Malaysian plane missing over Indonesia's Java Sea

Malaysian plane missing over Indonesia's Java Sea
4 min read
28 December, 2014
An AirAsia plane disappears flying between Indonesia and Singapore, with 162 people on board.
Air traffic control say that the plane disappeared off the radars near Belitung Island [AFP-Getty].

A massive sea search is underway after an AirAsia plane went missing on Sunday while flying from Indonesia to Singapore, with 162 people on board.

The Airbus A320 plane is thought to have travelled through airspace thick with dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning, officials said.

AirAsia is based in Malaysia, and this incident is the third to involve a Malaysian airliner this year, after the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people on board, and the shooting down over Ukraine of the same airline's Flight 17, which killed all 298 people on board.

Family members of those on board AirAsia Flight 8501 have gathered at Surabaya airport, where the plane took off, awaiting any news. The airport serves Indonesia’s second largest city.

A search and rescue operation has been launched by both Indonesia and Singapore, which has concentrated on the area near Belitung island in the Java Sea, where contact was last established with the jetliner. 200 rescuers have been deployed to the east side of the island, as well as three aircraft, including a surveillance plane.

The search was halted for the day at 5:30 p.m. local time (10:30 GMT) because of a lack of visibility. It will resume at 7 a.m. in the morning.

Contact was lost 42 minutes into the flight, a little less than half of its journey time to Singapore.

"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," Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia's acting director general of transportation, told reporters.

"We don't dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact."

Murtjatmodjo said the last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6:13 a.m. (23:13 GMT Saturday) when the pilot "asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet (10,360 metres)."

"It was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m., and a minute later was no longer there," he said.

Murtjatmodjo said that there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.

     Murtjatmodjo said that there was no distress signal from the cockpit.

It is normal procedure for planes to climb higher to avoid bad weather.

The plane itself is six years old, and had accumulated 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights. AirAsia said the aircraft had last undergone scheduled maintenance on November 16.

AirAsia is a successful regional budget airline, founded in 2001. It has never lost a plane before and has a good safety track record.

Its founder, Malaysia businessman Tony Fernandes, said in a statement that the plane was on the submitted flight plan route.  However, it had requested deviation due to weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of Indonesian Air Traffic Control.

According to Sunardi, a weather forecaster at the Indonesian Meteorology and Geophysics Agency who uses only one name, 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 majority of the passengers and crew were Indonesian, and foreigners on board included South Koreans, a Singaporean, a Malaysian, a Briton, and the co-pilot, who was French.

16 children and one infant were on board, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement.

They added that the crew were experienced, with the captain clocking up 6,100 flying hours, a substantial number, and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours.

Fernandes, who is the face of AirAsia and an active Twitter user, sent out a tweet saying: "Thank you for all your thoughts and prays [sic]. We must stay strong."

He tweeted later that he was heading out to Surabaya.

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 flight 370.

"I think we have to let this one 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, Waldock said.