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In the year’s second mysterious plane disappearance, AirAsia’s flight QZ8501, an Airbus A320-200 carrying 162 people, seemed to vanish on Sunday, December 28 while flying from Surabaya, Indonesia (SUB) to Singapore (SIN). So far, a two-day search in the Java Sea surrounding the islands of Belitung, Sumatra and Borneo, conducted by thirty ships and 15 aircraft from four countries, has yielded no confirmed sighting of wreckage and little hope of recovering the craft and its passengers. Meanwhile, passengers’ relatives have gathered in both airports, waiting for news.
Shortly before flight QZ8501’s disappearance from radar screens between Borneo and Sumatra, its pilot had requested a change of course change due to dense storm clouds that reached as high as 44,000 feet and may have involved heavy turbulence, lightning and strong vertical and horizontal winds, but was denied permission to ascend to 38,000 feet due to congested traffic. Amidst this possible state of emergency, the pilots didn’t send a distress call to ground controllers, rendering it unclear whether or not the storm, a slow flying speed, or a catastrophic aircraft failure caused what is assumed to be a loss of the plane at sea. Unfortunately, in order to fully understand what happened, AirAsia and Airbus investigators and government regulators would need to examine the plane’s wreckage and its voice and data recorders.
Founded in 1993 and headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, AirAsia is the largest low-cost airline in Asia, operating a fleet of about 70 aircraft (all Airbus A320s) on routes set largely in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and having served roughly 250 million passengers with no fatal accidents. According to a safety study published by Boeing in August, the A320 family of jets has a good safety record in general, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million take-offs; this particular AirAsia plane was delivered in 2008, has flown 13,600 times and completed 23,000 hours, and underwent its last maintenance in November. Flight QZ8501’s experienced pilot, Captain Iriyanto—who very recently lost his brother and previously flew for the troubled Adam Air, both details that are fueling speculation about his possible role in the plane’s disappearance—has 20,000 flying hours to his credit, 6,100 of them aboard the Airbus A320.
On Monday, floating debris spotted in the Java Sea turned out to be unrelated flotsam, and while various oil slicks sparked interest, waning light proved a deterrent to further investigation; search efforts will continue on Tuesday, centered around these oil slicks and expanding to a larger perimeter. Indonesia doesn’t have adequate technology to search underwater or at night, so they’ll continue to rely on assistance from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.
It’s so far been a tragic year for Asian aviation, with this AirAsia mystery following two losses on Malaysia Airlines. In March, Malaysia’s flight MH370, with 239 people aboard, disappeared between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and has yet to be found, while in July, MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. This loss from AirAsia has renewed debate within the airline industry about the need to improve technology that helps ground controllers alert all planes when anything in the air might put aircraft in harm’s way.