Indonesia fears missing jet 'at bottom of sea'

Rescue chief Bambang Soelistyo said it was likely the plane was at the “bottom of the sea”. The hypothesis is “based on the co-ordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea,” he said.
A member of a Hercules C130 aircrew watches through a window while monitoring the Belitung Timur sea during search operations for Flight QZ8501 on December 29, 2014. Wahyu Putro/Antara Foto/Reuters
A member of a Hercules C130 aircrew watches through a window while monitoring the Belitung Timur sea during search operations for Flight QZ8501 on December 29, 2014. Wahyu Putro/Antara Foto/Reuters

JAKARTA // Dozens of planes and ships searching Indonesian waters for a missing AirAsia plane on Monday were focusing on a patch of oil for possible clues, as a senior official warned the aircraft was likely at the bottom of the sea.

Australia, Singapore and Malaysia joined the Indonesia-led search as anguished relatives awaited news of their loved ones more than a day after Flight QZ8501 disappeared over the Java Sea with 162 people on board.

“Papa come home, I still need Papa,” Angela, the daughter of the Indonesian pilot Irianto, begged in an emotional appeal on local social media.

The Airbus A320-200 lost contact en route from Surabaya in Indonesia’s east Java to Singapore on Sunday after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather. It is the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March, and the shooting down of MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July.

Indonesian Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said the search was now concentrated on an oil patch spotted off Belitung island, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island.

“We are making sure whether it was avtur (aviation fuel) from the AirAsia plane or from a vessel because that location is a shipping line,” he said.

As the second day’s search ended at dusk, National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said an Indonesian corvette was on its way to collect an oil sample, with an announcement expected on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Mr Soelistyo said it was likely the plane was at the “bottom of the sea”.

The hypothesis is “based on the co-ordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea”, he said.

Ships and aircraft were searching an area where the sea is 130-160 feet deep, he added, saying that Indonesia was coordinating with other countries to borrow any equipment needed to scour the seabed.

Distraught relatives in Surabaya were desperately hoping for news of loved ones as the international search expanded.

Intan, 28, said Indonesia needed overseas help to find the plane which was carrying her brother and his family and friends.

“My hope is Indonesia seeks as much help as possible from other countries. Don’t claim ‘We have sophisticated technology’, just ask other countries because they are better equipped,” she said, as Jakarta welcomed offers of help from its neighbours.

“My prayer is I really, really hope that there will be news about the people on board. Whatever it is, what is important is we know where they are now,” she added.

The international operation has drawn comparisons with the continuing search for MH370, which disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

But Australian prime minister Tony Abbot said the latest missing flight did not appear to be a great mystery.

“It’s an aircraft that was flying a regular route on a regular schedule, it struck what appears to have been horrific weather, and it’s down,” Mr Abbott said.

“But this is not a mystery like the MH370 disappearance and it’s not an atrocity like the MH17 shooting down,” he added, referring to the flight shot down over rebel-controlled territory in Ukraine killing all 298 people on board.

China, which had 152 citizens on MH370, has offered to help with the latest search.

One Indonesian family of 10 had a miraculous escape when they arrived too late to catch Flight QZ8501.

“Maybe it is all God’s plan that my family and I were not on the flight. It was a blessing in disguise,” said Christianawati, 36.

AirAsia said 155 of those on board were Indonesian, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. The Frenchman was the co-pilot.

Air-traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engined aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya’s Juanda international airport at about 5.35am on Sunday local time.

Shortly before the plane disappeared, the pilot asked to ascend by 6,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid heavy clouds but his request was turned down due to another flight above him.

The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago with poor roads and railways, has seen explosive growth in low-cost air travel over recent years.

But the air industry has been blighted by low 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.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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