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Bad weather hampering search for missing Russian plane

May 9, 2012 | 11:05 am

Passenger's relative

Bad weather forced 200 Indonesian rescue workers to fan out on foot across a mountainous area east of Jakarta on Wednesday in search of a Russian passenger plane that went missing on a demonstration flight and was presumed to have crashed, Russian and Indonesian authorities said.

The flight -- intended to promote the sale of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 -- was carrying at least 44 people, including eight Russians and 36 airline and aviation officials, the Voice of Russia news site reported, quoting an unnamed Russian diplomat in Jakarta. Most of the passengers were Indonesian, it said; one was an American.

Indonesian media reports put the number on board as high as 50, noting that there were "other guests" taken on the flight.

Air traffic controllers lost radio contact with the plane about 20 minutes into its flight, a source in the Russian United Aircraft Building Corp., the plane's manufacturer, told the Itar-Tass news agency. The pilot had just asked for and been granted permission to descend from 10,000 feet to 6,000 feet, and disappeared off radar screens when it reached 6,200 feet altitude, Indonesia aviation officials reported.

The SSJ-100 had conducted two other demonstration flights around Jakarta earlier Wednesday for prospective buyers as part of a six-country Asian tour, according to Russian media reports.

Two rescue helicopters were dispatched shortly after the plane went missing just before 3 p.m. but had to return to the Jakarta airport because of bad weather. The Indonesian national search and rescue agency then sent soldiers and rescue workers in vehicles to approach the suspected crash site around Salak mountain, rescue agency spokesman Gagah Prakoso told reporters in Jakarta.

"We suspect the plane crashed, but we're not yet certain," the agency's chief, Marsdya Daryatmo, told reporters hours after the plane disappeared and darkness fell, further frustrating the search for the aircraft and possible survivors, Agence France-Presse reported.

The SSJ-100, developed by the Sukhoi company in conjunction with Italy's Alenia Aeronautica, has been Moscow's bid for a share of the promising aircraft market in Southeast Asia, where medium-haul planes carry many of the domestic passengers between the islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and other archipelago nations.

Russia has exported only one of the 100-passenger Superjets so far, to Armenia, but had announced plans to deliver others to Mexico, Indonesia and Laos later this year. Ten of the new aircraft are also destined for Russia's domestic carrier Aeroflot, the manufacturer reported in February, when it said it had 200 firm orders for the SSJ-100s.

"Preparations before the flight were carried out in full, and technically the plane was in perfect condition," a source at the Russian Ministry of Industry and Commerce was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency.


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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: A relative of a passenger on the missing Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft waits for word at Halim Perdana Kusuma Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Wednesday. Credit: Mast Irham / EPA