JAYAPURA, Indonesia: Rescue teams were heading to the site of an air crash in rugged eastern Indonesia on Monday (Aug 17) after villagers found the wreckage of a passenger plane which went missing with 54 people aboard, officials said.
The plane operated by Indonesian carrier Trigana Air lost contact with air traffic control just before 3.00pm (2.00pm Singapore time) on Sunday (Aug 16) after taking off from Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, the search and rescue agency said.
The ATR 42-300 twin-turboprop plane was carrying 44 adult passengers, five children and five crew on the flight which was scheduled to take about 45 minutes, it said.
But the plane disappeared about 10 minutes before reaching its destination Oksibil, a remote settlement in the mountains south of Jayapura, shortly after it asked permission to start descending to land.
Officials said initially that villagers in the Okbape district of Papua reported seeing a plane crash. The transport ministry later said local residents had found the wreckage.
"The plane has been found (by villagers). According to residents, the flight had crashed into a mountain," said the transport ministry's director-general of air transportation, Suprasetyo, who goes by one name.
Officials were still verifying the information from local residents, he said. There was no information about whether anyone may have survived. Search and rescue teams, police and the military would head to the site as soon as possible on Monday, said transport ministry spokesman J. A. Barata.
'DARK AND CLOUDY'
After the plane failed to land, Trigana Air sent another flight over the area to hunt for it but the aircraft failed to spot anything due to bad weather.
Captain Beni Sumaryanto, Trigana Air's service director of operations, told AFP that Oksibil was "a mountainous area where the weather is very unpredictable. It can suddenly turn foggy, dark and windy without warning. We strongly suspect it's a weather issue. It is not overcapacity, as the plane could take 50 passengers."
Barata said the weather in the area had been "very dark and cloudy". Trigana Air is a small airline established in 1991 that operates domestic services to around 40 destinations in Indonesia. It has suffered 14 serious incidents since it began operations, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which monitors air accidents.
The airline is on a blacklist of carriers banned from European Union airspace. Small aircraft are commonly used for transport in remote and mountainous Papua and bad weather has caused several accidents in recent years.
On Wednesday a Cessna propeller plane crashed in Papua's Yahukimo district, killing one person and seriously injuring the five others on board. Officials suspect that crash was caused by bad weather.
Indonesia has a patchy aviation safety record. In December an AirAsia plane flying from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore crashed in the Java Sea during stormy weather, killing all 162 people on board.
In June an Indonesian military plane crashed into a residential neighbourhood in the city of Medan, exploding in a fireball and killing 142 people. The aviation sector in Indonesia is expanding fast as the economy booms but airlines are struggling to find enough well-trained personnel to keep up with the rapid growth.