162 feared dead on missing AirAsia jet

A multination search by air and sea, amid heavy rainfall, was called off on Sunday night as darkness fell.

Family of passengers onboard AirAsia flight QZ8501 react at a waiting area in Juanda International Airport, Surabaya December 28, 2014. Indonesia's air force was searching for the AirAsia plane carrying 162 people that went missing on Sunday after the pilots asked to change course to avoid bad weather during a flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore. The Airbus 320-200 lost contact with Jakarta air traffic control at 6:17 a.m. (2317 GMT), officials said.   REUTERS/Beawiharta (INDONESIA - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT ENVIRONMENT)
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JAKARTA // A search resumes at first light on Monday for a passenger plane with 162 people on board that vanished a day earlier over stormy Indonesian waters.

AirAsia Flight 8501 disappeared in dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning on its way from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore. A multination search by air and sea, amid heavy rainfall, was called off on Sunday night as darkness fell.

The Malaysia-based carrier’s loss comes on top of the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine.

At the Surabaya airport, shocked family members pored over the plane’s manifest, crying and embracing one another as they learnt the news. Nias Adityas, a housewife from Surabaya, was overcome with grief when she found her husband’s name on the list.

Her husband Nanang Priowidodo, a 43-year-old tour agent, had taken a family of four on a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Lombok island. He had been happy to get the work.

“He just told me, ‘Praise God, this new year brings a lot of good fortune’,” Ms Adityas said, holding her grandson tight as she wept uncontrollably. “He apologised because he could not join us for the new year celebration.”

The plane had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant.

Among the passengers were three South Koreans, a Malaysian, a British national and his two-year-old Singaporean daughter. The rest were Indonesians.

The Airbus A320 took off on Sunday morning from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, and was about halfway to Singapore when it vanished from radar. Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transport, said there was no distress signal from the cockpit.

The last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6.13 am local time, when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet,” Mr Murjatmodjo said. It was last seen on radar at 6.16 am, and a minute later it was no longer there.

Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia launched a search operation near Belitung island in the Java Sea, where the plane lost contact with air traffic control.

The air search was suspended last night and will resume this morning, said Achmad Toha of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency. Some ships were continuing to comb the area overnight, he said.

AirAsia group chief executive Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and said the focus should be on the search and the families rather than the cause of the incident.

“We have no idea at the moment what went wrong,” he said. “Let’s not speculate at the moment.”

Malaysia-based AirAsia has a good safety record and had never lost a plane before.

“This is my worst nightmare,” Mr Fernandes said on Twitter.

But Malaysia itself has already had a catastrophic year, with 239 people still missing from Flight 370 and all 298 people aboard Flight 17 killed when it was shot down over rebel-held territory in Ukraine. Flight 8501 was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a subsidiary that is 49 per cent owned by AirAsia Malaysia.

AirAsia said Flight 8501 was on the submitted flight plan route. However, it had requested a change due to weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of Indonesian air traffic control.

Sunardi, a weather forecaster at the Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, said dense storm clouds were detected up to 13,400 metres in the same area at the time the plane lost contact.

“There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds,” said Sunardi.

AirAsia said the captain has a total of 6,100 flying hours, but Mr Fernandes said it was more than 20,000. The airline said the first officer has 2,275 flying hours.

Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak expressed solidarity with AirAsia. “Very sad to hear that AirAsia Indonesia QZ8501 is missing. My thoughts are with the families. Malaysia stands ready to help,” he said on Twitter

Transport minister Ignasius Jonan said that Indonesia’s army and the national search and rescue agency were involved in the search, as were Singapore and Malaysia.

Other Indonesian officials said 200 rescuers had been deployed to the east side of Belitung island and that three aircraft, including a surveillance plane, were dispatched to the area.

Search and rescue head Bambang Soelistyo said his agency would search on Monday with 12 ships and three helicopters, along with three aircraft from the air force, two aircraft from the navy and a number of warships. He added that Malaysia and Singapore would each deploy one C-130 plane and three ships, and Australia also would assist.

The United States said it was ready to help in the search but it had not been asked.

The state department said it “stands ready to assist in any way that’s helpful”.

At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room waiting for news, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed. As word spread, more and more family members were arriving at the crisis centre.

Dimas said his wife, Ratri Sri Andriani, 30, had been on the flight leading a group of 25 Indonesian tourists on a trip to Singapore and Malaysia. He was holding out hope that the plane had made an emergency landing.

“We can just pray and hope that all those aboard are safe,” said Dimas. “We are worried, of course, but we have to surrender to her fate.”

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 Flight 370.

“I think we have to let this 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, he said.

* Associated Press, with additional reporting from Agence France-Presse