Search on for missing plane - In crowded skies, lost plane's request for new path denied
The plane sought permission to climb above threatening clouds. Air traffic control couldn't say yes immediately — there was no room. Six other commercial airliners were crowding the surrounding airspace, forcing AirAsia Flight 8501 to remain at a lower altitude.
Minutes later, the jet carrying 162 people was gone from the radar. No distress signal was issued. It is believed to have crashed into Indonesia's Java Sea on Sunday morning, but exactly what happened — and whether the plane's flight path played any role — won't be determined until after the aircraft is found.
Broad aerial surveys yesterday spotted two oily patches and objects in separate locations, but it's unknown whether any of it is related to the missing Airbus A320-200.
The plane left Surabaya, Indonesia, but vanished halfway into what should have been a two-hour hop to Singapore. Officials yesterday saw little reason to believe the flight met anything but a grim fate.
"Based on the coordinates that we know, the evaluation would be that any estimated crash position is in the sea, and that the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea," Indonesia search and rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said. Search officials did, however, plan to expand their search efforts on to land today.
The last communication from the cockpit to air traffic control was a request by one of the pilots to increase altitude from 32,000 feet (9,754 metres) to 38,000 feet (11,582 metres) because of the rough weather. The tower was not able to immediately comply because of the other planes, said Bambang Tjahjono, director of the state-owned company in charge of air traffic control.
Sarjono Joni, a former pilot with a state-run Indonesian carrier, said the usual course of action when planes run into rough weather is to veer either left or right. A request to climb would most likely come if the plane was experiencing heavy turbulence or otherwise causing serious passenger discomfort, he said.
He added that heavy traffic is not unusual for any given airspace.
The twin-engine, single-aisle plane was last seen on radar four minutes after the final communication from the cockpit.
Search-and-rescue crews were looking for the plane with at least 15 ships, seven aircraft and four helicopters, national search-and-rescue spokesman Jusuf Latif said. Most are Indonesian, but Singapore, Malaysia and Australia have contributed planes, and a ship and aircraft from Thailand were awaiting clearance from Indonesia's Foreign Ministry.
Those numbers do not include Indonesian warships taking part in the search. Many fishermen from Belitung island also have joined in, and all vessels in that area of the sea have been alerted to be on the lookout for anything that could be linked to the plane.
Jakarta's air force base commander, Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto, said an Australian Orion aircraft had detected "suspicious" objects near an island about 100 miles (160 kilometres) off central Kalimantan. That's about 700 miles (1,120 kilometres) from the location where the plane lost contact, but within yesterday's greatly expanded search area.
"However, we cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane," Putranto said. "We are now moving in that direction, which is in cloudy conditions."
Air Force spokesman Rear Marshal Hadi Tjahnanto told MetroTV that an Indonesian helicopter spotted two oily spots in the Java Sea east of Belitung island, much closer to where the plane lost contact than the objects viewed from the Australian plane. He said oil samples would be collected and analysed to see if they are connected to the missing plane.
An Associated Press photographer flew in a C-130 transport carrier with Indonesia's Air Force for 10 hours yesterday over a large section of the search area between Kalimantan and Belitung. The flight was bumpy and rainy at times. It hovered low at 1,500 feet, giving clear visibility to waves, ships and fishermen, but there was no sign of the plane.
YEAR OF MISSING PLANES
The disappearance and suspected crash caps an astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular. Malaysia-based AirAsia's loss comes on top of the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.
"Until today, we have never lost a life," AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes, who founded the low-cost carrier in 2001, told reporters in Jakarta airport. "But I think that any airline CEO who says he can guarantee that his airline is 100 per cent safe, is not accurate."
He refused to address compensation issues or any changes that may be made to the airline as a result of this incident.
"We have carried 220 million people up to this point," he said. "Of course, there's going to be some reaction, but we are confident in our ability to fly people."
Indonesian President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo was in Indonesia's Papua province when the plane disappeared, but was back in Jakarta, the capital, yesterday. He said he ordered an immediate review of all aviation procedures.
"I was very shocked (by the disappearance) and I could feel the concern, the frustration and the sadness experienced by the passengers' families, and I believe also felt by all the people of Indonesia," Jokowi said at a press conference.
Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
CAPTION - AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes (left) and Indonesian Vice-president Jusuf Kalla (right) acknowledge the media during a press conference at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, yesterday. Search planes and ships from several countries yesterday were scouring Indonesian waters over which an AirAsia jet disappeared, more than a day into the region's latest aviation mystery. AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished Sunday in airspace thick with storm clouds, on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. - AP