Surabaya, Indonesia: As search crews on Monday scoured the Indonesian waters where an AirAsia jet carrying 162 people is believed to have gone down, officials predicted a tragic ending to the region’s latest aviation mystery.
An Indonesian helicopter saw two oily spots in the search area Monday afternoon, and an Australian search plane spotted objects hundreds of miles away, but it was too early to know whether either was connected to the missing aircraft.
AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished Sunday morning in airspace thick with storm clouds on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore.
After the search expanded Monday, Jakarta’s Air Force base commander Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto said an Australian Orion aircraft had detected “suspicious” objects near Nangka island, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Pangkalan Bun, near central Kalimantan, or 700 miles (1,120 kilometers) from the location where the plane lost contact.
“However, we cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane,” Putranto said. “We are now moving in that direction, which is in cloudy conditions.”
Air Force spokesman Rear Marshal Hadi Tjahnanto told MetroTV that an Indonesian helicopter in the eastern part of Belitung island spotted two oily spots on the sea about 105 nautical miles east of Tanjung Pandan – much closer to the point of last contact. He said samples of the oil would be collected and analyzed to see if they are connected to the missing plane.
Earlier Monday, Indonesia search and rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said it seemed certain that the plane had crashed.
“Based on the coordinates that we know, the evaluation would be that any estimated crash position is in the sea, and that the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” he said.
The last communication from the cockpit to air traffic control was a request by one of the pilots to increase altitude from 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) to 38,000 feet (11,582 meters) because of the rough weather. Air traffic control was not able to immediately grant the request because another plane was in airspace at 34,000 feet, said Bambang Tjahjono, director of the state-owned company in charge of air-traffic control.
By the time clearance could be given, Flight 8501 had disappeared, Tjahjono said. The twin-engine, single-aisle plane, which never sent a distress signal, was last seen on radar four minutes after the last communication from the cockpit.
First Adm. Sigit Setiayana, the Naval Aviation Center commander at the Surabaya air force base, said 12 navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and a number of warships were taking part in the search, along with ships and planes from Singapore and Malaysia. The Australian Air Force also sent a search plane.
Searchers had to cope with heavy rain Sunday, but Setiayana said Monday that visibility was good. “God willing, we can find it soon,” he told The Associated Press.