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Search stepped up for missing plane in western Russia

Posted on Jun 19, 10:06AM | BNO News

SEROV, RUSSIA: Hundreds of people joined a massive search operation on Monday to find a small plane which vanished after an unauthorized take-off from a small airport in western Russia last week, officials said. As many as thirteen people are believed to be on board.

Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev ordered search efforts to be stepped up on Monday, nearly a week after the aircraft disappeared. He instructed authorities in the region to ensure an uninterrupted supply of aviation fuel to allow the six planes currently involved in the search-and-rescue operation to carry out their task.

The office of Kuivashev said the search area covers an estimated 160,000 square kilometers (61,775 square miles), of which more than 50,000 square kilometers (19,305 square miles) were already inspected from aircraft by early Monday evening. Funds necessary to continue the search will be taken from the regional reserve fund, the office said.

Six aircraft and more than 280 vehicles were involved in the search as of Monday, but Russia's air transport agency Rosaviatsia has asked the military to join the efforts. The number of people involved in the operation has increased to more than 1,000, including police forces, forest rangers and groups of volunteers.

The single-engine Antonov An-2 aircraft went missing at around 11 p.m. local time on June 11 when it took off without permission from air traffic control from a small airstrip in Serov, a mining town in Sverdlovsk Oblast. The small plane had been leased by its owner to monitor forest fires in the region and took off without its co-pilot and mechanic, adding to the mystery.

"The absence of the aircraft was discovered by the co-pilot and mechanic after they returned from a short trip to the town of Serov," a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said on June 12. The agency launched a criminal investigation last week on charges of violations of air traffic safety and aircraft operation rules resulting in the deaths of more than two people.

It continues to be unclear how many people were on board the aircraft when it took off, but officials believe at least seven people and as many as thirteen people were on board. Among those confirmed to be on board are the pilot, the head of Serov traffic police, a traffic police officer, a private security guard, and a security guard for the airstrip.

It also remains unclear why the aircraft suddenly took off from the airstrip, but Interior Ministry officials have called on journalists to avoid speculation. Russia's Investigative Committee previously said it was considering a number of possibilities, including a technical fault, a hijacking, bad weather conditions and other violations of aviation rules.

"Relatives of the missing passengers resent that some media in the pursuit of imaginary sensations, which offend their feelings, are describing what cannot be known at this point," an Interior Ministry spokesperson said on Monday. "The group of relatives are appealing to journalists to not jump the gun and not make hasty conclusions but instead wait for the results of the official investigation."

Last week, the Moscow Times and other Russian media outlets reported that some officials believed the aircraft may have been hijacked by drunken revelers to celebrate the extended holiday weekend with a fishing trip. But officials have rejected these reports and said it is not possible to know whether the passengers or crew were drunk when they took off.

The Antonov An-2 is a single-engine light utility transport biplane usually used for agricultural work.