Singapore. In what is now visibly a third disaster to strike the Malaysian aviation industry within 2014, an Airbus 320-200 belonging to AirAsia disappeared from radars December 28th while on a flight from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore. The AirAsia flight QZ 8501, with 155 passengers, two pilots and five cabin crew, was flying at an altitude of 32,000 feet in turbulent equatorial weather but on the common route followed by all airliners. The pilot wanted to go up to 38,000 feet to avoid the horrible weather just before the communications were lost. All aboard perished.
Initial reports indicate that the plane broke up midair as its parts were found scattered in the Java Sea. Waters there are not deep, just 100 to 200 feet down, but very choppy and turbulent, making the search difficult for divers. Several bodies though have been recovered.
Airline’s founder and CEO Tony Fernandez pleaded for support and strength and said his first responsibility was towards the families of the crew and passengers.
The tail and some parts of the aircraft were spotted and some recovered but the Black Box – actually two pieces, red in colour, and housed in the rear portion near the tail – was yet to be sighted after about 10 days of the search. The ping signals though from them have been detected.
Most of those onboard were Indonesians, and included three South Koreans, one French, one British, one Malaysian and one Singaporean. The passengers included 16 children and one infant.
An extensive search was launched immediately by Singaporean, Indonesian, and Malaysian authorities after the possibility of a mishap was suspected. Malaysia also requested the US Navy to help locate the aircraft while the Indian Navy put a couple of ships and the sophisticated Boeing P-8I maritime reconnaissance plane on alert.
Aircraft, helicopters and ships were looking for the debris or any sign of the aircraft. Indonesia’s Belitung island, some 300 km from India’s farthest point – Indira Point or formerly Pygmalion Point – in the Andaman & Nicobar islands, has become the base for the search with helicopters taking off from there repeatedly.
Significantly, the AirAsia plane disappeared in the same region where Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH 370 had gone missing in March this year. There is no trace of the Boeing 777-200 yet.
Nonetheless, there are no similarities between the two mishaps in the sense that flight MH 370 had changed direction away from its destination, Beijing, towards the southern Indian Ocean and someone had also manually switched off its transponders.
In the case of the AirAsia airliner, the pilots had maintained contact with air traffic controllers and clearly given a warning about the storms.
Presence of violent weather with dangerous cumulonimbus clouds going up to 55,000 feet was later confirmed by weather pattern pictures available from several agencies. There were at least three widespread storms around the aircraft and possibly, it got caught in the whirlwinds as either the upwards draught lifted it or the pilots tried to overfly the stormy clouds by trying to gain height. Two possibilities have been mentioned by experts: that the aircraft broke midair as its fuselage is not intact in one place or that it was afflicted with icing and the pilots lost controls, the aircraft stalled and fell.
AirAsia is one of the most successful low cost carriers globally, and has an excellent reputation in efficiency and safety. The Airbus A320-200 was just six years old and properly maintained while Captain Irianto, an Indonesian, had a flying experience of more than 20,000 hours, some 6,000-plus on the fly-by-wire Airbus aircraft. The co-pilot, French national Emmanuel Remi Plessl, had flown on the sticks for more than 2,000 hours.
What exactly happened to the aircraft will be ascertained only after its Black box is recovered.
The Airbus 320-200 had taken off for the two-hour AirAsia Flight 8501 at 5.20 am for a scheduled landing at Singapore’s Changhi airport at8.30 am (Time difference is 1 hour) and went missing after about 42 minutes in air over the Java Sea.
Notably, there were other aircraft on this route, but it has to be kept in mind that stormy winds can rise suddenly, and go up to 50,000 feet, much beyond the limits of a civilian airliner. Those familiar with the area point out that cumulonimbus clouds, towering, dense and literally electrifying, dominate the equatorial skies particularly around December and January.
Pilots are indeed trained to avoid them, and generally they do. There can still be very difficult situations though, like two thunderstorms close to each other, as was in this case, making the situation for an aircraft very, very difficult. Or icing on the wings which can affect controls of the otherwise very advanced fly-by-wire aircraft.
Cumulonimbus clouds are dense, rise vertically, and are full of lightning. However, while lightning can pass safely through most aircraft, the violent movement of winds is dangerous.
It may be recalled that after the disappearance of MH 370, a second aircraft of Malaysian Airlines , another Boeing 777-200ER, was shot down July 17th over Ukraine while on way home from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport with 298 people on board.
The AirAsia mishap is the third airline accident, from the same country, Malaysia, within a span of 10 months, and this is bound to be very painful for its Government, people and the aviation industry.
The AirAsia mishap is also likely to trigger new safety measures, possibly for mandatory transponders to constantly beep the position of aircraft as they fly.
© India Strategic