The RAF is helping search for a missing Chilean air force plane that had 38 people on board, the Ministry of Defence has said.

The C-130 Hercules, which was carrying 17 crew and 21 passengers, went missing less than two hours after taking off from the southern city of Punta Arenas on Monday afternoon.

It was flying over the notoriously turbulent area of Drake Passage and heading to Antarctica when contact was lost.

The C-130 had 38 people on board. Chilean air force file photo
Image: The C-130 Hercules had 38 people on board. Pic: Chilean air force file photo

On Wednesday, the Chilean military asked the RAF for assistance and an A400M aircraft was deployed from the Falkland Islands.

A liaison team of military and civilian personnel was also sent.

An RAF A400 aircraft takes flight on route to Chile
Image: The aircraft will conduct its first reconnaissance flight on Thursday
The aircraft arrived in Chile to assist in the rescue and search operation on Wednesday
Image: The plane arrived in Chile on Wednesday

The aircraft will carry out its first reconnaissance flight in support of the Chilean search effort on Thursday.

Teams will scan an area of roughly 70,000 square miles using planes, satellites and ships, including vessels from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and the US.

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Rescue apparatus on board the RAF aircraft
Image: Rescue apparatus s being carried on the RAF aircraft

Debris from the aircraft was earlier believed to have been found floating in the water around 30km (18 miles) from its last known location.

Analysis of the debris, said to be “sponge” material, will take a few days but General Eduardo Mosqueira said it could be from the plane’s fuel tanks.

Met Office staff based in the Falkland Islands are providing weather information to the Chilean military as the search continues.

Helicopters and planes are being used in the search
Image: Helicopters, boats, satellites and planes are being used in the search

Ed Coleman, a pilot and expert from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said the route was treacherous because of rapidly changing weather in the Antarctic.

He explained: “You can have a clear sky one minute, and in a short time later storms can be building up making it a challenge, which causes bigger swells and rougher air.”