The Airbus A320-200 disappeared off the radar screens after its pilot failed to get permission to change the route to avoid bad weather during a flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore on Sunday.
Flight QZ8501 hasn’t sent a distress signal and disappeared over the Java Sea five minutes after requesting to gain some altitude, which was refused because of heavy air traffic, sources familiar with the matter.
“Based on our coordinates, we expect it is in the sea, so for now (we think) it is on the sea floor,” Soelistyo, head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, told reporters when asked about the missing plane’s likely location.
A senior Indonesian civil aviation source revealed to reporters that authorities had the flight’s radar data and were waiting for search and rescue teams to find debris before launching the investigation process.
Air force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto admitted researchers were checking a report of an oil slick off the east coast of Belitung island, near where the plane disapperared. He wenr on, adding that searchers had picked up an emergency locator signal off the south of Borneo island but had been unable to pinpoint it.
Meanwhile, pilots and aviation experts say thunderstorms, and requests to gain altitude to avoid them, are not typical for that area.
“The airplane’s performance is directly related to the temperature outside and increasing altitude can lead to freezing of the static radar, giving pilots an erroneous radar reading,” said a Qantas Airways pilot with 25 years’ experience flying in the region.
Online discussions among pilots centered on unconfirmed secondary radar data from Malaysia that suggested the missing plane was climbing at a speed of 353 knots, about 100 knots too slow in such weather conditions.
“At that altitude, that speed is exceedingly dangerous,” Sydney-based aviation expert Geoff Thomas told Reuters.
“At that altitude, the thin air, the wings won’t support the aircraft at that speed and you get an aerodynamic stall.”
Safety authorities admit that the incidents linked to a loss of control, such as might occur in bad weather, are rare but almost always catastrophic.
The Indonesian pilot was experienced and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, the airline said. The aircraft had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights, according to Airbus.
Malaysia AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and, along with Indonesian officials, updated distraught relatives of passengers at a crisis center at the airport in Indonesia’s second-largest city.
“Keeping positive and staying strong,” he said on Twitter.
“My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us,” he said.
“Until today, we have never lost a life,” AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes, who founded the low-cost carrier in 2001, told reporters in Jakarta airport. “But I think that any airline CEO who says he can guarantee that his airline is 100 percent safe, is not accurate.”
He refused to address compensation issues or any changes that may be made to the airline as a result of this incident.
“We have carried 220 million people up to this point,” he said. “Of course, there’s going to be some reaction, but we are confident in our ability to fly people, and we’ll continue to be strong and continue to carry people who never could fly before.”