough sea, in fact the offshore patrol vessel belonging to the Italian navy could not go out to sea because the sea was very rough, I wouldn‘t give it more than a few seconds. One has to consider also the impact with the water in pitch darkness.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: So all the calls which you had of warnings and call from various ships you could eliminate at the time, because the survivor rate was almost nil under the conditions at the time?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes but obviously I considered them and we took action at the operation centre on each and every message that was sent. I disregarded the very last message about the dead body being recovered by a French ship, I simply disregarded it. Otherwise I took consideration of all messages that were received.

Chairman: Did the Tunisian authorities ever disclose to you whether these vessels, the Asperay or Gonfulut were ever in a Tunisian port?

Col. C. Vassallo: They never confirmed, but from my side I did not ask them.

Mr L. Giordimaina: You mentioned that the American P3 aircraft had very sophisticated equipment on board not only to pick up signals from the sea. Did they tell you at what depth they could pick up signals?

Col. C. Vassallo: They did not tell me what kind of depth, but on Tuesday I think when we had two aircraft available one of them was also for anti-submarine warfare. So it must capture signals for some depth definitely.

Mr L. Giordimaina: And you never had any messages from them that they picked up anything at all?

Col. C. Vassallo: No. They overflew a reported area, which one of the aircrafts said that there was debris, they flew over it and they confirmed that it had nothing to do with the aircraft in question.

Chairman: One further question regarding the vessels that were sited in the area or who gave out the signals. Did you inform Lloyds that this was supply vessel? Was he taking supplies to one of the rigs in the area?

Col. C. Vassallo: We just received the message and that‘s all and then we received that it was cancelled.

Chairman: Did they define what type of vessel it was?

Col. C. Vassallo: I presume it was a supply vessel given that the name is Supply Asperay.

Chairman: Did you ask them whether it was a vessel that normally goes on route with supplies to oil rigs in the area?

Col. C. Vassallo: No. What I asked Lloyds is I gave them some information as to why we were requesting their details as I said we had received from messages  from these two ships and we wanted to know whether if these ships in fact existed.

Chairman: But did you tell them whether they have the registration of all types of vessels?

Col. C. Vassallo: I think from a certain tonnage upwards.

Chairman: So if this supply vessel was below that certain tonnage you wouldn't have it on Lloyds list, would you?

Col. C. Vassallo: No I do not think so.

Chairman: So did you make further inquired with the Tunisian authorities whether they have ever heard about this name Asperay, or with any of the oil rigs of the oil companies in the area?

Col. C. Vassallo: No. We sent messages to the oil rigs in the area to Miscar and to JT Angel, its a ship, to confirm any sightings, but they said no.

Chairman: All the oil rigs in the area, do we have them here?

Col. C. Vassallo: No you do not have them. The Miscar and the JT Angel apart from the Bonasola but that is a ship which was helping us in the search and it was sent by British gas.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: You said that there was a distress message on 121.5 at 4.11, this particular morning of the 3rd and that was received by the ship. How long was the distress message how long for?

Col. C. Vassallo: The first message which came from Tunis Tower, we inform you that a ship called Supply Asperay received a distress call at 0441 UTC on 3rd December 1995. The position of the call on 121.5 situated 6 nautical miles North East from Miscar and in brackets (34.22 North 11.52 East).

Capt. F. Sturmeir: How about in relation to the missing aircraft?

Col. C. Vassallo: We were not sure whether the position was from the Miscar or in fact this was Miscar's position.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Did you ever follow it up to identify what was the distress L message?

Col. C. Vassallo: What we did, we presumed that this was 6 nautical miles North East from Miscar, obviously if they had seen it, it was away from them and we drew up the new calculations and we calculated the new positions, if there had been a floating dinghy must have been 33.54 North 11.40 East, it is the same position which was eventually was reported by Gonfulut.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: I really would like to know what was the distress message, did you follow it up with the authorities whether the ship was registered and what was really said and received on this particular morning? What is a May day call, was it a pan call?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was a distress call at 0441 UTC, it does not say a distress signal.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: That was the last call with the Tunisian authorities, that the aircraft went missing.

Col. C. Vassallo: The report that we had was that the Supply Asperay had heard this distress call. I quote " We inform you that a ship called Supply Asperay received a distress call”

Capt. F. Sturmeir:  I would like to know what is the distress call, was it May-Day or was it pan, was it engine failure, was it problems?

Col. C. Vassallo: It just says a distress call.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Can we check it out what it was, what the contents was of this distress call.

Col. C. Vassallo: We could not even trace the ship, how could we trace it.

Chairman: You couldn’t trace it on Lloyds list but that doesn't mean that?

Col. C. Vassallo: But we tried to call it through Malta radio, not once or twice, for whole days.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: If we could know the contents of this message, right, we would know he had a problem, because that is when he went missing. It is very correct. It would give us much more information then we wouldn’t be sitting around here and try and find out why this happened and how it happened. Because it would give us further indication.

Chairman: From these copies that you have exhibited, can you trace for me the telex or information which spelt out to you the name of the supply vessel?

Col. C. Vassallo: That is the message I am talking about, that is the message of the Supply Asperay. This is the message that we received.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: What was it a voice transmission from 121.5?·

Col. C. Vassallo: It could be a distress signal, only a signal, it could be a call.


Capt. F. Sturmeir: I think the ship must have equipment to receive from 121.5

if it was not voice distress.

Col. C. Vassallo: It might have listening watch on it.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: It would really be good if we knew that, because this will close the case very quick.

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes but we were never able to contact the vessel.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Lets try together maybe we can find it.

Col. C. Vassallo: I tried to contact the ship through Malta radio but to no avail.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Just one more question, your helicopters here are they eyewitness equipped do you have any navigation system?

Col. C. Vassallo: The Italian helicopters yes.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: The Italian helicopter only and the normal Islander is that equipped for search and rescue?

Col. C. Vassallo: It does not have the same equipment as the Italian helicopter. The Italian helicopter has that type of equipment which one could log a position, the helicopter proceeds to that position, it starts descending as it is approaching and at 50 feet above the position it hovers. We do not have that.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: So the Islander has no navigation system?

Col. C. Vassallo: The Islander has navigation system but not for search and rescue purposes.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Has it got a range to go out 150 miles?

Col. C. Vassallo: The Islander yes. `

Capt. F. Sturmeir: So it is still like in an equipment then?

Col. C. Vassallo: If we had the Islander at the time we could have proceeded and carried out the search ourselves.

Capt. F. Sturmeir: Without plotting the of course accurately, because if you do not have an eyenurse you could be anywhere especially as it was a stormy night, a stormy day, anybody can be anywhere and you can only fly a search and rescue if you have correct navigation systems aboard which can tract a certain square or triangle of rectangle, whatever.

Col. C. Vassallo: All right that is specialised equipment but we try to separate navigation equipment for the purposes of navigation and search and rescue equipment.

Chairman: Can you confirm who sent you this message?

Col. C. Vassallo: We received the message through the Civil Aviation, as you can see CAMLT. Obviously this a message received on AFTN on Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network we do not have it and all messages on AFTN

regarding search and rescue would obviously be relayed to us by the DCA.

Chairman: So this is how the Civil Aviation would have received the message and relayed to you?

Col. C. Vassallo: I cannot confirm by I would presume. Then they send it to us.

Chairman: So if they received a message by means of fax or something they would have that fax right, from whom so ever they received that message?

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course. The message was obviously relayed to us by the Civil Aviation department at 11.32 in the morning and it was sent by the Tunis Tower to the Malta area control and to Malta rescue co-ordination centre. What you have there is a copy of this.

Chairman: Any questions gentleman?

Dr. M. Pace: I think you stated that you are head of the search and rescue department within the AFM?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes.

Dr. M. Pace: How long have you occupied this post?

Col. C. Vassallo: I have been at Headquarters Armed Forces of Malta since August 1991 but previously the officer commanding the air squadron sin June 1983. I was myself a search and rescue pilot qualified on this Italian helicopter until 1989 when I had to proceed on a long course abroad and I had to give up most of my flying. I still fly but not on operational basis.

Dr. M. Pace: Fortunately there aren't many such incidents but have you had any experience in the past while you have been occupied in this post regarding the necessity for having a search and rescue for a missing aircraft?

Col. C. Vassallo: For a missing aircraft no. If I remember well the only aircraft which went missing, it was at a time when there were still the Royal Air Force here in Malta, they took care of the whole operation before my time and if I remember well they did not find anything.

Dr. M. Pace: You must agree that for a search and rescue operation to be effective it must be swift and with all the necessary facilities. Are you properly equipment to undertake this task?

Col. C. Vassallo: To plan and to o-ordinate a search and rescue mission even involving different nations I think yes we are able to. Having the equipment to carry out the search is another matter, we have but not to cover all the distances.

Dr. M. Pace: Planning is of course very important but even more important is of course implementing it. What deficiencies if any would you state you have to carry out a proper search and rescue operation, do you have the necessary aircraft, seacraft or other facilities would be desirable to carry out properly this?

Col. C. Vassallo: We have the capability to plan, we have the capability to control and to co-ordinate and to effect the actual search and the actual rescue mission. We do not have everything, it depends on the distance from the land.

Dr. M. Pace: In this particular case what do you consider to be the deficiencies which you encountered?

Chairman: But if you are asking about deficiencies you have to specify what sort of deficiencies we are talking about, what you have in mind.

Col. C. Vassallo: In the equipment or facilities which you have at your disposal?

Dr. M. Pace: Could you tell us what facilities and deficiencies you have to carry out a search and rescue for this particular incident? What difficulties did you encounter?

Col. C. Vassallo: One of the difficulties was that we did not have our own means to go and effect the search.

Col. C. Vassallo: At the time there were some other problems as regarding communications but we did this through the air traffic control which had continuous communications with the aircraft which were searching in the area, particularly from the moment that we had an on scene commander through the Italian or the American aircraft.

Dr. M. Pace: Were any radar sightings reported to you at any time from any of the authorities concerned?

Col. C. Vassallo: No.

Dr. M. Pace: Did you attempt at any time to request the American military authorities or the Italian counter parts to indicate to you whether they had in fact traced by means of there more sophisticated radar equipment and` long range this particular aircraft on the day in question.

Col. C. Vassallo: They reported visual sighting of debris and an oil slick in 35.04 North 13.32 East but there were no survivors sighted in the vicinity. Report of a rubber dinghy at 34.30 North 11.50 East from Maltese Harbour Master, they say, but it was a search aircraft, was investigated with no result. Continued an all sensor search visual radar infra red radio monitoring until sunset when aircraft returned to

base. That was day one.

Dr. M. Pace: Perhaps you did not understand my question. I repeat it. Did you attempt at any time to contact the American or Italian Military authorities requesting them to indicate to you whether at any time this aircraft was sited on their radar equipment on the day in question?

Col. C. Vassallo: When it was still flying you mean?

Dr. M. Pace: Yes.

Col. C. Vassallo: No one ever asked this question.

Chairman: Would such a question have been relevant to assist you in your eventual search and rescue operation?

Col. C. Vassallo: I did not think that it was So important. What was more important for me is that from previous experience by air traffic controllers, there was a high probability that if the aircraft had entered at least by twenty miles into the Malta FIR from Djerba it would have been traced on radar, by our own radar from Malta. If it flies at 10.000 feet. Having information that they had not seen the aircraft for me it meant that the aircraft never made it to that point but in order to be sure that we are covering the whole areas we enlarged the area to such an extend as to be sure that the area were the aircraft might have ditched would have been found if traces were still on the surface

Dr. M. Pace: Would not this information have been useful to identify the position of where the incident took place.

Col. C. Vassallo: It could have been but I did not ask it.

Dr. M. Pace: On a radar screen you see something and then suddenly it disappears, right, So you can identify the position.

Col. C. Vassallo: It depends, there were thunder storms they effect radar if pulses

Dr. M. Pace:. So you do not exclude the possibility that this aircraft during its flight was actually picked up by the radar screens of the American or Italian authorities?

Chairman: But how can he answer that question if he never put that question to the appropriate authorities.

Col. C. Vassallo: I did not ask them.

Dr. M. Pace: I do not know if they keep records of such sightings, but is it possible to make a request even at this late stage?

Col. C. Vassallo: I think it is possible.

Dr. M. Pace: And would you normally do it or would you request the DCA to do it?

Col. C. Vassallo: I do not think that it is up to us, the Armed Forces of Malta to ask. We are not authorised by the Ministry to do so, normally these things are done through diplomatic channels.

Dr. M. Pace: Now you mentioned that there are distress messages or signals. I think these can be classified into various categories. For example you had certain messages transmitted through the Tunisian and/or Libyan authorities, is that correct?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes

Dr. M. Pace: You other messages which were picked up reportedly from vessels or aircraft. Correct?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes.

Dr. M. Pace: You other messages which were passed on to you through aircraft of seacraft taking part in the search and rescue operations. Correct?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes.

Dr. M. Pace: And I would imagine you would also have received some equipment like EIT or whatever. Is that correct?

Col. C. Vassallo: We do not receive directly an EIT message or a PLB message or an E probe message but we receive that through the transmission control centre of Toulouse.

Dr. M. Pace: Apart from these categories are there any others?

Col. C. Vassallo: If there were any others I cannot remember. You have to mention them to me and I can tell you yes or no.

Dr. M. Pace: You mentioned that most of these messages actually turned out to be negative. Eventually.

Col. C. Vassallo: Or false.

Dr. M. Pace: Obviously depending on the category of the distress message we are talking about, the chances of possible simulation could be increased or decreased accordingly, for example a direct distress message from one of these modes of equipment which we have mentioned earlier should indicate a position from where the message emanated, is that correct?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes.

Dr. M. Pace: So the chances of simulation would be rather diminished, even though it would be possible, but at least you can locate from where actually this message was transmitted?

Col. C. Vassallo: Not with accuracy however.

Dr. M. Pace: What sort of equipment do you have to actually identify the position?

Col. C. Vassallo: We do not have the equipment, We are not a mission control centre which co-ordinates with satellites we do not have in Malta.

Dr. M. Pace: Did you make at any time any attempt to identify or to verify whether such messages in this category were true or false?

Col. C. Vassallo: On which type of messages are you talking about?

Dr. M. Pace: Distress messages like ELTs and So on.

Col. C. Vassallo: The only message that we received was when I asked the mission control centre in Toulouse to send us any messages which they had not sent us. In fact they sent us as I already said a serious of five messages giving five different positions four of which we had already covered and we found nothing and the other one which we had not yet covered I sent the Italian aircraft coming down from Italy I sent it on location and it didn't find anything.

Dr. M. Pace: Regarding the vessel Supply Asperay you mentioned earlier that you had verified with Lloyds to see if this vessel was registered and this proved to be negative. Did you verify with the military authorities with the navies concerned, because I understand that such vessels are not actually registered at Lloyds.

Col. C. Vassallo: No I did not verify.

Dr. M. Pace: So this Supply Asperay could have been on tender to one of the oil rigs.

Chairman: This question has already been put to this witness. I have already put that question to him and he has already furnished a reply.

Dr. M. Pace: Taking account of the direction of the wind the currents and the weather conditions and what you mentioned earlier which should be taken into consideration. Did you identify a possible area, be it a  large area where you would have expected, taking accounts also of the drift, any debris, any flotsam or jetsam or anything else to be found? An area were you would have expected this incident to have taken place?

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course.

Dr. M. Pace: So where was the search and rescue operation concentrated?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was concentrated as I have already said on the FIR boundaries between Malta, Libya and Tunisia.

Dr. M. Pace: But to be more specific, I understand that earlier you also mentioned that as regards the FIR boundary, the Malta area that was all covered, but bearing in mind the prevailing weather conditions, if the aircraft had reached the FIR boundary, is it likely that the aircraft would be found by the search and rescue within the Malta area or within the Tunisian area or within the Libyan area or which are was it expected, bearing in mind those conditions to find any possible?

Col . C. Vassallo: It depends, we know that there were thunder storms in the area, So we were basing our calculations on a lightening must have hit the aircraft, or the pilot must have been disorientated and many things could have happened but if something happened it must have been abrupt. Because if there was a lightening strike and perhaps only the radio went off the aircraft could have continued towards its way to Malta, if however its navigational instruments were effected that would have been a big problem being total darkness So that is why we concentrated on the area, because given the weather conditions at the moment because we thought that if something happened it would have been there. Now we cover all the areas, by means of Malta based aircraft the Malta part and the Libyan part and by means of Tunisian aircraft the Tunisian FIR.

Dr. M. Pace: Earlier on you mentioned that you were informed that there absolutely no contact between the aircraft and the Control Tower stations at any time during the flights, is that correct?

Col. C. Vassallo: With Luqa air traffic control.

Dr. M. Pace: With any other authorities?

Col. C. Vassallo: The information about that was coming from DCA, if they didn't give us any information that there had been contact it means that there wasn‘t.

Dr. M. Pace: V What information did you have, because earlier I understood that there was no contact whatsoever. Was there any contact with anyone else?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was informed that the aircraft had last communicated with Djerba ten minutes before it was due to reach the FlR boundary, we also confirmed that the aircraft had at no time contacted Malta ATC, there were no contacts with Malta ATC

Dr. M. Pace: So there was contact ten minutes before?

Col. C. Vassallo: According to the information that was given to us.

Dr. M. Pace: Bearing in mind that contact and the estimated position of the aircraft, to repeat what I asked you earlier, bearing in mind the prevailing weather conditions, therefore where would you presume the area where the incident would have taken place?

Col. C. Vassallo: Somewhere along the FIR boundary. A

Dr. M. Pace: Between any two points or?

Col. C. Vassallo: In calculating the positions one take account also of the human error, say if he was supposed to take a route on 100 degrees and instead he is tracking 95 degrees So we have to give consideration also to the human error, to the pilot error. So that is why we enlarge the areas and I think that by the way in which we enlarged the areas we should have covered the area where the incident might have happened. I am sure of that.

Dr. M. Pace: Within the Tunisian area and the Libyan area, were any aircraft or seacraft within you control allowed to or actually did carry out search and rescue operations on the first day of the incident on Sunday? ·

Col. C. Vassallo: On Sunday, yes, on of the Exelair aircraft was asked by us, was given an area which slightly entered into Libyan FIR. I can show you from the overlay if you want to know by how much was that.

Dr. M. Pace: Where you precluded or where these aircraft or seacraft precluded at any time by the Libyan or Tunisian authorities from entering their area to carry out search and rescue?

Col. C. Vassallo: On the first day we did not ask the Tunisian authorities to let our aircrafts enter into their FIR, but we asked the Tunisians to carry out the search themselves in that particular area. We asked the Libyans however on our first message to, we sort of informed them that a Malta based aircraft was going to search in their FIR.

Dr. M. Pace: From the three areas concerned you still haven't answered my question as to whether you would have expected to find anything within the Malta area, the Libyan area or the Tunisian area bearing in mind the weather conditions and So on?

Col. C. Vassallo: Having known that the aircraft last contacted Djerba air traffic control ten minutes before reaching the FIR boundary. It must have been somewhere on the FIR.

Dr. M. Pace: Bearing in mind the currents, the drift the wind direction and these considerations after a certain period you would expect a floating object to move South, East, West or some other direction of the compass.

Col. C. Vassallo: But after a number of hours the distance is not so big.

Dr. M. Pace: Where would the drift have been towards, which direction?

Col. C. Vassallo: If I remember well it was North Easterly wind, strong, the sea currents in that area are North West to South East and we calculated, all these factors.

Dr. M. Pace: So the result would have been more towards the Tunisian area, towards the Libyan area?

Col. C. Vassallo: It depends on where the aircraft ditched, if it ditched four miles.

Dr. M. Pace: Assuming it ditched ten minutes before the FIR boundary.

Col. C. Vassallo: We assumed that something could have happened at that moment and we assumed that something could have happened a quarter of an hour later, So we enlarged the area accordingly.

Dr. M. Pace: Naturally, but bearing in mind this, enlarging the area, where would it have been, closest to which area? °

Col. C. Vassallo: If you asked me the question what might have happened at nine in the evening that is after more than 16 hours at sea, if there was a floating dinghy it might have been in Libyan FIR.

Dr. M. Pace: At the time when the search and rescue operation was commenced and you gave a briefing to the Exelair pilots and the search and rescue operation went under way obviously you had already identified an area and you briefed them where to go, where to expect to find something. Now you said a North Easterly wind do you agree that therefore this should have meant a drifting toward the Tunisian area.

Col. C. Vassallo: If it had already made the Tunisian FIR there was a probability that it might have ditched slightly or just around the FIR between Malta and Tripoli.

Dr. M. Pace:  Within an area covered by your search and rescue co-ordinates or not?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes it was.

Dr. M. Pace: You said that you did not request any aircraft or seacraft which you were directing to enter the Libyan area?

Col. C. Vassallo:  Yes we asked them and we entered.

Dr. M. Pace: One you said?

Col. C. Vassallo:  Yes one.

Dr. M. Pace: How deep did they enter?

Col. C. Vassallo:  I can tell you from the map. Now this is the FIR boundary with Libya and this is the FIR boundary with Tunisia, here is the junction with the Libya, Tunisia and Malta. This is the area where we sent an aircraft to search and also in

the Libyan area.

Dr. M. Pace: I think you indicated more or less ten minutes before the FIR boundary the aircraft would have estimated the aircraft to reach, where was this?

Col. C. Vassallo:  Here.

Dr. M. Pace: When you say here could you specify the position because in the records it would not be produced.

Col. C. Vassallo:  It is on the map 34.20 North 11.30 East.

Dr. M. Pace: Going back to what I asked you earlier, bearing in mind the drift the current and So on would it have gone towards the Tunisian?

Col. C. Vassallo:  Not necessary.

Dr. M. Pace: The current was in which direction? ‘

Col. C. Vassallo:  The sea current is North/Northwest to South/South East in this area. So you have the sea Current, there is a mixture. You have to calculate the sea currents which are natural and for example near Malta they are North West to South East, here they are North/North West to South/South East So this is the sea current. Then there is the wind current, if you have wind for more than say ten or twelve hours it starts creating waves on the water, that is the wind current and then you have the leeway. The extract of the wind itself on that part of the floating object which is above the sea surface and in the northern hemisphere above 10 degrees from the equator it is about 30 degrees to the right or the actual wind direction,

Dr. M. Pace: So bearing in mind all this wouldn‘t it have been more logical to concentrate you efforts more within the Tunisian and Libyan authorities?

Col. C. Vassallo: As regards the Tunisian we asked the Tunisian to search and they confirmed that they had searched the area. As regards the Libyans we informed them that we were going to search in that area. Eventually they said that they are going to search and they also sent us a message that they were sending a helicopter to carry out an area in that part of the FIR but we had two aircraft at the time and we sent one of them in that area. The other we sent in the Malta part of the area and we asked the Tunisians to search in their part. Eventually we also asked the Libyans to give us permission So that an Italian HH3F helicopter and eventually an Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft t enter Libyan FIR to carry out a search.

Dr. M. Pace: And permission was received very late?

Col. C. Vassallo: But it was eventually granted.

Dr. M. Pace: You said that you did not request any aircraft or seacraft which you were directing to enter the Libyan area?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes we asked them and we entered.

Dr. M. Pace: One you said?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes one.

Dr. M. Pace: How deep did they enter?

Col. C. Vassallo: I can tell you from the map. Now this is the FIR boundary with Libya and this is the FIR boundary with Tunisia, here is the junction with the Libya, Tunisia and Malta. This is the area where we sent an aircraft to search and also in the Libyan area.

Dr. M. Pace: I think you indicated more or less ten minutes before the FIR boundary the aircraft would have estimated the aircraft to reach, where was this?

Col. C. Vassallo: Here.

Dr. M. Pace: When you say here could you specify the position because in the records it would not be produced.

Col. C. Vassallo: It is on the map 34.20 North 11.30 East.

Dr. M. Pace: Going back to what I asked you earlier, bearing in mind the drift the current and So on would it have gone towards the Tunisian?

Col. C. Vassallo: Not necessary.

Dr. M. Pace: The current was in which direction?

Col. C. Vassallo: The sea current is North/Northwest to South! South East, in this area. So you have the sea current, there is a mixture. You have to calculate the sea currents which are natural and for example near Malta they are North West to

Dr. M. Pace: Was there any reluctance at any time by the Tunisian or Libyan authorities to permit any aircraft or seacraft permission to enter their areas for search and rescue, regarding this incident?

Col. C. Vassallo: I am not sure whether I can answer this question. One should perhaps ask more the Foreign Affairs about this. Because in order to do this, obviously we did it through DCA but eventually we asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prevail over the Libyan authorities to give this I permission, which they eventually gave. On the 4th of December the Libyan authorities gave permission to the Italian helicopter to enter Libyan FIR but as I have already said earlier by that time the Italian helicopter was returning to Trapani but they extended the permission and eventually also gave permission for the Atlantic, the Italian to enter Libyan FIR.

Dr. M. Pace: Was any permission which you requested at any time turned down by these authorities?

Col. C. Vassallo: No never. And although they said that they are going to search in their part of the area, the Libyans, they did not say anything, or they did not raise any objection to civil registered aircraft from Malta entering that area on the first day.

Dr. M. Pace: I believe you were going to indicate how may miles they would have entered on day one.

Col. C. Vassallo: About 230 on and off square miles.

Dr. M. Pace: How far into the Libyan FIR, what distance not what area?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was a triangular area in the Libyan FIR 20 nautical miles

by about 33 miles but a triangular area, right angle triangle.

Dr. M. Pace: From 20 to O. When you mention O this being the FIR point?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes.

Dr. M. Pace: You mentioned the Tripoli signal which had been going on some days before the incident, or even weeks, when did it actually stop?

Col. C. Vassallo: It eventually stopped, we had no message that it had stopped, but further satellite passes, you have a satellite pass between forty or eighty minutes, it depends on the satellite, further satellite passes from a few hours after we had informed the Libyans to do something about it, it stopped. There were no further interceptions by the satellite.

Dr. M. Pace: When?

Col. C. Vassallo: After the 3rd, about three days after.

Dr. M. Pace: Up to three days after this signal was still going on?

Col. C. Vassallo: But obviously we were not being informed of that position, because that position lies within Libyan FIR, So Toulouse does not send a message to us it sends them to the Libyan authorities.

Dr. M. Pace: It was a constant signal from the same position?

Col. C. Vassallo: It was according to Toulouse a strong signal but had  been going on for about four weeks.

Dr. M. Pace: But a constant one from the same position?

Col. C. Vassallo: No exactly from the same position because as I have already said the 121.5 frequency is very faulty, sometimes false alerts  within 20 miles I would say around Tripoli.  Sometimes on land and sometimes on the sea.

Dr. M. Pace: Bearing in mind the aircraft involved in this incident, what did you expect to find, in the briefing what were the pilots or personnel informed and advised to watch out for?

Col. C. Vassallo: Given the circumstances we directed the pilots that they should look for everything, even for the squalis debris but they could have found survivors, they could have found dead bodies, part of an aircraft floating or a dinghy.

Dr. M. Pace: Were you expected to find anything?

Chairman: What sort of question is that.

Dr. M. Pace: Is it normal that nothing was found?

Col. C. Vassallo: There were instance when aircraft were lost and nothing was found.

Dr. M. Pace: The one sent 29 hours late was sent by whom actually?

Col. C. Vassallo: By the Civil Aviation Department and it was received from Tunis Tower.

Dr. M. Pace: Do you know what action they took? ·

Col. C. Vassallo: No. But the Tunisians had already been searching from the day before as directed by us. We asked them to search in an area, in a particular area and in the evening they said that they had searched it to no avail.

Dr. M. Pace:  Where you surprised to receive this message 29 hours later

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course I was.

Dr. M. Pace: Were any other messages or distress signals received which you have not mentioned?_

Col. C. Vassallo: Not that I know of.

Dr. M. Pace: Were any fax or other messages received, telephonically or by any other communications at your centre?

Col. C. Vassallo: There were numerous telephone calls to and from Malta with Tunisians, with Italians, with Americans, obviously these could not be recorded.

Chairman: It is expected in the circumstances that you get telephone calls which are not recorded. I asked him in the first instance do you have any written messages and he said yes and he produced a whole tile. You can't produce telephone ones.

Dr. M. Pace: Were any patrol boats used on the first clay of the incident?

Col. C. Vassallo: Maltese patrol boats, no.

Dr. M. Pace: On any subsequent days?

Col. C. Vassallo: No.

Dr. M. Pace: Who gave the pan pan signal or message or by whom was it sent, stating what?

Col. C. Vassallo: The Malta radio message which we directed them to send.

Chairman: Col. Vassallo said that he sent that message.

Dr. M. Pace: He sent it or he received it?

Chairman: He sent it.

Dr. M. Pace: The contents of the message where received from elsewhere.

Col. C. Vassallo: In such circumstances what normally happens is that if there is a distress somewhere which is far away from us, this is not the first time that happens We ask Malta radio to transmit a message saying that a distress signal or a ship is in distress in position so and so, would ships sailing in the area kindly proceed to the area and keep a sharp look out.

Dr. M. Pace: So this was sent by you?

Col. C. Vassallo: Of course, I asked Malta radio to start transmitting this message.

Dr. M. Pace: And was any pan pan message or signal sent by anyone else which you picked up?

Chairman: With all due respect, you must have listened carefully what that gentleman was saying when he was on the witness stand because

Dr. M. Pace: I might have misunderstood him for which I apologise. I am just asking, just in case if so it was sent by anyone.

Chairman: Any more question please

Dr. M. Pace: None from me.

Chairman: Dr. Mizzi do you have any questions to put to this gentleman?

Dr. E. Mizzi: `When you say the area when you do exercise from search and rescue you never went beyond thirty miles, is that correct?

Col. C. Vassallo:  I said about 30 to 35 miles. The last exercise that we carried out with the Italians, Greek and French because a search area , the minimum distance and the maximum distance from land it went even further down, but not beyond sixty miles, because otherwise our aircraft would not be able to cover it.

Dr. E. Mizzi: But up to sixty miles you have done exercises?

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes we have. Through out the years we have carried out evacuation from ships even from hundred miles out.

Dr. E. Mizzi: That is why I asked the question, you went beyond.

Col. C. Vassallo: Because that is not a search and rescue mission it is a rescue mission. You go hundred miles out, you put up the sick seaman or whoever he is and you bring him back. But if you have an area where you are not sure where the ship is to be found you have to give some time also for the helicopter or the aircraft to find it, to effect a half an hour search, for example and then he has to return back with half an hour fuel available because an emergency could happen to the aircraft.

Dr. E. Mizzi: My other question concerns the position you though the aircraft might be if something happened to it and you were I surprised that the Tunisians gave you more or less the same position you had calculated, is that surprising, do the Tunisians know about the area in which you were going to?

Col. C. Vassallo: Not from our side.

Dr. E. Mizzi: If you give a distress signal don‘t you tell them where the distress might have happened.

Col. C. Vassallo: Obviously when we calculated the new position we also

informed Malta radio about it obviously Malta radio would start transmitting the message and whoever happens to here it.

Dr. E. Mizzi: So when the Tunisians sent messages which they later or after a few hours cancelled you already knew what position you were?

Col. C. Vassallo: I presume yes.

Dr. E. Mizzi: So it is not surprising really that they gave the same area.

Col. C. Vassallo: Surprising for me because I asked myself are we so good,

is my assistant so good as to calculate the exact area. I wish we could reach that perfection.

Dr. M. Pace: How many official messages were sent by the Tunisian or Libyan authorities which were later cancelled or you were informed to this regard?

Col. C. Vassallo: Supply Asperay was never confirmed but it was not cancelled.

Dr. M. Pace: Did they verify themselves.

Col. C. Vassallo: I did not ask them. Then there was the famous message by the Gonfulut saying that there were six persons in a dinghy in a position and then we asked the Tunisians what are you going to do about these six people in distress and the position was that calculated by us previously. This was cancelled. There was another message saying that Sir Ali Jakubi and Sir Mike Patley from British gas advised that they received information from Miscar that the plane concerned that is Bravo Uniform crashed on the sea near the Libyan boundary sea.

Chairman: I believe that he has already answered this question?

Dr. M. Pace:  I just asked him for the number.

Chairman: Eventually when you go through the transcript you can make your additions.

Col. C. Vassallo: This was the second message which was cancelled and then the day after there was the French navy ship that it had recovered a dead body which I disregarded because when I asked the gentleman, I forgot his name, he told me no I do not know the position.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Am I right in thinking that the Mediterranean is divided into a number of FlRs each governed by one country and if a disaster happens each country takes care of its own area of operation?

Col. C. Vassallo: I think as regards ICAO is concerned, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, yes. The Mediterranean is divided in what are called search and rescue regions and Malta has one such region and Malta search and rescue region as far as ICAO is concerned is coincidental with the Flight information Region but this does not hold water with International Maritime Organisation. As regards IMO the Mediterranean though being such a small area has not yet have a comprehensive plan for the whole area. In fact there are disputes about it. But as far as ICAO is

concerned yes it is divided.

Dr. Borg Barthet: As far as ICAO is concerned the Tunisians would be expected in such a situation to carry out  search in their own area and the Libyans in their area and Malta in it‘s own area for this particular incident?

Col. C. Vassallo: I should think everybody is in duty bound to do all that is possible to be done.

Dr. Borg Barthet: Within reach of his own area.

Col. C. Vassallo: Yes and if I am not mistaken ICAO has got a sarplan for the Mediterranean, for those countries which have very long range aircraft and they area supposed to cover a particular area.

Dr. M. Pace: Were you ever informed or did the other Tunisian or Libyan authorities keep you updated as to what progress was being achieved in their search and rescue?

Col. C. Vassallo: The Tunisians yes every evening or early in the morning of the following day, they said we searched the area indicated by you with no positive results.

Dr. M. Pace: Generic just like that not detailed what was deployed?

Col. C. Vassallo: Just like that.

I declare that I have transcribed truthfully and faithfully and to the best of my ability and knowledge the transcription of this tape.

Antonia Rina Mamo















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