Indonesia suspended until first light the search for an AirAsia plane that went missing Sunday in the Java Sea with 162 people on board after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather. The Airbus A320-200 disappeared en route from Surabaya in Indonesia’s east Java to Singapore, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
Around 11 hours later, the search halted with no sign of the plane and was set to resume at 7am Monday – or earlier if the weather allows, Indonesian transport ministry official Hadi Mustofa told AFP.
AirAsia said 155 of those on board Flight QZ8501 were Indonesians, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. The Frenchman was the co-pilot.
With hard details few and far between, panicked relatives gathered at Singapore’s Changi airport and in Surabaya hundreds of Indonesians thronged the terminal.
An anguished 45-year-old woman said she had six family members on the plane.
“They were going to Singapore for a holiday,” she told AFP in Surabaya. “They have always flown with AirAsia and there was no problem. I am very worried that the plane might have crashed.” Indonesian Louis Sidartha, 25, told reporters in Singapore that her fiance was on board the flight.
They had taken separate flights from Surabaya to Singapore. She only found out about the missing aircraft upon arriving in Singapore on a later flight.
Air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya’s Juanda international airport at about 5:20am (2220 GMT Saturday).
Shortly before disappearing, the pilot asked to ascend by 6,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid heavy clouds, according to an Indonesian transport ministry official.
“The plane requested to air traffic control to fly to the left side, which was approved,” Djoko Murjatmodjo told a press conference. “But their request to fly to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet could not be approved at that time due to traffic, there was a flight above, and five minutes later the flight disappeared from radar.” “According to our climate radar, the weather was not good. There was enough cumulonimbus (cloud) there,” said Murjatmodjo. He said Indonesia had deployed seven aircraft, four navy ships and six boats from the search and rescue agency.
The search focused on waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island. But Murjatmodjo said the transport ministry had also asked the army to carry out ground searches, including in mountainous areas.
“We have focused all our strength, from the search and rescue agency, the military, police and help from the community as well as the fishermen,” said rescue agency chief F.H.B. Soelistyo.
He said three ships and three planes from Malaysia would join the search Monday. A Singaporean C130 plane joined Sunday’s operation, and two Singaporean planes would be deployed Monday with Australia also offering help.
France’s air accident investigation authority, the BEA, said two safety investigators, accompanied by two Airbus technical advisors, would leave for Jakarta on Sunday evening.
The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market. AirAsia’s flamboyant boss Tony Fernandes, a former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001, arrived in Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.
“Obviously this is a massive shock to us and we are devastated by what has happened. It’s unbelievable,” he told a press conference. “We don’t want to speculate. We don’t know what’s happened yet so we’ll wait for the accident investigation… Our concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin.” Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said his nation was “praying for the safety” of those onboard. His country, a vast archipelago with poor land transport infrastructure, has seen explosive growth in low-cost air travel over recent years.
But the air industry has been blighted by poor safety standards in an area that also experiences extreme weather.
AirAsia, which has never suffered a fatal accident, said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on November 16. Climbing to dodge large rain clouds is a standard procedure for aircraft in these conditions.
“What happens after that is a question mark,” according to Indonesian-based aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo.
Former French pilot and aviation expert Gerard Feldzer said the movement performed by the aircraft at the time it disappeared could be tricky.
“It’s possible that it lacked speed,” he said. “When one is not far from the maximal altitude of the plane the margin for manoeuvre is very limited and it can going down.”
The plane’s disappearance comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March with 239 passengers and crew, and in July, MH17 was shot down over troubled Ukraine killing all 298 on board.