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Wreckage of Russian Aircraft Found in Indonesia

Published: May 10, 2012 | 8:05 am
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MOSCOW — The wreckage of a demonstration airplane for a Russian-made passenger jet that vanished on Wednesday during a 50-minute flight over Indonesia was found on Thursday on the side of a mountain volcano shrouded in mist.

There were no signs of survivors among the 50 people, including crew members, journalists and airline representatives, aboard the plane, the Sukhoi Superjet 100, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Search and Rescue National Agency told The Associated Press.

In a televised address on Thursday, the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said investigators were on their way to the site of the crash.

“We don’t know what has happened, so rescue efforts for survivors is the priority,” he said.

Around 750 search and rescue personnel have been dispatched to the scene to search for survivors, though the team is likely to take several hours to reach the location given the steep slope of the mountain and rugged terrain on the slopes of Salak Mountain on the island of Java.

The fate of the jetliner — the first new model to be produced in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union — was a crushing blow to a national aerospace industry eager for revival.

The Superjet took off from Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Wednesday afternoon for its second demonstration flight of the day. It disappeared from radar screens and lost contact with ground controllers about 20 minutes later after requesting permission to descend to 6,000 feet from 10,000 feet over the mountainous terrain of West Java.

A resident near Mount Salak, named Juanda, said he heard the sound of a rumbling engine on Wednesday and saw a plane that seemed to veering to one side. “Salak Mountain was not visible because a lot of dark fog,” he told local media.

The mountain frequently experiences bad weather and heavy fog.

This prevented search parties from locating the plane on Wednesday. When the weather cleared on Thursday, search helicopters spotted the wreckage on the side of a cliff about 5,000 feet up Mount Salak, Maj. Ali Umri Lubis of the Indonesian Air Force told MetroTV.

The Superjet carried much of Russia’s hope for reinvigorating an industry with a storied history of accomplishment. Its loss will deepen the malaise in an industry whose safety problems, breakdowns and lethal crashes have made it hard to sell planes outside the former Soviet Union, Iran, Cuba and parts of Africa.

It also casts a pall over a week of celebrations of Vladimir V. Putin’s third inauguration as president. The loss occurred just as Russia’s leaders were overseeing the lavish yearly display of military might to commemorate Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Superjet 100 was produced by the government-controlled Sukhoi company, which is far better known for its fighter planes. Senior officials from Russia’s trade ministry and aviation safety agency and Sukhoi’s top managers left Moscow for Indonesia on Wednesday afternoon, the company announced.

“They have to clear this up very, very fast in terms of causes,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group consultancy in Fairfax, Va. “This plane had given the Russians hope that they could resurrect some of what they once had.”

At $31.7 million, the Superjet’s price was one-third cheaper than comparable short-hop jets produced in Canada, and the company had said it hoped to sell 1,000 over the next two decades.

Last week, Sukhoi began a six-nation road show of presentations to Asian airline executives and had already made stops in Myanmar, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. Wednesday’s flight in Indonesia was to have been followed by visits to Laos and Vietnam. Sergei Dolya, a photographer with the tour who was not on the flight, posted images of flight attendants pouring Champagne and of himself dressed as Neptune, with a beard and trident, greeting passengers.

Superjet said that the aircraft had gone through a preflight check and that a first demonstration flight on Wednesday morning “went without technical problems.” The aircraft did not report any failure before disappearing from radar screens, according to a statement posted online. It said the aircraft had completed 500 flights without any reports of serious technical problems.

Until a crash inquiry is done, analysts said, Sukhoi will have difficulty marketing the Superjet. “It would be entirely understandable for any potential customer to hold off until it’s determined whether the cause was human error or mechanical failure,” said Sash Tusa of Echelon Research and Advisory in London.

While it is rare for such a young aircraft to crash, it is not unprecedented — an Airbus 320 crashed during a demonstration flight in 1988, killing three people and injuring 50. Investigators determined that the cause had been pilot error and found no evidence of a malfunction. The A320 went on to be one of the world’s best-selling aircraft models.

If analysts identify human error as the cause of the plane’s crash, most of the existing 240 Superjet orders will stay on the books, Mr. Tusa said, but “if it turns out there is some kind of major design flaw with the aircraft, those orders aren’t worth the paper they are written on.”

The Superjet seemed afflicted with troubles from early on.

The first Superjet to enter commercial service last year with Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, was grounded because of a breakdown of a meter that detects leaks in pipes that funnel fresh air into the cabin.

As the Superjet entered production, the Russian television station NTV reported that 70 employees at the manufacturing plant had obtained fake engineering diplomas by bribing a local technical college. Sukhoi said they were not directly involved in assembling the planes.

Russian jets have had a rough spell recently, making the sales pitch for the Sukhoi Superjet even more difficult. There have been a series of disasters involving Tupolevs, which are made by another division of United Aircraft Corporation, Sukhoi’s parent company.

Analysts said such crashes involving Soviet-era planes were an unfortunate reminder of the reputational hurdles that Sukhoi faces in persuading airlines — a conservative customer base by nature — to take a chance on a Russian-built plane.

“One of the strongest barriers to new entrants in aviation is that Airbus and Boeing have such an incredibly long and strong safety record,” said Mr. Tusa, of Echelon Research. “Unfortunately, old Russian aircraft operated by Russian airlines is sometimes a fairly unfortunate combination.”


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