New Delhi/Jakarta/Singapore: India has put on standby three ships and a maritime surveillance aircraft for assistance in the search operation after an AirAsia flight with 162 people onboard went missing en route from Indonesia to Singapore after losing contact with air traffic controllers on Sunday.
Indian Navy sources said one ship in Bay of Bengal and another two in Andaman Sea have been put on standby. Along with these, a P-8I aircraft has also been put on standby. The aircraft is used for maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare operations.
“The assets have been put on standby in view of the gravity of situation. They will be rushed into service as and when any order is issued,” the sources said.
Meanwhile, AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes announced on Twitter that he was on his way to Surabaya. The airline’s founder Tony Fernandes has joined the search efforts.
Search operation for the missing AirAsia flight has been suspended for the night, Transport Ministry officials said. A massive sea search was underway for the missing plane through airspace possibly thick with dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning.
More than 12 hours later, shocked family members huddled at the Surabaya airport from where the Airbus A320 had taken off, awaiting any news of the jetliner operated by an airline whose parent company is based in Malaysia. It is the third incident involving Malaysia this year following two of the worst aviation tragedies that hit Malaysia Airlines — in March Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people and in July Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on it.
Indonesia and Singapore launched a search and rescue operation for Flight 8501 near Belitung island in Java Sea over which the jetliner lost contact with ground traffic control, about 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. The flight had completed a little less than half of its journey time to Singapore.
“We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it,” Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, told reporters. “We don’t dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact.”
He said the last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6:13 a.m. (2313 GMT Saturday) when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet (10,360 meters).” It was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m., and a minute later was no longer there, he said.
He said there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.
AirAsia, a regional low-cost carrier founded in 2001 by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, said in a statement that the plane was on the submitted flight plan route. However, it had requested deviation due to weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of Indonesian Air Traffic Control.
AirAsia, which has a presence in most of Southeast Asia and recently in India, has never lost a plane before and has a good safety track record.
Sunardi, a weather forecaster at the Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency who uses only one name, said dense storm clouds were detected up to 44,000 feet in the same area at the time the plane was reported to have lost contact.
“There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds,” he said.
The plane had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement. Among the passengers were three South Koreans and one each from Singapore, Malaysia. The rest were Indonesians.
It said the captain had a total of 6,100 flying hours, a substantial number, and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours.
At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed. As word spread, more and more family members were arriving at the crisis center to await word.
Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters in Surabaya that search and rescue efforts now involved the Indonesian army, the national Search and Rescue Agency as well as Singapore and Malaysia.
The Search and Rescue Agency’s operation chief, Maj. Gen. Tatang Zaenudin, said 200 rescuers had been deployed to the east side of Belitung island.
Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said three aircraft, including a surveillance plane, had been dispatched to the area. The Singapore air force and the navy also were searching with two C-130 planes.
Airbus said in a statement that the aircraft was delivered to AirAsia in October 2008, which would make it six years old. It said the plane had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights. AirAsia said the aircraft had last undergone scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16.
Malaysia-based AirAsia, which has dominated cheap travel in the region for years, flies short routes of just a few hours, connecting large cities of Southeast Asia. However, recently it has tried to expand into long-distance flying through its sister airline AirAsia X. AirAsia Malaysia owns 49 percent of its subsidiary, AirAsia Indonesia.