EXCLUSIVE – Revealed: Cambridge student Alana Cutland was hanging out of buffeting plane at 3,700 feet for TWO minutes – as pilot flew one-handed while desperately trying to drag her back inside
- Alana Cutland jumped from a light aircraft plane as she flew in Madagascar five minutes after taking off
- An investigator probing the incident gave a graphic account of how the Cambridge University student suddenly unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door of the aircraft
- The 19-year-old, from Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, jumped to her death just minutes after being given safety instructions on how to open the door in an emergency
- Pilot Mahefa Tahina Rantoanina, 33, flew the buffeting light aircraft one-handed as he tried to close the door
- Fellow passenger Ruth Johnson, 51, also grabbed hold of Alana’s leg to stop her falling while half her body was hanging out of the four-seater Cessna 182 which was being rocked from side to side in mid-air
- Police say she was suffering from ‘paranoia’ and had series of fraught calls home to her parents Neil and Alison
- Second-year Biological Natural Sciences student was on a study trip at the time and her mother and father had convinced her to come home eight days into six-week trip
Tragic student Alana Cutland was hanging out of the plane at 3,700 feet for two minutes as the aircraft rocked from side to side with the pilot flying one-handed while desperately trying to close the door, it can be revealed today.
An investigator probing the incident gave a graphic account of how the Cambridge University student, who was suffering mental health difficulties, suddenly unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door of the aircraft.
In silence Alana reached forward and pushed the seat in front and turned the door handle – just as she had been shown in a demonstration before take off.
Tragic student Alana Cutland was hanging out of the plane (pictured) at 3,700 feet for two minutes as the aircraft rocked from side to side with the pilot flying one-handed while desperately trying to close the door, it can be revealed today
An investigator probing the incident gave a graphic account of how the Cambridge University student, who was sat in the back right seat of the light aircraft, suddenly unbuckled her belt, pushed forward the seat ahead and opened the door (above)
Investigators say tragic Alana opened the door to the out of the four-seater Cessna 182 (pictured) five minutes into the journey over Madagascar – just minutes after being given safety instructions on how to open the door in an emergency
The pilot Mahefa Tahina Rantoanina was sat in the cock pit (pictured) when he saw the door was open because he could feel wind coming into the aircraft. He flew one-handed as he desperately tried to close the door as Alana tried to jump out
Alana, 19, fell from 3,700 feet at around 130mph to the ground which is made of of lakes, marsh land and forest. The area (pictured) is populated by carnivorous wild animals and experts searching for her body fear she may never be found
Alana, a second-year Cambridge University Biological Natural Sciences student, from Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, is pictured on a family holiday two years ago with her younger brother and father Neil, who runs an energy consultancy
Gervais Damasy, the director of Madagascar’s air accident investigation bureau, said the pilot desperately tried to shut the door with his right hand to stop Alana, 19, jumping out as he held the controls with his left hand.
Fellow passenger Ruth Johnson, 51, also grabbed hold of Alana’s leg to stop her falling while half her body was hanging out of the four-seater Cessna 182 which was being rocked from side to side in mid-air.
Mahefa Tahina Rantoanina, 33, a pilot with Madagascar Trans Air for 13 years, said he had no idea why Alana had jumped
Mr Damasy said that Alana remained half out of the aircraft while being buffeted by the wind for up to two minutes before she was finally wrenched from Mrs Johnson’s grasp and plunged out.
Describing the action of Mrs Johnson, he said: ‘She was very brave. She did her best for her and the pilot did the same. In this situation the plane could have crashed.’ Mr Damasy said that Mrs Johnson had been working with Alana on a conservation project on the remote Anjajavy nature reserve in northern Madagascar.
She said that Mrs Johnson told the teenager’s parents that she would fly back to the UK with her due to concerns about her mental health.
Mr Damasy insisted there had been nothing wrong with the single engine Cessna which was carrying Alana and Mrs Johnson on the two hour and 20 minute flight from Anjajavy to the international airport at the island’s capital Antananarivo on the first leg of their trip home.
He said: ‘According to the safety procedures, passengers are told how to get out of the plane in case of an accident.
‘Alana would have been told how to open the door so she could escape on the ground in case there was an emergency, and if there was a problem like the pilot had died. ‘The plane had just taken off and was climbing to 8,000ft. Everything was normal in the flight and the plane was in a good condition.
Fellow passenger Ruth Johnson, 51, who was sat in the back left seat, also grabbed hold of Alana’s leg to stop her falling while half her body was hanging out of the four-seater Cessna 182 (pictured) which was being rocked from side to side in mid-air
Gervais Damasy, the director of Madagascar’s air accident investigation bureau, insisted there had been nothing wrong with the single engine Cessna carrying Alana and Mrs Johnson on the flight
Authorities shared this photo, a recreation of Ruth Johnson and the pilot’s attempts to save Alana and stop her from jumping out. She fell from the Cessna-style light aircraft while it was above the east African country, about ten minutes after take-off
Alana cut short her trip to Madagascar at the request of her parents and was on a two hour and 20 minute flight from Anjajavy where she was staying to the international airport at the island’s capital Antananarivo on the first leg of their trip home
Mr Damasy said Alana would have been given a demonstration of opening the door (pictured) in an emergency, saying: ‘She would have been show how to open the door so she could escape on the ground if there was a problem like the pilot had died.’
Local police chief Sinola Nomenjahary said Alana fell into a zone (pictured) which is full of ‘carnivorous Fossa felines’. The Fossa is the largest carnivorous mammal on the island, and can reach up to six feet in length
Investigators will be frantically mapping the area where she fell (pictured) to narrow down an area where her body may be – but due to the nature of the terrain, the Cambridge University student may never be recovered
‘It had reached an altitude of 3,700ft when the event occurred. I am not sure of the exact time, but I think it was five or six minutes after they were airborne. ‘Alana was on the right hand side rear seat sitting next to Mrs Johnson while the pilot was in front on the left side.
‘She suddenly unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed forward the seat in front of her so she could reach the door handle.
‘She pulled the handle up to open it. She never spoke at all. Something happened in her head and we do not now what it was.’
Mr Damasy said the pilot Mahefa Tahina Rantoanina, 33, was flying normally and did not realise what was happening due to the noise of the engine.
He added: ‘I think Mrs Johnson had headphones on so she did not hear.
‘But the pilot realised what was happening when the right side door opened and the wind was coming in.
‘He tried to reach over and pull the door with his hand while keeping his other hand on the controls – but Alana already had half her body out.
‘Mrs Johnson grabbed hold of her legs while the girl’s front half was out of the plane. She maintained pressure on her leg. Alana was wearing long grey/blue trousers.
‘The plane was flying at 100 to 120 knots (115mph to 138mph) and the air was rushing in. The plane was rocking from side to side because it was unbalanced.’
Mr Damasy said the pilot was forced to let go of the door after a short time so he could have both hands on the controls while the plane was rolling around.
He added: ‘The pilot tried to maintain pressure on the door, but it was not very easy for him to do while flying the plane.
‘The plane could have crashed if he had tried to maintain pressure for a long time.
‘I am not sure how long Mrs Johnson held her for. It was a maximum of one or two minutes. The wind would have been puling her out of the plane. The plane was rocking around. It was a very dangerous situation in a little plane.
Alana (pictured) had been due to stay for 40 days in Madagascar while working on a conservation project investigating crabs in the remote Anjajavy nature reserve
‘Mrs Johnson is an older woman. I don’t think she was strong enough to hold her. She wanted to jump. Mrs Johnson was tired and the plane was rocking. She could not maintain her grip. She could not pull her back.’
Describing the moment she fell, Mr Damasy said: ‘There was nothing that anybody could do. I am very sure that she would not have survived a fall from that altitude.
‘She fell from a height of more than 1km. I think that she would have been killed instantly. I don’t know the cause of why she jumped.’
Mr Damasy said that Alana had fallen into an area which included a lake, dense forest, woodland and swamps. Her body has still not been found, despite intensive searches by air force personnel in spotter planes as well as between 180 and 200 people on the ground including police and local villagers.
Mr Damasy said he had also viewed the area from a light aircraft and could appreciate the difficulties faced by local search teams. He said the search was being concentrated in an area measuring 4kms by 10kms.
Mr Damasy added: ‘We told the local population what had happened. These people have been giving their own time to look for her. Some of them have dogs. They are being supported by gendarmes.
‘The local population are very gentle people and they are working very hard.’
Mr Damasy said that an aircraft from the Madagascar air force had flown two hour missions over the search area every morning and afternoon for four days to try and find the body.
He said: ‘They flew a zig zag search pattern every day between Saturday and Tuesday. They saw nothing, however. Due to the density of the forest and the presence of the swamp, there are difficulties.’
He insisted that he was hopeful her body would be found, but admitted it was possible that she might have been taken by cat-like creatures called fossas which are the island’s largest carnivores, often compared to small cougars.
He added: ‘The local people are continuing their search. The search of the ground will continue until the local people are tired.
‘Of course they are very sad. It is the first occurrence like this that we have had, so they are very upset. Nobody has ever jumped from a plane before.’
Mr Damasy said Alana’s family were welcome to come over and join in the search. He described Mrs Johnson and Mr Rantoanina as reliable and consistent witnesses, saying: ‘They are good people. They are telling the truth. Their information is the same.’
Mr Damasy said he had interviewed Mrs Johnson at the British embassy before she flew home yesterday.
He added: ‘When she told me this story, she was crying. She was really sad.’
Mr Rantoanina decided to divert his plane to the airfield at Mahajanga about 25 minutes flying time away after Alana jumped because he knew that police would be there and he could immediately report what happened, said Mr Damasy.
Alana from Milton Keynes had been due to stay for 40 days in Madagascar while working on a conservation project investigating crabs in the remote Anjajavy nature reserve in the north of the island.
Mr Damasy said he had been told the teenager was ‘very normal’ when she joined conservation workers in Anjajavy on July 16.
But she decided to return home after just eight days after suffering a series of panic attacks. He said that Mrs Johnson had been due to fly home alone on Thursday last week, but Alana’s parents had asked her to take the teenager with her.
Alana’s place on the flight was booked by the hotel the days before they flew. The pair had been due to catch a flight from Antananarivo airport to Mauritius, and then another flight back to the UK.
Mr Damasy said he had been told the teenager (pictured with a friend) was ‘very normal’ when she joined conservation workers in Anjajavy on July 16. But she decided to cut the trip short after just eight days after suffering from paranoia
In a statement released through the Foreign Office, her family paid tribute to Alana (pictured), saying she ‘grasped every opportunity that was offered to her with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure’.
Mr Damasy said that Mrs Johnson and Alana had met while working together at the reserve, but by coincidence had come from the same area of the UK.
He said: ‘Ruth Johnson told me afterwards that Alana didn’t sleep the night before the incident. She perhaps thought about what she wanted to do tomorrow. She was perhaps thinking a lot of things. ‘I asked Mrs Johnson what was wrong with her, but she didn’t know.’
He said that Mrs Johnson had been talking to Alana’s parents Alison and Neil about their daughter’s mental health issues and had agreed to fly home with her.
Mr Damasy said: ‘The little plane was only expecting to take Mrs Johnson to the airport, but the day before the company was told that there was another girl coming.’
Cessna pilot Mr Rantoanina earlier described the mid-air drama. He told The Sun: ‘I had just taken off and I was still climbing when all of a sudden there was a rush of wind and Ruth started screaming.
‘I turned round and saw Alana hanging out of my plane. I immediately levelled the aircraft to try and keep us on course, then I reached over and held the door.
‘I was trying to pull it shut while Ruth was holding on to Alana’s leg. The plane stayed level, there was no rocking but it was very noisy from the wind.
‘I was trying to fly and stop her from falling at the same time. I was absolutely terrified, we all were.
‘Ruth and I were shouting at her to come back inside the plane. But for the whole time Alana did not say a word she just struggled to get away from us.
‘I have no idea why she opened the door but she did. She opened the door and she jumped. The door did not open itself.’
Mr Rantoanina, a pilot with Madagascar Trans Air for 13 years, said Alana had ‘looked a little sick’ as she boarded his plane.
He added: ‘She also said she had a headache but I didn’t make anything of it at the time.’ Mr Rantoanina continued: ‘We were trying to hold her for five minutes but in the end there was nothing we could do.
‘She struggled free and she fell out of the plane over the savannah. Ruth was hysterical, she was screaming and after we closed the door I turned the plane round and landed at the airport.
‘The whole thing lasted maybe 45 minutes from take-off to landing. ‘I can only think Alana had some sort of crisis, maybe it was to do with the fact she was ill. Ruth was in a very bad way, she had just seen her friend fall from the plane.
‘When we landed, Ruth was too upset to speak and it was the people at the hotel where Alana was staying who had to call the parents. ‘I just can’t explain why Alana would do that. I have never experienced anything like that as a pilot.’
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