Hunt for Black Boxes Still On After AirAsia Plane’s Tail Located

Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class Cody Witherspoon, assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35, keeps a lookout as his helicopter returns to the guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson (DDG 102). Sampson is supporting Indonesian-led search efforts to locate Air Asia Flight QZ8501, January 6, 2015. U.S. Navy photo
A Naval Aircrewman keeps a lookout as his helicopter returns to the guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson (DDG 102). Sampson is supporting Indonesian-led search efforts to locate Air Asia Flight QZ8501, January 6, 2015. U.S. Navy photo

By Fathiya Dahrul and Rieka Rahadiana

(Bloomberg) — Divers looking for the crashed AirAsia Bhd. jetliner found part of the plane’s tail, putting them a step closer to locating the black boxes that may explain the accident.

The search since yesterday is focusing on finding objects under water as the number of bodies being found is dropping, F.H. Bambang Sulistyo, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, told reporters in Jakarta today. The tail is partly covered by mud in the ocean and the search and rescue team is trying to find ways to retrieve it, said S.B. Supriyadi, director for operations at the search agency.

“The weather and the sea is supporting us, so we sent in divers,” Sulistyo said after rains, high waves and mud in the ocean had slowed progress through much of the 11-day hunt. “The tail was detected by side-scan sonar.”

The divers are now focusing on finding the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and its flight-data recorder, which are both located on the tail of the aircraft that disappeared Dec. 28 with 162 people on board. More than 90 vessels and aircraft have been involved in the search operation, which has so far found 40 bodies and objects that appear to be parts of the fuselage and an evacuation slide.

Investigators have yet to report whether they could locate any signals sent by the recorders, which stop transmitting after about a month. The data recorders hold information including the plane’s altitude and speed and conversations between the pilots and traffic controllers.

Java Sea

“I am led to believe the tail section has been found,” AirAsia Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes said in a Twitter post. “If right part of tail section then the black box should be there.”

The international team’s recovery efforts are focused near Pangkalan Bun in the Java Sea, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) southeast of Singapore. QZ8501 was on a routine commercial flight from Surabaya to Singapore when it went off radar after the captain sought a higher altitude amid clouds.

Indonesian navy used sonar to identify debris resembling parts of the tail, Colonel Yayan Sofyan said in an interview on Metro TV on Jan. 3. Indonesia has five vessels equipped with hydrophones to try and pinpoint the recorders, which are designed to emit a “pinging” signal for at least 30 days after a plane crashes in water.

Mysterious

The single-aisle Airbus jet, operated as QZ8501 by Malaysia-based AirAsia’s Indonesia affiliate, appears to have flown into a storm cloud, with its engines possibly affected by ice formation, researchers from the Indonesia weather office wrote in a report, citing meteorological data from the flight’s last known location over the Java Sea.

The cause of the crash remains mysterious, with an experienced pilot flying a young and tested A320 aircraft into a storm before losing contact with air traffic controllers without transmitting a distress signal.

Air safety advocates have been pushing for years to make improvements to aircraft black boxes, such as allowing them to detach from the plane and float instead of sinking, and streaming data in real time to ground stations.

The industry has been slow to change, citing concerns over high costs, especially given the rarity of such incidents, ownership of the data and legal issues, according to some aviation experts.

United Nations aviation regulators, responding to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last year, are proposing that commercial planes be required to report their positions every 15 minutes. The new draft standard from the International Civil Aviation Organization will be presented next month at an agency safety conference in Montreal, said Anthony Philbin, an ICAO spokesman.

Indonesia said previously that AirAsia wasn’t authorized to fly to Singapore the day its jet crashed and halted the route pending an investigation. After the crash, the country is probing all airlines for any route violations.

–With assistance from Eko Listiyorini in Jakarta.

Copyright 2015 Bloomberg.