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AirAsia Flight QZ8501: US Joins Search Operation, Indonesia Seeks More Help

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JAKARTA – The search and locate operation for Indonesia AirAsia flight QZ8501 entered the third day on Tuesday as Indonesian authorities expanded the hunt and sought more help from other countries.

The search area, originally divided into seven sectors, is being expanded to 13 on Tuesday, covering air, sea and land searches.

F. H. Bambang Soelistyo, the chief of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency Basarnas, said the search area between the islands of Sumatra and Borneo would be expanded. Authorities would begin scouring islands in the area as well as land on Indonesia’s side of Borneo. So far the focus of the search has been the Java Sea.

He said the multinational air operation involving teams from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Australia will continue in the Java sea on Tuesday morning.

“We want the search operation to complete and succeed fast,” said Soelistyo.

More than 1,100 overseas search and rescue personnel will join Indonesian teams in the search on Tuesday for the Airbus A320-200 with 162 people on board.

There has been no sign of debris or any other form of plane wreckage since the plane lost contact with Indonesian air traffic controllers on Sunday morning while flying from Surabaya to Singapore. Several sightings, including something that resembled oil spill east of Belitung island, turned out to be false alarms.

The plane is likely at the bottom of the sea, Soelistyo said on Monday.

“Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” he told reporters.

International help pouring in

Soelistyo said Indonesia did not have the tools, such as submersible vehicles, required to retrieve the plane from the seabed and will seek help from other countries such as US, France and the United Kingdom.

The US State Department confirmed that Indonesia had made a request via a diplomatic note to the US Embassy in Jakarta, but it declined to give more details. The Defence Department said details of the request were still being coordinated but “could include some air, surface and sub-surface detection capabilities.”

CNN, citing a senior US military official, reported that the USS Sampson is on its way to the Java Sea to assist in the search. The guided-missile destroyer based in San Diego was deployed in October to take part in “maritime security exercises and training” in the Pacific.

China also said it will dispatch aircraft and ships to participate in the search and rescue efforts.

Pilot request to fly higher rejected

Rescuers say weather was probably a factor in the plane’s disappearance, and it’s made finding traces of the aircraft more difficult.

The plane disappeared on Sunday morning shortly after the pilot made a request to fly at a higher altitude due to bad weather.

Its last position was over the Java Sea between the islands of Belitung and Borneo, a heavily travelled shipping channel with shallow waters, according to Indonesian authorities.

Before the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers, one of the pilots had asked to fly at a higher altitude because of bad weather.

The Transportation Ministry’s acting director-general for air transportation Djoko Murjatmodjo said the plane was initially flying at 32,000 feet. But the pilot contacted air traffic control in Jakarta at 6.12 am local time, requesting to fly at a higher altitude of 38,000 feet and to deviate to the left side of its route – route M635 – in an effort to avoid clouds.

“Air traffic control granted the request to deviate to the left side, but refused the request to fly higher because of air traffic,” he was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Post.

Another Indonesian newspaper, Kompas, quoted him as saying there was another plane flying at that height.

The air traffic tower lost contact with the plane shortly after that.

The plane had 155 passengers and seven crew members. There were 155 Indonesians, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one French, one British and three South Koreans.

Search areas expanded

The search area, originally divided into seven sectors, is being expanded to 13 on Tuesday, covering air, sea and land searches.

Teams will scour islands in the area as well as land on Indonesia’s side of Borneo. So far the focus of the search has been the Java Sea.

Pangkal Pinang on Bangka island is the tactical operational base for all search efforts.

Several sightings so far; all false alarms

The sightings so far have turned out to be false alarms. Soelistyo told reporters that an object detected on Monday morning in the Java sea was from a personal locator beacon that is usually worn by a rescuer and not the missing Airbus A320-200.

Another sighting in the sea east of Belitung island which looked like an oil spill had turned out to be reefs, he told The Straits Times on Monday night.

“Patimura navy vessel arrived at the location we thought was oil leak, and found out it was actually ranges of reefs,” he said.

Indonesian authorities are also investigating reports that some residents saw a low-flying plane on Sunday. TVOne reported on Tuesday that two Basarnas helicopters took off from Tanjung Pandan, Belitung island, to a sea area off Pangkalanbun, West Kalimantan to follow up on a report from a Pangkalanbun resident who said he saw a plane flying lower than usual.

“I was working on my house roof. I saw a plane flying very low. Lower than other planes we usually saw passing here. The plane was going in the west direction,” said the resident known only as Fendi. He added that he did not hear a bang sound.

The TV station said another Pangkalanbun resident who is a fisherman heard a bang sound.

Soelistyo told The Straits Times that all reports of sightings would be followed up. “We followed up on all reports just to be extra sure,” he said.

Indonesia to review Indonesia AirAsia operations

Meantime, Indonesia will review the operations of Indonesia AirAsia.

“We will review AirAsia Indonesia to make sure its performance can be better in the future,” Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters on Monday.

“Much will be reviewed in terms of its business operations and in terms of air transportation business, so that there are safety improvements.”

The airline, which has never suffered a fatal accident, said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on Nov 16.

Indonesia AirAsia chief executive Sunu Widyatmoko said: “We are deeply shocked and saddened by this incident.”

“We are cooperating with the relevant authorities to the fullest extent to determine the cause of this incident.”

The airline said on Sunday that the captain and first officer were both experienced. The captain in command had a total of 6,100 flying hours and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours, said the airline.

Airbus said the plane was a six-year-old A320-200 that had carried out some 13,600 flights or a total of about 23,000 flight hours.

The Airbus A320-200 is a twin-engine, single-aisle aircraft that can seat up to 180 passengers in a single-class configuration. the manufacturer said in a statement. – Agencies

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