Search plane spots ‘shadow’ on seabed believed to be AirAsia jet
PANGKALAN BUN, INDONESIA // An air force plane Tuesday spotted a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be the missing AirAsia jet, Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency chief said.
“God blessed us today,” Bambang Soelistyo told a press conference.
“At 12:50 the air force Hercules found an object described as a shadow at the bottom of the sea in the form of a plane,” he said.
Soelistyo said the search was now being concentrated on the location where the “shadow” and debris had been found, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) southwest of the town of Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan on Borneo island.
“All elements in the areas and search and rescue personnel will be moved to the location,” he said.
“Their job is to find and evacuate all objects or passengers’ bodies,” he said.
“I will make sure that all of them will be brought to Pangkalan Bun, the closest airstrip from the object’s location,” he said.
Indonesian aerial searchers on Tuesday also spotted items resembling an emergency slide and plane door in the sea as they hunted for traces of an AirAsia passenger jet that vanished in a storm.
More than 48 hours after the Airbus A320-200 carrying 162 people disappeared en route from Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya to Singapore, it appeared to be the most concrete clue yet to the plane’s fate after several false leads, as desperate relatives await news of their loved ones.
An AFP photographer on the search plane that spotted the possible debris said he had seen objects in the sea resembling a life raft, life jackets and long orange tubes as they flew just 150 metres above the water.
Indonesian air force official Agus Dwi Putranto said: “We spotted about 10 big objects and many more small white-coloured objects which we could not photograph.”
“The position is 10 kilometres from the location the plane was last captured by radar,” he said.
Mr Putranto displayed 10 photos of objects resembling a plane door, emergency slide, and a square box-like object.
“It is not really clear ... it could be the wall of the plane or the door of the plane,” he said.
“Let’s pray that those objects are what we are really trying to find,” he said in Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo.
The search has focused on waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan.
Mr Putranto said a helicopter was heading to the location 190km from Pangkalan Bun and if the debris is confirmed to be from the plane, search and rescue ships would be sent out.
Indonesian officials appear to have been preparing for the worst, with National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) chief Bambang Soelistyo saying on Monday it was likely the plane was at “the bottom of the sea”, based on its estimated position.
The plane lost contact early on Sunday about 40 minutes after take-off, after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to avoid a menacing storm system, before all contact was lost.
Before take-off the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher level to avoid the storm but his request was not approved due to heavy traffic on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s flight navigation service.
In his final communication, the pilot asked to alter his course and repeated his original request to ascend to avoid the bad weather.
“The pilot requested to air-traffic controllers to deviate to the left side due to bad weather, which was immediately approved,” AirNav safety director Wisnu Darjono said.
“After a few seconds the pilot requested to ascend from 32,000 to 38,000 feet but could not be immediately approved as some planes were flying above it at that time,” Darjono said.
That was the last communication with AirAsia Flight QZ8501.
“Two to three minutes later when the controller was going to give a clearance to a level of 34,000, the plane did not give any response,” he said.
News of the apparent debris came after Mr Basarnas said it had expanded the search to cover 156,000 square kilometres.
Australia, Singapore and Malaysia have sent maritime surveillance aircraft and warships to assist in the search, joining Indonesian planes, ships and scores of fishing boats scouring the waters for signs of the ill-fated aircraft.
Washington said it was deploying the USS Sampson to join the growing international effort, with the destroyer expected to arrive in the search zone Tuesday.
South Korea is sending a P-3 reconnaissance plane that was involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which vanished in March.
While the operation has drawn comparisons with the continuing search for MH370 off Australia, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot has said it did not appear to be a great mystery, with bad weather the likely cause this time.
China, which had 152 citizens onboard MH370, said it was sending a frigate and military aircraft to help with the new search.
The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market and has never suffered a fatal accident. Most of the passengers were Indonesian.
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 flight MH17 was shot down over unrest-hit Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.
Published: December 30, 2014 04:00 AM