CARACAS – A Venezuelan passenger plane with 46 people aboard went missing and likely crashed in a remote mountain region soon after taking off from an Andean city just before dusk on Thursday, authorities said.
Mountain villagers reported hearing a huge noise they thought could be a crash after the twin-engine plane flew out of the high-altitude city of Merida headed for the capital Caracas roughly 300 miles (500 km) away, Civil Defence official Gerardo Rojas said.
“We have information of a possible finding,” said National Civil Defence chief Antonio Rivero, although he added the plane was still officially listed as missing.
“We do not know what condition the passengers are in,” he said.
Operated by local airline Santa Barbara, flight 518 had been out of contact with air traffic controllers for hours by late Thursday and search teams were heading to the rugged mountain region where the plane was thought to have come down.
Advance rescue teams travelled toward the Paramo Mifafi valley, a chilly area in a region of some snow-capped peaks of up to 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) that is home to condors and hiking routes that make it popular with backpacker tourists.
Weather conditions and visibility were described as optimum at the time of take off by one air rescue official. He said teams would search by foot until first light, when two helicopters would be dispatched.
Venezuela’s civil aviation authority said the plane was carrying 43 passengers and three crew members. The passenger list included a well-known Venezuelan political analyst and relatives of a senior government official, authorities said.
Family members who had waited for their loved ones to arrive in Caracas received help from state psychologists to deal with anxiety.
The head of Santa Barbara, a small Venezuelan airline that covers domestic routes and has seven Merida flights a day, said the roughly 20-year-old plane was well maintained and had no record of technical problems.
The pilot had worked with the airline for eight years and received special training for flying in the Andes. Santa Barbara President Jorge Alvarez told television station Globovision.
“I have to believe the pilot was certainly both competent and well-suited” for the flight, he said.
Early editions of most Venezuelan newspapers splashed news of the missing plane on their front pages, with some reporting villagers saying they saw the aircraft crash.
The plane was an ATR 42-300, a turboprop plane built by French-Italian company ATR, the civil aviation authority said in a statement.
The ATR 42 series has been involved in at least 17 accidents since the plane first flew in 1984, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a private air safety monitoring agency.
Thursday’s was the second serious incident involving a Venezuelan flight in Venezuela this year after a plane carrying 14 people, including eight Italians and one Swiss passenger, crashed into the sea close to a group of Venezuelan islands in January.