Indonesia rescuers head to mountains to search for plane

JAYAPURA, Indonesia -- Search planes were hunting Monday for an airliner carrying 54 people that went missing during a short flight in bad weather in Indonesia's mountainous easternmost province of Papua, with rescuers heading to an area where villagers reported seeing a plane crash into a mountain.

The Trigana Air Service plane was flying from Papua's provincial capital, Jayapura, to the Papua city of Oksibil on Sunday when it lost contact with Oksibil's airport, said Transportation Ministry spokesman Julius Barata.

There was no indication the pilot had made a distress call, he said.

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

At least seven planes were searching near Mount Tangok early today after residents of Okbape village in Papua's Bintang district told police they saw a plane flying low before crashing into the mountain, said Ludiyanto, who leads the search-and-rescue operation from Jayapura.

Ludiyanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said rugged, forested terrain and bad weather prevented about 100 rescuers from reaching the site by foot, and no trace of the plane has been seen because cloudy and foggy conditions limited visibility.

Media reports said all the passengers are Indonesians.

The airline has not released a passenger manifest.

Oksibil, which is 175 miles south of Jayapura, was experiencing heavy rain, strong winds and fog when the plane lost contact with the airport minutes before it was scheduled to land, said Susanto, leader of Papua's search and rescue agency.

Okbape is 15 miles west of Oksibil.

A plane was sent Sunday to look for the missing airliner, but the search was suspended because of darkness and limited visibility.

Much of Papua is covered with impenetrable jungle and mountains. Some planes that have crashed there in the past never have been found.

Dudi Sudibyo, an aviation analyst, said Papua is a particularly dangerous place to fly because of its mountainous terrain and rapidly changing weather patterns.

"I can say that a pilot who is capable of flying there will be able to fly an aircraft in any part of the world," he said.

European plane maker ATR said in a statement late Sunday it "acknowledges the reported loss of contact" with the Trigana flight "and is standing by to support the relevant aviation authorities."

ATR, based in Toulouse, France, makes regional planes with 90 seats or less.

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.

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.

Trigana Air Service, which commenced operations in 1991, had 22 aircraft as of December 2013 and flies to 21 destinations in Indonesia.