By David Fickling, Herdaru Purnomo and Fathiya Dahrul
(Bloomberg) — Chinese and U.S. military ships are heading to seas south and west of Borneo where a AirAsia Bhd. passenger jet is suspected of crashing as the search enters its third day.
The USS Sampson will arrive today in the area where flight QZ8501 vanished Dec. 28 carrying 162 people, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in an e-mailed statement. China will send a navy frigate and aircraft, the official Xinhua news agency said. Indonesia is leading the search with Singapore, Malaysia and Australia also contributing ships and planes.
More than 1,100 people are combing more than 11,000 square nautical miles of ocean for the Airbus Group NV A320, whose disappearance caps what could be the worst year for air- passenger fatalities since 2010. The equipment that’s been deployed “has sonar technology that can help the process of searching underwater,” Jakarta’s search and rescue agency Basarnas said on its website yesterday. “The conclusion of the search conducted today is still nothing.”
Contact with the AirAsia flight was lost while the plane was on a routine flight to Singapore from the central Indonesian city of Surabaya, a journey that normally takes two hours.
The AirAsia pilots didn’t send a distress signal, drawing comparisons with Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370 that disappeared on March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. No wreckage from that flight has been found in what’s become the longest search for a passenger jet in modern aviation history.
While AirAsia is based in Sepang, Malaysia, it operates with subsidiaries and affiliates in different countries. The missing plane belonged to its Indonesian operations.
The search team suspects the plane is under water, Basarnas chief F.H. Bambang Sulistyo said in Jakarta yesterday, as no signal was detected from the emergency locater transmitter.
“Based on the coordinates given to us, our evaluation says the likely position where the plane crashed is in the sea,” Sulistyo said.
The hunt has been focused on Kumai Bay where the waters are generally shallow, with depths of no more than 60 meters (197 feet) and warm temperatures. The first planes that reached the region where the AirAsia plane was last reported didn’t find any sign of the aircraft.
Objects spotted by one search plane turned out to be unrelated to the aircraft, the Indonesian air force said. The AirAsia plane wasn’t equipped with a satellite-based tracking system that is more routine on long-distance aircraft, according to Inmarsat Plc in London.
Two signals initially suspected of coming from the plane’s distress beacon were emitted from a private property, and two oil slicks seen about 105 nautical miles from the town of Tanjung Pandan on Belitung Island were still being investigated, Basarnas said.
The U.S. Navy is working with Indonesia’s government “to identify additional surface or airborne capabilities that best assist their search efforts,” Seventh Fleet spokesman Joshua Karsten said by e-mail.
AirAsia QZ8501 was at 32,000 feet when the pilots requested to fly higher to avoid clouds, Indonesia’s acting Air Transport Director Djoko Murjatmodjo said in Jakarta. Air traffic controllers didn’t respond to the request before the plane disappeared off radar, National Transportation Safety Committee head Tatang Kurniadi said yesterday. There were storms along AirAsia’s flight path, Accuweather.com said on its website.
The last signal from the plane was between the city of Pontianak on Borneo and Tanjung Pandan. The search was initially concentrated around Belitung, Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said earlier. Sulistyo said the search area had been widened to include the Karimata strait and land areas in western West Kalimantan.
AirAsia had no fatal crashes in its history of more than a decade of operations. The A320 has built a reputation as a sturdy workhorse, with more than 6,000 A320 family aircraft in service to date with over 300 operators.
–With assistance from Yudith Ho in Jakarta and Chong Pooi Koon in Surabaya.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.