Missing AirAsia plane search enters third day as US assistance sought


Search crews were poised to begin a third day scouring the Java Sea for a missing AirAsia Bhd passenger jet that vanished without a trace carrying 162 people and is suspected of having crashed into the waters off Indonesia.

The US has been asked by Indonesia to join the hunt, which included 12 vessels, dozens of inflatable boats and six warships as well as military aircraft from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. The search area stretches more than 11,000 square nautical miles amid the islands of Borneo, Java and Sumatra. The incident caps what could be the worst in four years for air-passenger fatalities.

“We’re reviewing their request to see how best we can meet it,” US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said at a briefing Monday in Washington.

US assistance could include air, surface or underwater detection capabilities, said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. “We stand ready to assist in any way possible,” he said by e-mail.

The Indonesia team suspects the plane is under water, search and rescue agency chief F.H. Bambang Sulistyo said in Jakarta Monday, since no signal was detected from the emergency local transmitter. Contact with Flight QZ8501 was lost Dec. 28 while the plane was on a routine commercial flight to Singapore from Surabaya, Indonesia, a journey that normally takes two hours.

“Based on the coordinates given to us, our evaluation says the likely position where the plane crashed is in the sea,” Sulistyo said.

The US National Transportation Safety Board is standing by and has offered to aid in the crash investigation if it’s needed, “but we haven’t been asked yet,” said Keely Nantel, a spokeswoman for the agency, in an e-mail.

Shallow water

The hunt for the Airbus Group NV A320 single-aisle jet is focused on Kumai Bay where the waters in the area are generally shallow, with depths of no more than 60 meters (197 feet) and warm temperatures that make diving easier.

The first planes that reached the region where the AirAsia plane was last reported didn’t find any signs of the missing aircraft.

Objects spotted by one of the search planes later turned out to be unrelated to the aircraft, the Indonesian air force said. The plane wasn’t equipped with a satellite-based tracking system that is more routine on long-distance aircraft, according to Inmarsat Plc in London.

Shares of AirAsia dropped 8.5 percent in Kuala Lumpur trading yesterday, their biggest slide since 2011. While AirAsia is based in Sepang, Malaysia, it operates with subsidiaries and affiliates in different countries. The missing plane belonged to its Indonesian operations.

Flight MH370

The AirAsia pilots didn’t send a distress signal, drawing comparisons with Malaysian Airline System Bhd’s Flight MH370 that disappeared on March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. No wreckage from that flight has been found in what’s become the longest search for a passenger jet in modern aviation.

AirAsia QZ8501 was at 32,000 feet when the pilots requested to fly higher to avoid clouds, Indonesia’s acting Air Transport Director Djoko Murjatmodjo said in Jakarta. Air traffic controllers didn’t respond to the request before the plane disappeared off radar, National Transportation Safety Committee head Tatang Kurniadi said at a press conference yesterday.

There were storms along AirAsia’s flight path, Accuweather.com said on its website. Storms are very active this time of year, with December and January the wettest months of the year in Indonesia, according to Accuweather meteorologist Dave Samuhel.

Last signal

The last signal from the plane was between the city of Pontianak on Borneo and the town of Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island. The search was initially concentrated around Belitung, Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said earlier. Sulistyo said the search area had been widened to include the Karimata strait and land areas in western West Kalimantan.

AirAsia had no fatal crashes in its history of more than a decade of operations. The A320 has built a reputation as a sturdy workhorse, with more than 6,000 A320 family aircraft in service to date with over 300 operators.

The plane that disappeared was delivered to AirAsia from the production line in October 2008. Powered by CFM 56-5B engines built by a joint venture of General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA, the aircraft had accumulated approximately 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights, Airbus said on its website.

The A320 and the related A318, A319 and A321 have among the lowest accident rates of modern commercial aircraft, with a fatal crash in about one in every seven million departures, according to a study published in August by Boeing Co. The last fatal accident involving an Airbus single-aisle plane was in 2010, when an A321 operated by Pakistani carrier Airblue crashed into rugged terrain in heavy rain, killing all 152 people on board. 



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