In crowded skies, AirAsia’s request for new path denied
Surabaya, Indonesia — The pilots sought permission to climb above threatening clouds. Air traffic control couldn’t say yes immediately — there was no room. Six other airliners were crowding the airspace, forcing AirAsia Flight 8501 to remain at a lower altitude.
Minutes later, the jet carrying 162 people was gone from the radar without ever issuing a distress signal. The plane is believed to have crashed into Indonesia’s Java Sea, but broad aerial surveys on Monday turned up no firm evidence of the missing Airbus A320-200.
Searchers spotted two oily patches and floating objects in separate locations, but it was not known any of it was related to the plane that vanished Sunday halfway into what should have been a two-hour hop from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. The area is a busy shipping lane. Officials saw little reason to believe the flight met anything but a grim fate.
Based on the plane’s last known coordinates, the aircraft probably crashed into the water and “is at the bottom of the sea,” Indonesia search-and-rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said. Still, searchers planned to expand their efforts onto land on Tuesday.
The last communication from the cockpit to air traffic control was a request by one of the pilots to climb from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet because of the weather. The tower was not able to immediately comply because of the other planes, said Bambang Tjahjono, director of the state-owned company in charge of air traffic control.
The twin-engine, single-aisle plane was last seen on radar four minutes after the final communication.
A storm alone isn’t going to bring down a modern plane designed to withstand severe weather. But weather paired with a pilot error or a mechanical failure could be disastrous. It’s like a car driving on a highway during a thunderstorm. Plenty of vehicles get through bad weather safely but one that gets a flat tire or takes a turn too fast might crash.
Pilots rely on sophisticated weather-radar systems that include a dashboard display of storms and clouds, as well as reports from other crews, to steer around dangerous weather.
“A lot more information is available to pilots in the cockpit about weather than it ever was,” said Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But the technology has limits and sometimes information about storms “can be a little bit stale.”
The air search resumed Tuesday morning, with more assets and an expanded area, said Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo.
He said at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters were looking for the jet. Most of the craft were Indonesian but Singapore, Malaysia and Australia contributed to the effort. Aircraft from Thailand planned to join Tuesday’s search.
The search area has been widened, with four military helicopters dispatched just after sunrise near Pangkalan Bun on the western part of Borneo island and to smaller islands of Bangka and Belitung, Bambang Soelistyo said.
“Until now, we have not yet found any signal or indication of the plane’s whereabouts,” Soelistyo told the Associated Press, adding fishermen from Belitung island were also helping.
The U.S. Navy said it had agreed to an Indonesian request for help by sending the USS Sampson, a destroyer. It was already on an independent deployment in the Western Pacific and will arrive later Tuesday.