The search for missing AirAsia Flight 8501 will expand to land areas in Indonesia when it resumes Tuesday, but the head of the rescue mission says it’s most likely the plane is “at the bottom of the sea.”
The Airbus 320 jet– carrying 162 aboard—vanished Sunday morning in airspace thick with storm clouds on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore.
It disappeared from radar after the crew asked air traffic control if they could increase altitude, possibly to avoid turbulence caused by bad weather.
But their request could not be immediately granted because six other commercial airliners were crowding the surrounding airspace, forcing the plane to remain at a lower altitude, air traffic control director Bambang Tjahjono said Monday.
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 be common if the plane was experiencing heavy turbulence or otherwise causing serious passenger discomfort, Joni said.
Experts believe the plane crashed into Indonesia’s Java Sea 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 Monday spotted two oily patches and objects in separate locations. Indonesia’s air force says oil samples from the Java Sea will be collected and analyzed to see if they’re connected to the missing jetliner.
Jakarta’s Air Force base commander Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto told the Associated Press that he was informed Monday that an Orion aircraft had detected “suspicious” objects near Nangka island, about 100 miles southwest of Pangkalan Bun, near central Kalimantan, or 700 miles from the location where the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers early Sunday.
An Australian plane also spotted a “suspicious” object in the Java Sea, about 700 miles from where the AirAsia plane lost contact
“However, we cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane,” Putranto cautioned, “We are now moving in that direction, which is in cloudy conditions.”
False sightings of objects and oil slicks that initially appear to be from a missing plane were among the issues that plagued the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 earlier this year. The fate of that plane– which vanished March 8 with 239 people on board– remains unknown.
Indonesia’s search and rescue chief said it was likely that AirAsia Flight 8501 had crashed.
“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,” Henry Bambang Soelistyo told reporters.
The search was suspended again at nightfall and will resume Tuesday morning local time. Crews were looking for the plane with at least 15 ships, seven aircraft and four helicopters, national search and rescue spokesman Jusuf Latif said. Some ships and planes were from Singapore and Malaysia, and Australia.
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 to 38,000 feet because of the rough weather.
By the time clearance could be given, Flight 8501 had disappeared, Tjahjono said. The twin-engine, single-aisle plane– which never sent a distress signal– was last seen on radar four minutes after the last communication from the cockpit.
“There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds,” said Sunardi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
Airline pilots routinely fly around thunderstorms, said John Cox, a former accident investigator. Using on-board radar, flight crews can typically see a storm forming from more than 100 miles away. In such cases, pilots have plenty of time to find a way around the storm cluster or look for gaps to fly through, he said.
“It’s not like you have to make an instantaneous decision,” Cox said. Storms can be hundreds of miles long, but “because a jet moves at 8 miles a minute, if you to go 100 miles out of your way, it’s not a problem.”
The plane had an Indonesian captain, Iryanto, who uses one name, and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, the airline said in a statement.
Among the passengers were three South Koreans, a Malaysian, a British national and his 2-year-old Singaporean daughter. The rest were Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore.
AirAsia said the captain had more than 20,000 flying hours, of which 6,100 were with AirAsia on the Airbus 320. The first officer had 2,275 flying hours.
At Iryanto’s house in the East Java town of Sidoarjo, neighbors, relatives and friends gathered Monday to pray and recite the Quran to support the distraught family. Their desperate cries were so loud, they could sometimes be heard outside where three LCD televisions had been set up to monitor search developments.
“Papa, come home, I still need you,” Angela Anggi Ranastianis, the captain’s 22-year-old daughter pleaded on her Path page late Sunday, which was widely quoted by Indonesian media. “Bring back my papa. Papa, please come home.”
Suyanto, the father of passenger Ruth Natalia Puspitasari, who would have turned 26 on Monday, sat with his wife, who was puffy-eyed and coughing, near the family crisis center at Surabaya’s airport.
“Now she is gone in the missing plane, and we should face this sorrow, I can’t believe it!” he said, tears rolling down his cracked cheeks. “This is too hard to be faced.”
The aircraft had last undergone scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16, according to AirAsia.
The A320 family of jets, which includes the A319 and A321, has a good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a safety study published by Boeing in August.
The suspected crash caps an astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular. Relatives are still mourning 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.