AirAsia QZ8501: 'The ship was buffeted by 2m waves'

AirAsia QZ8501: 'The ship was buffeted by 2m waves'

I knew it would be difficult looking for victims of AirAsia flight QZ8501.

But I only realised the rigour of the recovery effort after spending over two days on board the RSS Persistence, a Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) vessel.

Weather remains a huge challenge for the vessels and aircraft involved.

On Monday night, when RSS Persistence first set sail, the sea was so choppy - with the waves ranging from 1.2m to 2.5m high - that things on the vessel rolled in different directions.

Indeed, they had to be secured at first light the next morning.

At sea, it can be frustrating not knowing what is going on, but the sailors said they are used to it.

On Tuesday, just before dinner, we learnt that wreckage from QZ8501 had been sighted and the RSS Persistence would be redirected in light of this.

Some of the sailors I spoke to said they were eager to get to the new search location south of Kalimantan.

The vessel, with two Super Puma helicopters, started making its way there yesterday morning, joining the multi-national recovery effort.

At press time yesterday, seven bodies had been recovered from the Java Sea. Also in the region are RSS Supreme, RSS Valour and MV Swift Rescue. A fifth vessel, RSS Kallang, set sail for the search area at about 4pm yesterday.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force is also flying an RSN autonomous underwater vehicle team to RSS Persistence to help cover a larger underwater search area.

On board the ship yesterday, it was a flurry of action as the crew moved ropes around and loaded fast craft with rescue equipment early in the morning. There was not much talking, just serious faces at work.

We were told the surface conditions should remain at sea state 2, which means a wave height of 20cm to 50cm.

But that was the only good news, as a visibility of less than 1.6km remained a problem.


Despite this, an aerial search was launched at 3.30pm. I was onboard a Super Puma helicopter, and with me were the two pilots, three crewmen and another journalist.

As we criss-crossed the search area, two of the crewmen used binoculars to scan the sea.

Unfortunately, the weather got worse. It rained and visibility was reduced to 1km. We had planned to search for two hours, but had to return after an hour. We made a smooth landing. Soon after we arrived, the ship was buffeted by 2m-high waves. Hopefully, the weather improves soon so that the search could resume.

When contacted, Dr Sam Bateman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) described the weather in the search area as "a major handicap".

The adviser and senior fellow in RSIS' Maritime Security Programme added: "With the weather conditions, tides and currents in the search area, any surface debris and oil slicks will be spreading quickly, increasing the size of the search area.

"Every day that goes by without success makes the search more difficult."

Visibility and sea surface conditions in the search area also affect the effectiveness of radar and visual searches, as well as the flying conditions for searching aircraft, Dr Bateman added.

"High winds and waves will mean that any debris floating on the surface will become more scattered and perhaps break up and sink.

"Rough surface conditions may also make it harder to hear the sonic transmissions from the aircraft's black box," he said.

A black box, which consists of a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder, helps crash investigators find out what happened just before a crash.

That the weather is affecting recovery was reflected in comments by rescue official Air Vice Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi.

The bad weather has made it tough for helicopters to pick up the bodies from an Indonesian navy ship, Xinhua reported.

"Weather at the crash site is still dark, clouds are thick below 3,000 feet. Five bodies are still being kept onboard the ship," Air Vice-Marshal Sunarbowo told a press conference at the command post centre in Pangkalan Bun, Kalimantan, yesterday.

- Additional reporting by FOO JIE YING

This article was first published on January 1, 2015.
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