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Jet likely 'at the bottom of the sea,' Indonesia says (w/video)

An Indonesia Search and Rescue officer inspects the operational air navigation map during the investigation of missing Air Asia Flight 8501 at Juanda International Airport Surabaya on Sunday.
An Indonesia Search and Rescue officer inspects the operational air navigation map during the investigation of missing Air Asia Flight 8501 at Juanda International Airport Surabaya on Sunday.
Published Dec. 29, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The head of the Indonesian agency searching for a missing AirAsia jet carrying 162 people said today that he believed the aircraft was "at the bottom of the sea" and warned that the country lacked adequate equipment to conduct an underwater search.

"The capability of our equipment is not optimum," Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency, said at a news conference.

Malaysia, Singapore and Australia joined the search-and-rescue operation, an effort that evoked a distressingly familiar mix of grief and mystery nine months after a Malaysia Airlines jetliner disappeared over the Indian Ocean.

The Airbus A320-200, operated by the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia, a regional budget carrier based in Malaysia, lost contact with ground controllers off the coast of Borneo on Sunday morning.

And while it seemed premature to make comparisons to the Malaysian jetliner that disappeared in March, the Indonesian authorities could not explain why the AirAsia jet vanished from radar screens about 40 minutes after leaving the Indonesian city of Surabaya around 5:30 a.m.

By midmorning on today, Indonesian authorities said they had found no sign of the wreckage.

The weather along the path of Flight 8501 to Singapore on Sunday was cloudy, and a weather monitoring service based in the United States reported a number of lightning strikes along the way. But the monsoon conditions did not seem insurmountable for a modern airliner.

The route was a well-traveled part of the Indonesian archipelago; six other aircraft were in the vicinity of Flight 8501 when it disappeared, according to data by Flightradar24.com, an organization that tracks aircraft.

The search was being conducted in a 100-mile stretch of the Java Sea near the island of Belitung, between the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the plane's last known location.

Shortly before contact was lost, the cockpit crew informed air traffic controllers in Jakarta that it was planning to rise to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to avoid a cloud, Djoko Murjatmodjo, the acting director general of air transport at Indonesia's Ministry of Transportation, told reporters at a news conference in Jakarta.

"We don't know where the exact location is, except that this morning at 6:17, we lost contact," Djoko said. The Singapore authorities said contact was lost at 6:24 a.m.; the discrepancy has not been explained.

Djoko said the authorities had not detected any emergency distress beacons that are normally triggered by an accident.

"Therefore we cannot assume anything yet," he said.

The newspaper Kompas in Indonesia quoted Djoko as saying that the plane's request to divert from its flight path was approved but that air traffic controllers denied the request to ascend to 38,000 feet "because of traffic." He did not elaborate.

The newspaper also quoted Syamsul Huda, director for aviation and meteorology at the Indonesian state weather agency, as saying that there were "many clouds along the route," including large cumulonimbus clouds.

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Earth Networks, a company that tracks weather conditions across the globe, said it recorded a number of lightning strikes "near the path" of Flight 8501 on Sunday morning between 6:09 and 6:20.

While it is rare for a lightning strike to cause serious structural damage that threatens the safety of an aircraft, it can disrupt navigation systems, such as magnetic compasses. A lightning flash, particularly at night, can also momentarily disorient the pilots.

The turbulence associated with a big storm can sometimes be severe and sudden shifts in wind direction could disrupt the airflow through a jet engine, potentially causing it to shut down. However, a shutdown of both engines in such a situation would be highly unlikely and the Airbus A320 is certified to fly up to three hours on a single engine, in compliance with global aviation safety regulations.

The Malaysian chief executive of the airline, Tony Fernandes, said in a Twitter message on Sunday that he was traveling to Surabaya, where most of the plane's 155 passengers were from.

Indonesia dispatched at least three warships and five aircraft to search for the plane, Malaysia deployed three boats and three aircraft, and Singapore said it sent a C-130 plane to assist in the search. Australia also offered to lend ships and aircraft to the effort.

AirAsia said in its statement that the passengers included 16 children and one infant. A crew of two pilots and five cabin crew members were also on board.

The passengers and crew included 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one Briton and a French citizen, AirAsia said.

The captain was identified as Iriyanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. France's Foreign Ministry said the French citizen was the co-pilot.

Indonesian news media quoted friends and relatives of Iriyanto saying he took his family last week to visit the grave of his younger brother, who died recently. Media reports also described the pilot as a fan of motorcycles and a devoted member of his local mosque.

The missing plane capped a disastrous year for Malaysian airlines. In addition to the Malaysia Airlines jet lost over the Indian Ocean in March, which has yet to be found, another Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July. Both of those planes were Boeing 777-200ERs.

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