PORT MORESBY — A small passenger plane carrying 13 people including nine Australians went missing over Papua New Guinea Tuesday and was feared to have crashed, the airline and Australian officials said.
The 20-seater Twin Otter craft disappeared at 10:53 am (0053 GMT) en route to popular tourist destination Kokoda after taking off from the South Pacific nation’s capital Port Moresby.
“As time passes it looks more (likely) that it will be an accident,” Airlines PNG official Allen Tyson told AFP, adding that search operations were being hampered by bad weather.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said there were nine Australians, three Papua New Guineans and a Japanese citizen on board, and he held “grave fears” for their safety amid reports of a crash.
“Going on the advice and information from local people and local villagers there’s a suggestion that in the general vicinity a crash may have occurred,” Smith said in Canberra.
“PNG Airlines and the PNG authorities are proceeding on the basis that they have narrowed the search area to a possible crash site,” he added.
The aircraft had lost radio contact with ground control about 10 minutes before their scheduled landing, officials said, and no signal had been received from the aircraft’s emergency locator beacon.
The group were reportedly members of a Melbourne-based trekking group, No Roads Expeditions, and were en route to Kokoda, site of a hiking trail and World War II battle involving Australian troops.
“These passengers include a tour group of eight Australians on their way to walk the Kokoda Track, as well as an Australian tour guide and one tour guide from Papua New Guinea,” No Roads told the AAP newswire.
“The Australians were travelling as part of a tour organised by No Roads Expeditions.”
Smith said there had been no sign of the plane by nightfall, and a “substantially enhanced search and rescue effort” would begin at first light with the assistance of half a dozen Australian army and maritime rescue aircraft.
“The plane is still missing at the conclusion of the search tonight, the search has been hampered by very bad and inclement weather, and of course it’s now dark in PNG,” he said.
Low visibility had hindered Tuesday’s search, which was also over particularly dense and rugged terrain in the Owen Stanley mountain range north of Port Moresby, he said.
Airline official Tyson said helicopters and other aircraft had combed the area without success.
“Bad weather is hindering the search and rescue into the area so at this stage we still can’t confirm whether it’s an accident or if the aircraft has potentially landed elsewhere and is unable to contact us,” Tyson said.
“We have a number of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in the area trying to find the aircraft so at this stage we’re still unable to confirm whether it is actually an accident.”
At least 19 planes have crashed since 2000 in Papua New Guinea, whose rugged terrain and lack of internal connecting roads make air travel crucial for its six million citizens.
Australian pilots died in crashes in PNG in July 2004, February 2005 and October 2006.
Reports that corruption and a lack of funding had led to a sharp decline in safety standards prompted the establishment of an air accident investigation commission last year.