U.S. and German military planes with 33 people on board were reported missing off the coast of Southern Africa on Sunday amid indications they had collided and crashed into the Atlantic.
The South African air force said a signal received from a life jacket emergency beacon provided evidence there might be survivors.
German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe said the German plane, a Soviet-made model inherited from the former East German army, last was heard from at 4 p.m. Saturday German time (7 a.m. PDT). He said it apparently had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Angola.
The German Defense Ministry later said a U.S. military C-141 cargo plane with nine crew members was missing in the same area and is presumed to have crashed.
“We have no information that they collided,” a defense spokesman in Bonn said on condition of anonymity. “But we have information that they went missing at the same time and in the same area. When you add one and one together, … a crash is very probable.”
The exact location of the apparent crash was not known immediately.
A South African air force spokeswoman said a flash picked up by satellite Saturday night at the Johannesburg airport indicated a possible midair collision.
The spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Laverne Machine, said a cargo plane was in the same airspace at the same time as the missing German plane, but she declined to comment further.
A spokeswoman for Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, said a U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter cargo plane en route from Namibia, in Southern Africa, to Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic, was overdue. “We are presuming it went down in the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.
“We don’t have confirmation of that right now, but we are assuming that,” Sgt. Ellen Schirmer said.
She said officials also are investigating any connection with the German plane, which she noted became missing “about the same time and about the same place that we lost contact” with the C-141.
The C-141, assigned to the 305th Air Mobility wing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, had just flown cargo from Ascension Island, a British territory, to Namibia and was returning to the island Saturday, Schirmer said.
The names of the crew members were not released. They “come from Rhode Island to California, so it is difficult to notify their families,” Schirmer said.
The plane left Namibia at 4:11 p.m. local time Saturday and was due at 7:51 p.m. Rescue efforts are being coordinated through the Atlantic Command out of Norfolk, Va., Schirmer said.
The Soviet-made German air force plane was en route from Germany to Cape Town, South Africa, where soldiers were to have participated in a boat race marking the 75th anniversary of the South African navy.
“There is no hope, but we will do everything to find out what happened,” Ruehe said.
No distress call was received by ships or other planes in the area or by satellite, he said.
Presumed killed were 12 German marines, two of their spouses and 10 crew members.
Two German maritime patrol aircraft and a coordination team were dispatched to the area late Sunday to begin looking for wreckage, Ruehe said.
South Africa and France were sending planes as well, and Ruehe said Britain and the United States also had been asked to help.
The Soviet-made Tupolev model from the former East German army was taken over by the Luftwaffe during German reunification in 1990.
It was built in 1989 and was last inspected only a month ago, Ruehe said.
It usually is used for missions related to verifying “open skies” arms control treaties, as well as transporting politicians, although none were aboard this flight.
The crew’s last direct contact with the ground was with controllers in Accra, Ghana, before the plane headed out over the Atlantic. An indirect communication was received when it was 930 miles off the coast of Angola.
It was declared missing after it failed to arrive for a refueling stop in Windhoek, Namibia, and officials determined it had not landed at any other airport.
The last reported Tupolev crash was in August 1996, when a Russian plane carrying miners went down, killing at least 140 people.