MANILA: Philippine authorities said Monday (Feb 20) they would verify whether the wreckage of a small plane spotted near the crater of a restive volcano was that of a Cessna aircraft that went missing with four people on board over the weekend.

The Cessna 340, which was bound for Manila, took off from Albay province southeast of the capital Saturday morning with two Filipino pilots and two Australian passengers but has not been heard from since then, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said.

The Australians were working for a geothermal power company, officials said.

Mayor Carlos Baldo of Albay’s Camalig town and other officials told reporters Sunday that, during an aerial search, authorities spotted the suspected wreckage, including the tail, scattered about 350m near the crater on the southwestern slope of Mayon Volcano but there was no indication of people.

Eric Apolonio, spokesperson of the government’s civil aviation authority, said experts and investigators from the agency would have to examine the wreckage to determine if it was the missing Cessna plane with registry number RP-C2080 and to determine the fate of the four people on board.

A ground search was hampered by rainy weather over the weekend and dozens of search and rescue personnel may scale the 2.5km Mayon if the weather clears Monday. The search teams would have to be closely monitored by volcano experts and local officials given the restiveness of Mayon, one of the country’s 24 active volcanoes.

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A photo of the wreckage of the Cessna 340 (left) and rescuers searching for survivors on Feb 18, 2023. (Photo: Facebook/Caloy G Baldo)

“It’s a very risky operation,” Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology director Teresito Bacolcol told The Associated Press. “It’s a race against time and it’s a matter of life and death but there’s also the danger of rockfalls and volcanic lahar.”

Rescue contingents could enter a permanent danger zone 6km around the volcano because “it’s an extraordinary situation”, but the search and rescue should be carried out by well-trained experts, who should be backed up by standby emergency contingents and made aware of the high risks involved, Bacolcol said.

A popular tourist attraction because of its near-perfect cone, Mayon last erupted in 2018, displacing tens of thousands of villagers.

It is currently under the second of five volcano alert levels, meaning volcanic earthquakes, steam and gas emissions, ground deformation and intermittent ash and steam blasts have been sporadically detected. Alert five means a major and deadly volcanic eruption is underway.

Separately, a single-engine Cessna plane that went missing Jan 24 with six people on board in the northern Philippine province of Isabela remained missing. Officials said a search for the plane was continuing on and off, depending on the weather, in a remote mountainous hinterland in Isabela.

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