Missing flight QZ8501: Rough weather complicates search for plane

Indonesian Army personnel read a map 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.

Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 is believed to have crashed in fairly shallow waters and, based on the last point of contact, the authorities should have a broad sense of where it went down.

So why has the Airbus A-320, which was carrying 162 passengers and crew, not been found yet? That is the question that many are asking.

With rough weather and choppy waters giving the search teams combing the Java Sea a hard time, it is impossible to say with certainty how long it will be before the first pieces of debris show up, experts said.

"We are looking at anything from 24 hours, which have obviously now passed, to maybe four days," said Mr Michael Daniel, a retired air accident investigator with the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

And even if the plane's suspected wreckage shows up, it could take another few days to establish forensically that it belonged to the ill-fated aircraft which went missing on Sunday morning.

Minutes before it lost contact, the pilots had requested approval to take the plane to 38,000 feet to avoid bad weather. No distress call was made.

A multi-nation search, which includes Singapore, is now focused on two sea areas between Tanjung Pandan on Belitung Island and Kalimantan.

The first measures 120 nautical miles by 240 nautical miles and the second, 180 nautical miles by 150 nautical miles - a total of 55,800 square nautical miles.

This is not terribly huge as ocean spaces go, especially when compared with the 2.24 million square nautical miles that search teams combed in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which went missing in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The Boeing 777 aircraft, believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean, has yet to be found.


The hunt for QZ8501 is less challenging but will nonetheless likely take a few days, especially if strong winds and ocean currents expand the debris field.

Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, who spoke at a press conference in Surabaya yesterday, said: "Up to now, there is no sign of wreckage that has been spotted. No indication towards that yet."

With QZ8501 still missing, more equipment will be deployed for the search. Indonesia has accepted Singapore's offer of two teams of specialists and two sets of underwater locator beacon detectors from the Singapore Ministry of Transport's Air Accident Investigation Bureau, to assist in locating the flight data recorders of the missing plane.

Other equipment on standby include a sidescan sonar system and a robotic remotely operated vehicle, said Singapore's Transport Ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in a joint release yesterday evening.

Beacon detectors are used to hunt for aircraft black boxes, which record conversations in the cockpit and preserve data on the position and speed of the aircraft.

The boxes are fitted with underwater locator beacons that can transmit for 30 days to guide search teams. Once the location is confirmed, the recovery effort will begin.

Mr Jacques Astre, president of industry consultancy International Aviation Safety Solution, said: "How long recovery will take depends on the debris field, which will be determined by whether the aircraft broke up in flight or when it impacted the sea."

For grieving relatives and friends of those on board QZ8501, the wait continues.


This article was first published on Dec 30, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.