Toronto Star


Relatives of missing AirAsia Flight 8501 passengers wait for informatio­n as Malaysia grapples with 3rd air disaster in a year


BANGKOK— The search resumed Monday for a commercial airliner with 162 people on board that lost contact with ground controller­s off the coast of Borneo, an effort that evoked a distressin­gly familiar mix of grief and mystery nine months after a Malaysia Airlines jetliner disappeare­d over the Indian Ocean.

This plane, too, had Malaysian connection­s: the Airbus A320-200 which was reported missing Sunday was operated by the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia, a regional budget carrier based in Malaysia.

And while it seemed premature to make such comparison­s, the Indonesian authoritie­s could not ex- plain Sunday why the AirAsia jet disappeare­d from radar screens about 40 minutes after leaving the Indonesian city of Surabaya around 5:30 a.m.

By nightfall Sunday, searchers facing bad weather had found no sign of the wreckage and the search was called off for the night. The weather along the path of Flight 8501to Singapore had been cloudy, and a U.S.-based weather monitoring service 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-travelled part of the Indonesian archipelag­o. There were six other aircraft in the vicinity of Flight 8501 when it disappeare­d, according to data by Flightrada­r24, an organizati­on that tracks aircraft.

At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed. As word spread, more and more family members were arriving at the crisis centre to await word.

Malaysian businessma­n Tony Fernandes, who founded AirAsia, a regional budget carrier in 2001that has had an excellent safety record, sent out a tweet Sunday: “This is my worst nightmare.”

Boats and planes from at least three countries joined the search along a 150-kilometre stretch of the Java Sea near the small island of Belitung, between Borneo and Sumatra, the plane’s last known location.

Shortly before contact was lost on Sunday, the cockpit crew informed air traffic controller­s in Jakarta that they were 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.

“At the moment, we don’t know where the exact location is, except that this morning at 6:17, we lost contact,” Djoko said.

Singapore authoritie­s said contact was lost at 6:24 a.m. The discrepanc­y has not been explained.

Djoko said the authoritie­s did not detect any emergency distress beacons 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 paper also quoted Syamsul Hu- da, 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.

Earth Networks, a company that tracks weather conditions across the globe, said it had 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 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 all engines in such a scenario 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.

Fernandes said in a Twitter message on Sunday that he was travelling 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.

In Ottawa, the Department of Foreign Affairs said no Canadians are believed to have been on board.

“We have no indication that Canadian citizens are aboard. Canadian officials are working to confirm this with local authoritie­s,” spokesman François Lasalle told the Star.

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

Airbus said in a statement Sunday that the aircraft was delivered to the airline in 2008, and it had flown around 13,600 flights.

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.

AirAsia, one of the world’s fastestgro­wing airlines, has an excellent safety record. Its Indonesian subsidiary is not included on the European safety list, which was most recently updated this month.

The missing aircraft last underwent scheduled maintenanc­e on Nov. 16, AirAsia said.

AirAsia waited more than four hours to announce on its Facebook page that the aircraft was missing. The airline did not explain the delay.

 ?? TRISNADI/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Relatives of the passengers of AirAsia Flight 8501 comfort each other at Juanda Internatio­nal Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Sunday.
TRISNADI/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Relatives of the passengers of AirAsia Flight 8501 comfort each other at Juanda Internatio­nal Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Sunday.
 ?? ROBERTUS PUDYANTO/GETTY IMAGES ?? Search and rescue officers inspect an air navigation map during the investigat­ion of missing AirAsia Flight 8501.
ROBERTUS PUDYANTO/GETTY IMAGES Search and rescue officers inspect an air navigation map during the investigat­ion of missing AirAsia Flight 8501.

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