CIDAHU, Indonesia (AP) — A helicopter spotted the shattered wreckage Thursday of a new Russian-made passenger plane that crashed into a steep volcano in central Indonesia during a flight to impress potential buyers. There were 45 people on board and no signs of survivors.
Due to the remoteness of the location, bodies will need to be placed into nets and pulled to the hovering chopper by rope.
"From the pictures we're seeing, it looks like it was a total loss," said Daryatmo, chief of the national search and rescue agency, as the first images flashed across local TV.
Contact with the plane was lost Wednesday shortly after it took off from Jakarta carrying representatives from Indonesian airlines. Their family members, many of whom spent a long, sleepless night at the airport, broke down in tears on hearing the news. Others stared blankly ahead in disbelief.
The Sukhoi Superjet-100, Russia's first new passenger jet since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, hit a jagged ridge on top of Mount Salak, a long-dormant volcano. The company's blue-and-white logo could be seen peeking through the stripped treeline.
The Superjet — a 75- to 95-seat plane — was being touted as a challenger to similar-sized jets from Canada's Bombardier Inc. and Brazil's Embraer SA, and potential buyers will scrutinize the crash investigation for signs of flaws in the aircraft.
"If it's a technical fault with the aircraft, then obviously that will be very serious for them," said Tom Ballantyne, a Sydney-based aviation expert. "But if it's pilot error or the fault of air traffic control, it won't be quite so bad because they'll be able to say, 'Well, it's not the airplane'."
The plane left Jakarta's Halim Perdanakusuma Airport early Wednesday afternoon for what was supposed to be a quick demonstration flight — the second of the day.
Twenty-one minutes after takeoff, the crew sought permission to descend from 10,000 feet to 6,000 feet (3,000 meters to 1,800 meters), said Daryatmo, chief of the national search and rescue agency.
The plane then fell off the radar. It was not clear why the Russian pilot and co-pilot asked for the sudden drop, he said, especially when they were so close to the 7,000-foot (2,200-meter) volcano, or if they got the OK.
Communication between pilots and air traffic control are being reviewed, said Tatang Kurniadi, chief of the National Commission on Safety Transportation, but the tapes will not be made public any time soon.
More than 1,000 people, including soldiers and police, took part in the search and rescue efforts. Eventually, helicopters carrying out aerial surveys near the crater and northern slope spotted the wreck.
"They have clear view," said Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for Indonesian search and rescue agencies. "There is no sign of any of the passengers .... We're trying to move in closer to the wreck, but it's reachable only by foot."
The Superjet — developed by the civil aircraft division of Sukhoi with the co-operation with Western partners — has been widely considered Russia's chance to regain a foothold in the international passenger plane market. The country's aerospace industry was badly undermined in the economic turmoil following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The "Welcome Asia!" tour, which also included stops in Pakistan, Myanmar and Kazakhstan, and was supposed to head next to Vietnam and Laos, was intended to drum up support.
All but 10 of the 45 people on board were potential buyers and journalists, said Sunaryo from PT. Trimarga Rekatama, the company that helped organize Wednesday's event, revising the toll downward yet again.
The others were Russians, all from Sukhoi companies, an American consultant with a local airline and a Frenchman with aircraft engine-maker Snecma.
The Superjet made its inaugural commercial flight last year.
"It is their big hope that they will somehow get into the jet aircraft passenger market in a bigger way than they have," Ballantyne said.
"We all know that the Russians have had a dreadful record in the past with their aircraft, so this was vitally important to their industry."
With a relatively low price tag of around $35 million, the plane has garnered around 170 orders. And Indonesia, a sprawling archipelagic nation of 240 million people with a fast-growing middle class, is already one of the biggest customers.
Kartika Airlines and Sky Aviation — among dozens of airlines to have popped up in Indonesia in the last decade to meet the growing demand for cheap air travel — had ordered at least 42.
Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Margie Mason in Hanoi contributed to this report.