CARACAS, Feb 21 (Reuters) - A Venezuelan commercial plane with up to 46 people aboard went missing and may have crashed on Thursday soon after taking off from an Andean mountain city just before dusk, authorities said.
The plane operated by local airline Santa Barbara flew out of the high-altitude city of Merida headed for the capital Caracas roughly 300 miles (500 km) away. By late Thursday it had been out of contact with air traffic controllers for hours.
Mountain villagers reported hearing a huge noise, which might have been caused by the plane crashing, so search teams were heading to the remote zone, Gerardo Rojas, a regional civil defense official chief, said in a telephone interview.
The civil aviation authority said the plane was carrying 43 passengers and three crew members, although other reports said there were 45 people on board.
National Civil Defense chief Antonio Rivero said despite teams scouring where the plane was suspected to have crashed, the aircraft was still officially listed only as missing.
“This causes a lot of fear, a lot of pain,” he said.
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 passenger plane 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. There were no survivors. (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Saul Hudson and Ana Isabel Martinez; writing by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Mohammad Zargham)