AN INTERNATIONAL search and rescue mission to trace an AirAsia flight which went missing over the Java Sea with 162 people on board has resumed this morning.
Flight QZ8501 lost contact with air traffic control yesterday, less than an hour into its scheduled journey from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore in treacherous weather conditions.
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Aviation expert David Learmount, operations and safety editor at air industry website Flight Global, said he feared the worst, adding: “The pilots were talking to air traffic control right until the last minute. We don’t know what happened at the moment, and it doesn’t appear to be a deliberate act.
“We can speculate ad infinitum when the only thing we can go on is that it is missing. But I think the prognosis is not good.”
AirAsia said 155 passengers, including 17 children and seven crew – two pilots, four flight attendants and one engineer – were on the flight. A Briton, Chi Man Choi, is among the 155 passengers still to be accounted for. Mr Choi, who was born in Hull, was travelling with his two-year-old daughter.
As anxious family and friends of those on board the flight gathered at Juanda Airport in Indonesia and Changi Airport in Singapore, Tony Fernandes, the airline’s chief executive, said the situation was his “worst nightmare,” but asked people to “stay strong”.
The Airbus A320-200 lost contact with air traffic control at 6:16am local time yesterday, having taken off from Surabaya in Indonesia at 5:35am. The pilot had asked to divert the flight due to safety fears amid stormy conditions, moments before it lost contact with air traffic control. No distress call was made.
The vast search and rescue mission had focused on an area of sea between Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Java. Three Indonesian aircraft were dispatched to the area, while Singapore’s air force and navy assisted with two C-130 planes. The search was suspended last night, although some ships were continuing to comb the area. Work to locate the plane was expected to resume this morning at around 6am local time.
The airliner’s Indonesian captain had registered more than 20,500 flight hours, almost 7,000 of them with AirAsia.
Mr Fernandes said the plane – which had flown 13,600 times over 23,000 hours – was in a “good condition” and had “never had any problems”.
It passed its last scheduled maintenance in mid-November. Mr Fernandes, who also owns Premier League football team Queens Park Rangers, has flown to Indonesia to help with the search.
He said: “This is my worst nightmare. My only thoughts are with the passengers and my crew. We put our hope in the SAR [search and rescue] operation and thank the Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysian governments.
“This is a massive shock to us and we are devastated by what has happened. It’s unbelievable.”
Mr Fernandes added that he was “touched by the massive show of support,” especially from fellow airlines. He tweeted: “Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong.”
The disappearance of the flight, operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a subsidiary that is 49 per cent owned by AirAsia Malaysia, is the third major air incident in the region this year.
In March, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared with 239 people on board. In July, flight MH17, run by the same airline, was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on the airplane.
Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, said the last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6:13am yesterday, when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 38,000ft”.
The request, Mr Murjatmodjo said, could “not be approved” as there was another aircraft travelling above flight QZ8501. The plane was last seen on radar at 6:16am.
He said: “We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope God will give us guidance to find it.”
Forecasters at the Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, said dense storm clouds were detected at up to 44,000ft at the time the plane was reported to have lost contact.
In Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, shocked family members pored over the plane’s manifest. Nias Adityas, a housewife from the city, was overcome with grief when she found the name of her husband, Nanang Priowidodo, on the list.
The 43-year-old tour agent had been taking a family of four on a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Lombok island, and had been happy to get the work.
“He just told me, ‘Praise God, this new year brings a lot of good fortune’,” Mrs Adityas said. “He apologised because he could not join us for the New Year celebration.”
Louise Sidharta, 25, said her fiancé, Alain, was on the plane with five family members. “This was supposed to be his last trip with his family before we got married. They say we just need to wait until we have more updates.”
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with the passengers’ families as they await further news. We have been informed by the local authorities that one British national was on board. Their next of kin has been informed, and we stand ready to provide consular assistance.”
The Airbus A320 is a workhorse of modern aviation. Similar to the Boeing 737, it is used to connect cities anywhere from one to five hours apart. There are currently 3,606 A320s in operation worldwide, according to Airbus.
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