Indonesian Plane Was Ferrying Half a Million in Cash

Indonesia airliner

Airliner image Trigana Air/Map courtesy of Google Earth

Indonesian Plane Was Ferrying Half a Million in Cash
| published August 17, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

At first glance, the story seems like the plot to a fictional crime-adventure movie. An airplane with 54 people aboard drifts off course over dense, remote jungles—some of the most impenetrable lush tropical forests in the world—with officials at first concluding that the plane went down in a heavy fog bank roiling near a mountain range. But there’s a catch. On board that small passenger plane were four armed postal officials and/or government agents carrying four duffle bags loaded with cash…a half million dollars in small bills.

And the plane has gone down in a jungle so inaccessible that few crashed airplanes have ever been found. A day after the crash, officials say they have found the plane, but then, hours later, they demure, saying that they have no sighting of the plane.

But it is no fiction tale, nor is it a film screenplay. Last weekend’s crash of an Trigana Air Service ATR42-300 twin turboprop in Indonesia has been a disaster for families whose loved ones are now missing in the rugged jungle near the border with Papua New Guinea. Adding to the humanitarian pain is the fact that those missing bags held $468,750, apparently being sent to remote rural areas impacted by food shortages and rising energy taxes in Indonesia.

The plane was flying from Jayapura to the small town of Oksibil when it reported encountering clouds and fog, or both. Though no distress call went out, the plane disappeared from radar a few minutes after the pilot reported low visibility.

The wreckage was at first believed to have been located from the air by rescue helicopters, but then, after a few hours, the government of Indonesia said the location of the smoldering debris had been lost. Searches were called off late Sunday due to darkness and inclement weather. On Monday, a new sighting of an apparently new debris field was identified and photographed in eastern Indonesia. Photos taken by search planes and helicopters show what appears to be a narrow field of smoking materials and small objects barely visible through the lush canopy of jungle growth. If this is indeed the debris of the ATR42-300, it is only about 12 km from the town of Oksibil, which was the plane’s destination. The crash site is in the dense jungles of the Papua Province.

The bags of cash were apparently being transported from the postal service to post offices in the region around Oksibil, part of a program to help those struggling with a recent increase in the cost of home and vehicular fuel. Indonesia recently imposed a large new tax on every liter of fuel sold—part of a revenue enhancement program to boost government revenue. The humanitarian aid was drawn from accounts in the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Indonesian officials said that spotter planes sighted the wreckage in an area which—though it is relatively close to Oksibil in terms of distance—may still require searchers and investigators to travel by foot through extremely dense jungle to reach the crash site.

According to airline officials, all passengers and crew members aboard the flight are Indonesian. The crash comes just days ahead of celebrations to mark Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands. The cash was to be handed over at a ceremony coinciding with the independence festivals and commemorations.

Investigators in Indonesia and with other international agencies have not made any specific comment regarding the large sums of cash aboard the flight, other than the total amount in the bags and the apparent humanitarian intention of the money. Lacking closer analysis of the wreckage and the debris field, investigators are unwilling to suggest a link between the cash and the plane crash, which the airline has so far indicated may have been the result of bad weather. Along with heavy fog and cloud cover, the plane may have flown directly into heavy thunderstorms in the minutes before air traffic controller lost contact with the passenger flight.

Indonesia has faced a troublesome period with plane safety in recent years. As recently as December of 2014 an Air Asia jetliner with 162 passengers and crew went down in the Java Sea on a flight from Surbaya to Singapore. Indonesia, which is made up of tens of thousands of islands spread out over thousands of miles, relies on air travel more than many countries. Islands once accessible only by boat or ferry are now connected through a modern new set of small airports and airfields covering a large percentage of the island chain. Indonesia’s rapidly-expanding air travel market has, however, come under fire for not being able to attract sufficient numbers of qualified pilots and air traffic system operators.