Indonesia to expand search for missing AirAsia flight QZ8501

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Search efforts will expand to include land, officials say

Indonesian Army personnel keep watch during a search and rescue (SAR) operation for missing Malaysian air carrier AirAsia flight QZ8501, over the waters of the Java Sea on December 29, 2014. Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP

JAKARTA, Indonesia (2nd UPDATE) — As day 2 of the search for the missing AirAsia jet closed with no concrete leads, Indonesian officials said they will expand the coverage to include land on Tuesday, December 30. 

National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) chief Bambang Soelistyo said that 4 sectors – including two on the western side of West Kalimantan province – will be added to the 7 searched on Monday for AirAsia flight QZ8501 and the 162 passengers and crew on board.

This is despite saying earlier on Monday that they suspected the plane, which disappeared early on Sunday morning amid bad weather over the waters between Bangka Belitung and West Kalimantan provinces in Indonesia, could be at the bottom of the sea. 

SEARCH AREA. A map showing the 7 sectors searched on Monday, December 29, courtesy of Malaysia's Defense Ministry. Photo courtesy of Jason Ng/Twitter

The naval search will continue through the evening but participating aircraft would be pulled back when it’s dark, according to Transport Minister Ignatius Jonan.

“We have a total of 11 fixed wing planes and 12 rotary wing aircraft, including 1 from Singapore. We also have 37 ships, including the 3 from Singapore, 2 from Australia, 1 from Malaysia,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said.

False leads

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, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.

There were a number of reported possible leads on Monday, but almost all have been ruled out.

An Australian surveillance aircraft reported spotting a suspicious object during a sea search, but Vice President Jusuf Kalla said “it has been checked and no sufficient evidence was found to confirm what was reported.

There were also two emergency signals detected near the plane’s last known position, but one turned out to be from a United Arab Emirates flight and the other from a rescuer’s personal locator beacon. 

Indonesian Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said they were also checking a patch of oil spotted off Belitung island in the Java Sea.

“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.

‘Bottom of sea’

“Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” Soelistyo told journalists.

“That’s the preliminary suspicion and it can develop based on the evaluation of the result of our search,” he said. 

Currently search teams are scouring an area where the sea is 40-50 meters deep, he said, adding that Indonesia was coordinating with other countries to access any equipment needed to scour the seabed.

“Due to the lack of technology that we have, I have coordinated with our foreign minister so we will borrow from other countries which have offered. They are the UK, France and US,” he said.

“It is not easy to look for something underwater… that will not break our spirit to continue searching, no way.”

Australia, Singapore and Malaysia have deployed planes and ships to assist in the Indonesian search for Flight QZ8501. 

South Korea said Monday it also plans to dispatch a surveillance plane on Tuesday to join the search, according to state news agency Antara. A South Korean family consisting of three members was confirmed to be on board the plane.

China, which had 152 citizens on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 which is still missing, has also offered help with the search.

“It is not an easy operation in the sea, especially in bad weather like this,” Kalla said. (READ: Missing AirAsia flight asked to ‘deviate’ due to bad weather)

Hoping for news  

Distraught relatives spent the night in Surabaya hoping for news of loved ones as international teams expanded their search area.

Intan, 28, urged Indonesia to seek international 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 told Agence France-Presse.

“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 said.

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 flight QZ8501 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-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya’s Juanda international airport at about 5:35 am (2235 GMT Saturday).

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.

‘Praying for safety’ 

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 said it would review the company’s operations.

“We will do a ground check as well as a review of AirAsia’s operations in Indonesia to ensure that all of its activities are better in the future,” Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters.

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. 

Its shares fell 12% at the open in Kuala Lumpur but recovered slightly to sit at 2.71 ringgit, down 7.82%.

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 troubled Ukraine killing all 298 on board. – with a report from Agence France-Presse/

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