PETALING JAYA - In what seems to be another major aviation tragedy, five nations have joined hands in the massive search and rescue operation for missing Indonesia AirAsia flight QZ8501 which went off the radar en route from Surabaya to Singapore.
Indonesian air traffic control lost contact with the Airbus A320-200 aircraft at 6.24 am (Western Indonesian time, an hour behind Malaysian time) as it was flying with 155 passengers and seven crew members on board yesterday.
In a show of ASEAN solidarity, Malaysia and Singapore offered assistance to Indonesia to look for the plane while Australia and India have also offered to help.
The six-year-old Airbus A320-200, which was last serviced in November, was flying over the Java Sea in Indonesian airspace when communication with air traffic control ceased about 42 minutes after take-off from Juanda Airport. The aircraft was supposed to have landed at Singapore's Changi Airport at 8.30am.
The pilot had asked for a new route minutes before he went off the radio, air traffic control said.
The plane's last detected position was 100 nautical miles south-east of Tanjung Pandan on Belitung Island.
As at press time, QZ8501 - which was carrying 149 Indonesians, one passenger each from Malaysia, Singapore and Britain, three South Koreans and crew members comprising six Indonesians and one French - is yet to be located.
Indonesian air transportation director Joko Muryo Atmodjo said the plane was flying at 32,000 feet (9,753m) and had requested for a slight change in its flight path by "flying to the left and at 38,000 feet (11,583m) to avoid clouds".
"The last contact with the aircraft was at 6.12am. No distress signal was sent. Therefore, we cannot assume anything," said Joko, adding that Indonesian authorities were co-ordinating with rescue teams and looking for the plane's position.
"We believe it is somewhere between Tanjung Pandan, a town on Belitung Island, and Kalimantan," he said.
Belitung Island search and rescue chief Joni Supiardi said his operation centre was activated as soon as the plane was confirmed missing.
"The weather was cloudy when the plane flew over the area and it is still cloudy," said Joni.
The missing aircraft belongs to Indonesia AirAsia, which is 51 per cent owned by Fersindo Nusaperkasa with the remaining 49 per cent equity held by AirAsia Berhad.
Indonesia AirAsia was set up on Dec 8, 2004 as a joint venture between AirAsia International Ltd and PT Awair International.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the Government would help AirAsia in the search while Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said the ministry had set up a rescue co-ordination centre at the KL Air Traffic Control Centre in Subang.
"The Department of Civil Aviation and the Navy have deployed assets and have been directed to go to the area near Belitung Island," said Liow.
Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said three naval vessels and C130 aircraft have been sent to assist Indonesia in the search and rescue operations, adding that his ministry and the Armed Forces were ready to provide any assistance required by Indonesia.
"I have instructed Navy chief Laksamana Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar and Air Force chief Jeneral Datuk Seri Roslan Saad to remain in close contact with their Indonesian counterparts," he said.
Singapore also activated its Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) and offered help with two C130 aircraft on standby.
AirAsia group chief executive officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes said in a Twitter message that he was touched by the massive show of support.
"This is my worst nightmare," he said.
Indonesia has seen several air disasters in recent years.