Weather Improves But Progress Slow in AirAsia Search

By Fergus Jensen 7 January 2015

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia — Indonesian search and rescue officials reported better weather on Wednesday over the presumed crash site of an AirAsia passenger jet, but appeared no closer to finding the black box flight recorders that may explain what brought the plane down.

Flight QZ8501 vanished from radar screens over the northern Java Sea on Dec. 28, less than half-way into a two-hour flight from Indonesia’s second-biggest city of Surabaya to Singapore. There were no survivors among the 162 people on board.

Thirty-nine bodies and debris from the plane have since been plucked from the surface of the waters off Borneo, but strong winds and high waves have prevented divers from reaching larger pieces of suspected wreckage detected by sonar on the sea floor.

“It’s clear, it’s much better than the past few days,” air force First Lieutenant Alpha Yudi Baskoro told reporters in Pangkalan Bun, the southern Borneo town where the operation is based. “Waves are around one to two meters—that’s good. The wind speed is also relatively low.”

Indonesian officials believe seven metal objects pinpointed in water about 30 meters deep may include the tail and parts of the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200.

But even on the few occasions the weather has allowed divers to enter the water, strong currents and poor visibility in the muddy sea have made progress painstakingly slow.

“We couldn’t dive for long, only five or 10 minutes and then go up,” navy diving supervisor Sgt-Maj Rudi Hartanto told Reuters late on Tuesday. “The seabed is mostly mud and sand, and the current is strong—four to five knots—so the mud comes up and the visibility reduces to zero.”

For relatives of those aboard the flight, the slow pace has been agonizing. “I’m still looking for my younger sibling,” said a woman, who did not give her name, at the crisis center set up for relatives in Surabaya.

Indonesia AirAsia, 49 percent owned by the Malaysia-based AirAsia budget group, has faced criticism from authorities in Jakarta in the 10 days since the crash.

The transport ministry has suspended the carrier’s Surabaya-Singapore license, saying it only had permission to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Flight QZ8501 took off on a Sunday, though the ministry said this had no bearing on the accident.

AirAsia has said it is cooperating fully with the ministry’s investigations.

Indonesia has also reassigned some airport and air traffic control officials who allowed the flight to take off and tightened rules on pre-flight procedures in a country with a patchy reputation for air safety.