A helicopter which sent out a distress signal in poor weather was feared to have crashed in Papua New Guinea’s rugged highlands, with two Australians and a New Zealander on board.
Hevilift, a Singapore-based air charter company catering to mining and energy operators, said the Bell 206 went missing on Friday afternoon in the mountainous Southern Highlands region with two pilots and an engineer on board.
The chopper had issued a mayday call five minutes after taking off from an InterOil drill rig in conditions of low cloud and reduced visibility.
“Aircraft in the vicinity heard the distress call from the helicopter,” Hevilift said.
“A localized search using Hevilift helicopters ... commenced immediately, but deteriorating weather meant the helicopters were unable to search for long before the weather and last light closed down the search,” the company said.
Efforts resumed at first light, but Hevilift said the helicopter was yet to be found, and no rescue beacon signals had been detected from the “thickly forested” region where it was believed to have gone down.
Seven helicopters were involved in yesterday’s hunt, along with a Dornier 328 fixed-wing airplane dispatched from Australia, which was specially equipped to pick up electronic signals.
PNG and Australian military aircraft, as well as commercial helicopters and aircraft from other local companies like Exxon Mobil PNG, helped with the search. Hevilift said weather conditions were “favorable.”
PNG aviation officials said the helicopter was thought to have gone down at Kikori, a densely wooded and oil-rich settlement at the head of the Gulf of Papua.
“It was coming in from InterOil, one of the sites, into [Mount] Hagen and halfway through Hagen it actually went down,” aviation authority spokesman Yaqub Amaki told ABC Radio of the missing aircraft.
“At the moment we don’t know the status of the three,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Taylor, PNG adviser to the New Zealand Defence Force, said the search would be difficult given the rugged terrain, which he likened to “a jungle version of the Southern Alps.”
“To the best of my knowledge there’s been no word received from the crash site that would indicate survivors,” Taylor told the APNZ news service.
Taylor said there were a large number of aircraft in the area transporting ballot boxes, papers and officials for the ongoing national elections, and “some of those will be able to be used for searching for the wreckage.”