AirAsia plane carrying 162 disappears over stormy Indonesian waters
Indonesia and Singapore have launched a search and rescue operation after an AirAsia flight carrying 162 passengers disappeared over the Java Sea early Sunday.
Indonesian officials tell Fox News that the air search has been suspended for the night and will resume Monday morning local time.
Achmad Toha told The Associated Press that the planes involved in the search returned to their base Sunday evening, but that some ships were still in the area where the plane lost contact with air traffic control. The air search was set to resume at 6 a.m. Monday.
Flight 8501 was scheduled to make a relatively short early-morning flight from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore but lost contact with Jakarta air traffic control at 6:24 a.m. local time (6:24 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday), approximately an hour before it was due to land.
Eleven minutes earlier, according to Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, the pilot had “asked to hinder cloud by turning left and go higher to 34,000 feet.” Murjatmodjo said that there was no distress signal from the plane. AirAsia Indonesia had earlier confirmed that the pilot had asked to change course due to bad weather in the area.
“We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it,” Murjatmodjo told reporters. “We don’t dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact.”
Flight 8501 was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m., and a minute later was no longer there, he added.
“This is my worst nightmare,” AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes said in a tweet. Earlier, Fernandes, the face of the company and an active Twitter user, sent out a tweet that said: “Thank you for all your thoughts and prays[sic]. We must stay strong.” He also tweeted that he was heading to Surabaya.
Sunardi, a weather forecaster at the Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency who uses only one name, told the Associated Press that dense storm clouds were detected up to 44,000 feet in the same area at the time the plane was reported to have lost contact.
“There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds,” he said.
The single-aisle Airbus A320-200 had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement. Among the passengers were three South Koreans and one each from Singapore and Malaysia. The rest were Indonesians.
The airline’s statement added that the plane’s captain had a total of 6,100 flying hours, while the first officer had flown 2,275 hours.
At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed. As word spread, more and more family members were arriving at the crisis center to await word.
Flightradar24, a flight tracking website, said the plane was delivered in September 2008, which would make it six years old. It said the plane was flying at 32,000 feet, the regular cruising altitude for most jetliners, when the signal from the plane was lost. AirAsia said that the plane had undergone its last scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16.
Murjatmodjo, the Indonesian official, said the plane is believed to have vanished somewhere over the Java Sea between Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island and Pontianak, on Indonesia’s part of Kalimantan island.
Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters in Surabaya that the position was believed to be near the coast line. He said search and rescue efforts now involved the Indonesian army, the national Search and Rescue Agency as well as Singapore and Malaysia. The Search and Rescue Agency’s operation chief, Maj. Gen. Tatang Zaenudin, said 200 rescuers had been deployed to the east side of Belitung island.
Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said three aircraft, including a surveillance plane, had been dispatched to the area. The Singapore air force and the navy also were searching with two C-130 planes.
The Singapore aviation authority said it was informed about the missing plane by Jakarta ground control about half an hour after the contact was lost.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, expressed solidarity with AirAsia. In a tweet he said: “Very sad to hear that AirAsia Indonesia QZ8501 is missing. My thoughts are with the families. Malaysia stands ready to help.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement that President Obama had briefed about the missing flight and officials would continue to monitor the situation.
According to the website FlightAware.com, Flight QZ8501 was scheduled to depart from Juanda International Airport, near Surabaya on the Indonesian island of East Java at 5:30 a.m. local time, with arrival in Singapore scheduled for 8:20 a.m. Singapore time (7:20 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday). It had last flown the route on Dec. 26.
The Airbus A320 is a workhorse of modern aviation. Similar to the Boeing 737, it is used to connect cities anywhere from one to five hours apart. There are currently 3,606 A320s in operation worldwide, according to Airbus. The A320 family of jets, which includes A319 and A321, has a very good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a safety study published by Boeing in August.
AirAsia, which has a presence in several Southeast Asian countries, has never lost a plane before. AirAsia Malaysia owns 49 percent of the Indonesian subsidiary. The airline typically flies short routes of just a few hours, connecting large cities of Southeast Asia. However, recently it has tried to expand into long-distance flying through its sister airline AirAsia X.
Earlier this year, national carrier Malaysia Airlines lost two planes. Flight MH370 vanished on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board. On July 17, Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
William Waldock, an expert on air crash search and rescue with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, cautioned against drawing comparisons to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“I think we have to let this play out,” he said. “Hopefully, the airplane will get found, and if that happens, it will probably be in the next few hours. Until then, we have to reserve judgment.”
The circumstances bode well for finding the plane since the intended flight time was less than two hours and there is a known position at which the plane disappeared, he said.