On the 11th day of the search for victims and the wreckage of AirAsia flight QZ8501, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency has confirmed that the tail fin of the plane has been found.
This is where the plane’s black box is located so it is hoped that investigators will now be able to find the flight recorders and discover what happened just before the flight crashed into the sea when en route from Surabaya to Singapore on December 28.
Black boxes, which contain the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, have a lifespan of about thirty days, so today’s discovery of the plane’s tail section is extremely important.
No pings have yet been detected from the black box, however, and it is possible that the flight recorders have sunk into sand on the sea bed.
The tail section was located on the sea bed about 30 km (20 miles) from the plane’s last known location, and was in the expanded search area.
The search and recovery operation has been hampered by extremely bad weather. The search area was expanded to take account of strong currents that will have dragged debris and perhaps bodies away from the crash site.
“We’ve found the tail that has been our main target,” the head of the search and rescue agency, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, told a news conference in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. The search team was now desperately trying to locate the black box, he said.
The tail was identified by divers after it was spotted by an underwater machine using a sonar scan, Soelistyo said. He showed reporters underwater photographs showing partial lettering on the sunken object and compared this with a picture of an intact Airbus A320-200 in AirAsia livery.
AirAsia group chief executive officer Tony Fernandes said on Twitter: “I am led to believe the tail section has been found. If right part of tail section then the black box should be there.
“We need to find all parts soon so we can find all our guests to ease the pain of our families. That still is our priority.”
Forty bodies have now been recovered from the Java Sea and 16 of them have been identified.
There were 162 people aboard the plane when it crashed about 40 minutes after take-off. There were 137 adult passengers, 17 children and one infant, along with two pilots and five cabin crew.
The plane was carrying 155 Indonesians, along with three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one passenger from the United Kingdom, and one French pilot.
Cause of the crash
It is not yet known what caused flight QZ8501 to crash, but Indonesia’s meteorological agency has said weather was the “triggering factor”.
It said the most probable weather phenomenon was icing, which can cause engine damage due to a cooling process. It did say however that this was just one of the possibilities.
There was a request from the pilot, Captain Iriyanto, before the crash to be allowed to fly higher to avoid storm clouds.
Indonesia’s transport ministry has suspended AirAsia’s Surabaya-Singapore licence, saying the airline only had permission to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
AirAsia Indonesia was operating the Surabaya-Singapore flight four times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority has said Singapore had given approval for the company to fly the Surabaya-Singapore route daily during the northern winter season, from the October 26, 2014, to March 28, 2015.
The authority pointed out, however, that, before an airline can launch a service between two points, it needs to obtain approval of its flight schedules from the respective civil aviation authorities at each end of its flight routing separately.
AirAsia has said it is cooperating fully with the transport ministry’s investigations, which are expected to be completed by Friday evening.
Citing a statement from Tony Fernandes’ office, The Straits Times in Singapore quotes the AirAsia CEO as saying AirAsia had the flying rights to travel from Surabaya to Singapore seven days a week.
“We have secured both slots as well as approval from both Indonesia and Singapore. What happened was purely an administrative error,” The Straits Times quoted Fernandes as saying.
Indonesia is also reported to have reassigned some airport and air traffic control officials who allowed the flight to take off, and has tightened rules on pre-flight briefing procedures.
A year of tragedy
For Malaysia, this is yet another disaster in a year of tragedy. The country has already suffered two other air tragedies this year. No trace has yet been found of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was then shot down over Ukraine, and it is still not clear who was responsible.
AirAsia Indonesia is 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia, with local investors holding the rest. Until now, the AirAsia group had not had a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002. It has up until now been a hugely popular and successful airline.