Cidahu, Indonesia. The crash of a new, Russian-made jetliner into a jagged, Indonesian volcano during a flight to impress potential buyers threw doubt on dozens of plane sales Thursday just as Moscow seeks a comeback in foreign markets. All 45 people aboard were feared dead.
Search and rescue teams trudged and climbed through the mist-shrouded, jungle terrain for nearly 20 hours before reaching the site where the plane roared in at nearly 480 mph (800 kph) on Wednesday, blowing apart and raining debris down a nearly vertical slope.
When weather clears, the bodies will have to be hoisted by nets and ropes onto hovering choppers, said Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for the national search and rescue agency.
“We’re still searching for survivors,” he said. “But it doesn’t look good.”
The Sukhoi Superjet-100 — Russia’s first new model of passenger jet since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago — was supposed to kickstart the nation’s efforts to modernize its fleet and resurrect its long-abandoned aerospace industry.
Indonesia, the fourth stop of a six-nation tour of Asia aimed up drumming up support, was one of Sukhoi’s biggest hopes, accounting for a big chunk of the 170 orders taken globally so far.
Kartika Airlines, Sky Aviation and Queen Air — among dozens of airlines to have popped up in the nation of 240 million in the last decade to meet the growing demand for cheap air travel — have expressed interest in buying a total of 48.
“Our plan is to order 30 planes, gradually until 2014, to strengthen our fleet,” said Arifin Seman, one of the top executives at Kartika. “But we will wait for the result of the investigation … before making any further decisions.”
Others, too, were being cautious.
“It’s too early to say,” said Krisman Tarigan, president director of Sky, which has placed orders for 12. “But we wouldn’t rule out cancellation … if it turned out the crash occurred because the plane was not airworthy.”
The ill-fated Superjet was carrying dozens of representatives from local airlines and journalists on what was supposed to be a quick, 50-minute demonstration flight Wednesday. Some excited passengers snapped pictures of themselves smiling and waving in front of the twin-engine jet before lifting off, then quickly posting them as profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter.
Just 21 minutes after takeoff from a Jakarta airfield, however, the Russian pilot and co-pilot asked for permission to drop 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.
They gave no explanation, disappearing from the radar immediately afterward.
It was not clear why the crew asked to shift course, he said, especially when they were so close to the 7,000-foot (2,200-meter) volcano, or if they got an OK.
Communication tapes will be reviewed as part of the investigation. It’s unlikely they will be released to the public any time soon.
The plane, with a relatively low price tag of around $35 million, seats between 70 to 98 people and has an operating range of around 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers).
It is seen as a potential challenger to similar-sized aircrafts from Canada’s Bombardier Inc. and Brazil’s Embraer SA.
Potential buyers will scrutinize the crash investigation for signs of flaws in the aircraft, said Tom Ballantyne, a Sydney-based aviation expert.
“If it’s a technical fault … then obviously that will be very serious for them,” he said. “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 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.”
All but 10 of the 45 people on board the plane Wednesday were potential buyers and journalists, said Sunaryo from Trimarga Rekatama, the company that helped organize the event.
The others were Russians, all from Sukhoi companies, an American consultant with a local airline and a Frenchman with aircraft engine-maker Snecma.