It is "standard practice" for commercial planes to fly around bad weather instead of above it, as seems to have been the case for AirAsia Flight QZ8501, an aviation expert has said.
Should the plane enter a cumulunimbus cloud, a dense towering cloud associated with thunderstorms, several problems may arise, said Mark Martin of United States-based firm Martin Consulting. These include heavy updrafts and downdrafts, and a dramatic loss in altitude, he said.
AirAsia Indonesia said the pilot of Flight QZ8501 - which went missing between Indonesia and Singapore early yesterday - had requested a "deviation" from its flight plan because of bad weather. It had been flying at 32,000 feet and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet to avoid clouds.
If the plane had flown into a thunderstorm when it was between 31,000 feet and 38,000 feet in the air, icing on control surfaces while in the cloud could also freeze corrective pilot actions, and provoke aggressive aircraft manoeuvres, said Mr Martin.
"Despite having the best weather radar installed on the aircraft, standard practice is to fly around weather rather than above it," he said.
He added that with 155 passengers on board, it appears that the aircraft was "heavy" and the fuel in its tanks was "not entirely burnt" to allow the plane to climb.
With a sea mass that spans nearly 2,000 islands, Indonesia maintains and operates one of the region's "most formidable" search and rescue operations, backed by a well-structured coast guard, maritime surveillance and modern coastal petrol and rescue aircraft and helicopter fleet, Mr Martin said.
"In the unfortunate event of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 ditching into the sea, it does become clear that at least one of the three emergency location transmitters broadcasting on the universal emergency frequency of 121.5MHz should have activated," he said.
This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.