Indonesian airliner disappears over remote area

An Indonesian airliner carrying 54 people was missing Sunday after it lost contact with ground control while flying in bad weather on a short flight in the country’s mountainous easternmost province of Papua, officials said.

Local villagers told authorities that they saw a plane crash into a mountain, and scores of rescuers were heading to the remote area and will begin searching there at daybreak Monday.

The Trigana Air Service plane was flying from Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura, to the Papua city of Oksibil when it lost contact with Oksibil’s airport, said Transportation Ministry spokesman Julius Barata. There was no indication that the pilot had made a distress call, he said.

The ATR42-300 twin turboprop plane was carrying 49 passengers and five crew members on the scheduled 42-minute journey, he said. Five children, including three infants, were among the passengers.

The weather was poor near Oksibil, with heavy rain, strong winds and fog, when the plane lost contact with the airport nine minutes before it was scheduled to land, said Susanto, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency.

The search was temporarily halted overnight, but now officials tells CBS News that two planes and a helicopter are engaged in the hunt. The two planes are from the airliner itself, while the Indonesia Armed Forces has provided a helicopter. Additionally, officials say they have also dispatched a ground search crew to cover the area where the plane is believed to have disappeared.

Residents of Okbape village in Papua’s Bintang district told local police that they saw a plane flying low before crashing into a mountain, said Susanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. He said about 150 rescuers were heading to the area, which is known for its dense forest and steep cliffs, and would begin searching for the plane early Monday. Okbape is about 15 miles west of Oksibil.

Much of Papua is covered with impenetrable jungles and mountains. Some planes that have crashed there in the past have never been found. Officials have also asked locals to help in the search.Indonesia has had its share of airline woes in recent years. The sprawling archipelago nation of 250 million people and some 17,000 islands is one of Asia’s most rapidly expanding airline markets, but is struggling to provide enough qualified pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and updated airport technology to ensure safety.

On June 30 of this year,  an Indonesia military transport plane crashed into a residential neighborhood on the island of Sumatra, leaving more than 140 military personnel and families dead. The crash occurred only two minutes after takeoff from Soewondo air force base in Medan headed for Natuna with the plane plowing into a building that contained shops and homes.

From 2007 to 2009, the European Union barred Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe because of safety concerns.

Last December, all 162 people aboard an AirAsia jet were killed when the plane plummeted into the Java Sea as it ran into stormy weather on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to Singapore.

That disaster was one of five suffered by Asian carriers in a 12-month span, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing in March 2014 with 239 people aboard during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

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