Plane allegedly smuggling cocaine was unairworthy at time of crash in PNG, court hears

A light plane that crashed while allegedly being used to smuggle cocaine from Papua New Guinea to Australia was unairworthy, a court has heard.

The Cessna plane crashed on a remote airstrip north of Port Moresby in July 2020 while allegedly trying to take off for Australia with 540 kilograms of cocaine on board.

Four Australian men – Salvatore Formica, 35, Aiden Khoder, 33, Pierino Forni, 63 and George Machem, 38 – are said to have arranged the plane’s journey and have been charged with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a substance controlled at borders.

They face a committal hearing at Cairns Magistrates’ Court to determine whether they will stand trial.

The registered operator of the plane at the time of the crash was Northern Territory Air Services (NTAS), although the plane was owned by mining company PNG Ravenpol.

The Cessna crashed after trying to take off from a remote, unofficial airstrip north of Port Moresby.(Provided: Facebook)

Company director Ian Scheyer told the court he had known Mr Forni as a mortgage and finance broker for around eight years and in 2019 entered into a plane deal with him .

“I was told the aircraft would be used by the owners several times a year, and for those times when it was not in use it would be available to us (NTAS),” Scheyer said.

Mr Scheyer told the court the plane, which was based at Mareeba, west of Cairns, had been inactive for some time and was neither operational nor airworthy.

He said a local aircraft maintenance company had been hired to restore the plane and he had at one point lent them a propeller to carry out engine tests.

“As things were dragging on, I requested that the propeller be retrieved for my own use,” he said.

When the plane crashed in PNG he activated an onboard distress beacon, alerting the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) who contacted Mr Scheyer as the registered operator.

A man in a police uniform stands next to a crashed plane in the bush.
The plane’s pilot, David Cutmore, is expected to testify at the committal hearing, but at a later hearing.(Provided: Russell Saigomi)

Mr Scheyer said he initially told AMSA that the alert had to come from a personal or portable beacon registered on the plane because the plane was not airworthy.

The next day, he received a multimedia message containing a photo of the plane at the crash site in PNG.

The pilot bragged that he had become rich

The court also heard from a former colleague and roommate of the plane’s pilot, David Cutmore, who is still being held in Papua New Guinea.

Bo Li worked with Mr Cutmore at a Victorian flight academy and the couple lived together for around four months in late 2019.

Ms Li told the court that Mr Cutmore bragged about being involved in a drug business that would make him rich.

“He told me that he had done other things before and had been in jail, but had not received any money,” Ms. Li said.

“He said this time he would be a lot smarter.

“He looked really confident…he thought it wasn’t dangerous.”

The committal hearing is scheduled to continue next week and further sessions of the hearing were scheduled for later this year.

Mr. Cutmore is expected to testify at the hearing, but not during the current session.

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