Investigators confronted another mid-air mystery in the stormy waters of Southeast Asia as the search resumed for a missing airliner carrying 162 people that immediately stirred memories of two ill-fated Malaysian airplanes earlier this year.
This time, officials were more confident of finding Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501, which lost contact with air-traffic controllers Sunday after encountering rough weather during a two-hour flight to Singapore.
As severe monsoon rains lash the region, Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean ships and aircraft were focusing the search in the Java Sea off the island of East Belitung, roughly halfway between Singapore and the aircraft’s point of origin, the Indonesian city of Surabaya, Indonesian news media reported.
“God willing, we can find it soon,” 1st Adm. Sigit Setiayana, the naval aviation center commander at the Surabaya air force base, told the Associated Press.
Setiayana said that 12 navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and several warships had joined the effort Monday, according to the AP. The search was halted due to darkness Sunday evening, 12 hours after the plane lost contact with the ground, as teams faced low visibility due to difficult weather conditions.
Among the 155 passengers were 17 children and one infant, according to an updated statement from AirAsia. The plane was also carrying two pilots, four cabin crew members and an engineer, airline officials said.
Anguished relatives gathered in Surabaya and Singapore’s Changi international airport to await word on their loved ones – a grim replay of the Malaysia Airlines disasters earlier this year in which one commercial aircraft disappeared en route to Beijing and another was shot down months later over war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Astonishingly, this aircraft, too, was connected to Malaysia, which is the headquarters of AirAsia, a low-cost carrier that operates mainly short-haul flights across Southeast Asia and boasts of its 25-minute turnaround time between flights. AirAsia’s Indonesia affiliate has the country’s best safety record, regional aviation experts said.
The airline said the aircraft took off from Surabaya at 5:35 a.m. and was on its scheduled flight path but had requested to deviate “due to en route weather.”
The Indonesian Transport Ministry said the last communication from the Airbus A320-200 jetliner came at 6:12 a.m., when the pilot asked permission to climb to an altitude of 38,000 feet to avoid clouds. Six minutes later, the flight disappeared from radar, according to a timeline the ministry posted on Twitter.
Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, told reporters in Jakarta there was no distress signal from the cockpit, according to Associated Press.
We don’t dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact,” AP quoted Murjatmodjo as saying.
To assist Indonesian search-and-rescue teams, Malaysia’s transport minister said he had dispatched three ships and one aircraft, while Singapore sent a C-130 cargo plane to join the effort.
Southeast Asia, including parts of Indonesia, has been struck by unusually heavy monsoon rains this month that have caused severe flooding and forced nearly 160,000 people to evacuate their homes in Malaysia and Thailand.
Satellite images from Sunday morning showed heavy storms north of Surabaya, although aviation experts say it would be unusual for a lightning strike or severe turbulence to damage a modern commercial aircraft.
“It’s very rare that a plane gets damaged or loses control because of weather these days,” said Gerry Soejatman, an aviation consultant in Jakarta. “If that’s what happened, I doubt the explanation will be that simple. There will have to be a number of factors at play.”
Soejatman cited a picture circulating in online forums of an air traffic control screen showing the AirAsia flight traveling at an altitude of 36,300 feet – and climbing – but with a ground speed of only 353 knots, well below normal. The same image shows a nearby Emirates Airline jet traveling at 36,000 feet at a speed of 503 knots.
Ground speed is different from air speed, which can be affected by elements such as wind, but Soejatman said investigators would be looking into why the AirAsia plane’s speed dropped.
“For the other plane to be flying at 150 knots faster ground speed at that altitude, there is a strong indication that the Airbus speed was low, but we need to look into that further,” he said.
There was also a discrepancy involving the time Flight 8501 went missing. Indonesian authorities told reporters the plane lost contact with the ground at 6:17 a.m. Sunday, but statements by AirAsia on its Facebook page said that occurred later, at 7:24 a.m.
Airbus, the aircraft’s French manufacturer, said in a statement that the twin-engine, single-aisle jet had accumulated approximately 23,000 flight hours in 13,600 flights. The aircraft was delivered to AirAsia from the Airbus production line in October 2008, the company said.
The A320-200 is the only model the airline operates. AirAsia said in a statement that the captain had amassed 6,100 flying hours and the first officer had 2,275 flying hours. The plane had last undergone scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16.
Family members of the passengers – nearly all Indonesian – gathered at a crisis center set up by AirAsia at Juanda international airport in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
Airline and government officials met with the families in Surabaya and also at a similar center at Changi international airport in Singapore, officials said.
“Our main priority is keeping the families of our passengers and colleagues informed on the latest developments,” Sunu Widyatmoko, chief executive of Indonesia AirAsia, said in a statement. “We will do everything possible to support them as the investigation continues and we have already mobilized a support team to help take care of their immediate needs, including accommodation and travel arrangements.”
One family member, identified as Erna W., told the Indonesian news agency Antara that she had four relatives on board.
“I hope I can get information soon on the whereabouts of our family members,” she said through tears, the news agency reported.
The passengers also included three people from South Korea and one each from Malaysia, Singapore and Britain, the airline said. (Initially, AirAsia said a French citizen was aboard but later retracted that.)
AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said he and other senior airline officials were traveling to Surabaya, where most of the passengers were from.
“My only thoughts are with the passengers and my crew,” Fernandes tweeted. “We put our hope in the [search-and-rescue] operation and thank the Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysian governments.”
Fernandes, a colorful former Time Warner executive who counts British tycoon Richard Branson as a mentor, purchased the ailing, deeply indebted carrier from the Malaysian government in 2001. He is credited with turning it into one of the world’s most successful budget airlines and breaking the monopoly of its state-owned rival, Malaysia Airlines.
Experts said there was a greater likelihood of search teams finding this aircraft than the still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in March with 239 people aboard while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. The search for that plane continues off the coast of Australia in deeper and more wide-open waters.
In the second accident this year involving Malaysia Airlines, Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists were to blame.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a Twitter statement that he was “very sad” about the AirAsia flight.
“My thoughts are with the families,” Razak said. “Malaysia stands ready to help.”
President Obama, who was vacationing with his family in Hawaii, was briefed on the missing flight, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
“White House officials will continue to monitor the situation,” Schultz said.
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