Indonesian searchers scaled a steep volcano yesterday to retrieve at least 45 bodies from the jungly terrain where a Russian jet crashed, as questions mounted over how a new plane with a veteran pilot flew into a mountain.
Crews were using climbing equipment, including ropes, to ascend the near-vertical face of Mount Salak and were believed to be about 200m from reaching the first bodies, authorities said.
All aboard the twin-engine Sukhoi Superjet 100 were killed, authorities said on Thursday, a day after the plane slammed into the dormant volcano during a demonstration flight that was meant to spur international sales of Russia’s first post-Soviet civilian jet.
The passenger aircraft descended from 3,000m to 1,800m before slamming into Mount Salak, which juts 2,200m into the sky south of Jakarta, authorities said.
TRICKY AIR CORRIDOR
Controversy swirled over why the 57-year-old, vastly experienced Russian captain descended so low over mountainous terrain. Others questioned whether the jet, which has already experienced some troubles while being flown by flag carrier Aeroflot, encountered an unknown emergency in a tricky air corridor.
“Why did the Sukhoi descend, and who cleared it?” said a headline in the English-language Jakarta Post.
Authorities have only confirmed that the plane descended, without saying whether it was cleared by air traffic control.
The authorities will be keen to locate the plane’s black boxes, which may help resolve the unanswered questions.
Wednesday’s calamity came 50 minutes into a brief flight that was part of an Asian sales tour to promote the aircraft, a joint venture between Sukhoi and Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica, which made its first commercial flight last year.
Gerry Soejatman, an aviation consultant and amateur pilot who is familiar with the air corridor around Mount Salak, said it was not the place for an exhibition flight.
“I don’t recommend the area around Mount Salak for a low-level flight, especially for someone who’s never flown in the area,” he said.
“Very few pilots would actually fly around there without any particular purpose, because of the pass between the mountains, which is open to fast-changing weather conditions,” he said.
In Moscow, investigators have opened a criminal probe to look into possible misconduct during preparations for the flight, as well as the plane’s technical condition before it left Russia.
The loss of the Superjet is a heavy blow to the Russian aviation industry, which was hoping that the new plane would improve its image.
NO SALES SUSPENSION
However, Sukhoi’s agent in Jakarta said there was no talk of suspending sales in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands where air travel and airlines are booming.
Near the crash site, the military commander of the rescue mission said that one team was climbing up from the foot of the mountain, while another was going down from the top.
The difficult terrain, which most days is shrouded in thick fog, has been an extreme challenge to the searchers.
The mist had stopped helicopters from getting close to the area, since a chopper pilot first spotted the wreckage on Thursday morning, authorities said.
“The plane crashed into the mountain and slid 250m down, to 1,800m,” said the commander, Colonel Anton Mukti Putranto.