CIDAHU, INDONESIA // Rescuers discovered bodies yesterday near the shattered wreckage of a new Russian-made passenger plane that smashed into the steep side of an Indonesian volcano during a flight to impress potential buyers. All 45 people on board were feared dead.
Due to the remoteness of the crash site, the bodies will need to be placed in nets and lifted by ropes to a hovering chopper, national search and rescue agency spokesman Gagah Prakoso said. The bodies from Wednesday's crash were to be flown to the capital, Jakarta, for identification by family members.
"So far we haven't found any survivors, but we are still searching," he said. "I cannot say anything about the condition of the bodies," Mr Prakoso said, but he added that: "A high speed jet plane hit the cliff, exploded and tore apart."
Authorities had lost contact with the Sukhoi Superjet-100 shortly after it took off from a Jakarta airfield carrying mostly representatives from Indonesian airlines. Family members, many of whom spent a long, sleepless night at the airport, broke down in tears on hearing news of the wreckage. Others stared blankly ahead in disbelief.
The plane, 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, leaving a giant earthy gash along the steep slope as it stripped trees.
The Superjet - a 75-to 95-seater - has been touted as a challenger to similar-sized aircrafts from Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer.
Potential buyers will scrutinize the crash investigation for signs of flaws in the aircraft.
"If it's a technical fault ... 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 aeroplane'."
The plane took off early Wednesday afternoon for what was supposed to be a quick demonstration flight - the second of the day.
Just 21 minutes later, the Russian pilot and co-pilot sought permission to descend from 3,000 metres to 1,800 metres, said Daryatmo, chief of the national search and rescue agency.
The plane then fell off the radar. It was not clear why the crew asked for the shift in course, he said, especially when they were so close to the 2,200-metre 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.
The Superjet - developed by the civil aircraft division of Sukhoi in 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.
It was on a "Welcome Asia!" tour, which included stops in Pakistan, Myanmar and Kazakhstan, and was supposed to head next to Vietnam and Laos.
All but 10 of the 45 people on board were potential buyers and journalists, said Sunaryo from PT Trimarga Rekatama, the company that helped organise Wednesday's event.
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," Mr 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 US$35 million (Dh128.6m), 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.