There doesn’t seem to be any reason at this point to suspect foul play in the loss of the AirAsia Airbus A320 that went missing Sunday morning at 6:24 AM local time over Indonesia’s Java Sea.
Of course, the unbelievable loss of a third passenger jet for Malaysia-based airlines in 2014 is one peculiar feature of this latest incident. Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, with 239 onboard, was lost – and never found – on 8 Mar 2014, after apparently diverting to the Indian Ocean from its flight path east of Vietnam. Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam was shot down over Ukraine on 17 July 2014, with 298 onboard.
Now AirAsia, a Malaysia-based regional carrier with an Indonesian subsidiary, AirAsia Indonesia, has lost a plane flying from Surabaya to Singapore with 162 souls onboard: 7 crew and 155 passengers. Reportedly, the flight crew requested five minutes before loss of radar contact to increase altitude in order to avoid some exceptionally bad weather along the route. (See map and tweet.) The request was denied by controllers due to the presence of other aircraft at the higher altitude. Radar contact was then lost.
The initial search of the possible crash area in the Java Sea turned up nothing. That seems a little odd, but the search was being conducted in heavy rain, and had to be suspended at nightfall on Sunday, so it’s too early to draw conclusions from the lack of detected debris.
Satellite image around time #AirAsia flight went missing, very vigorous thunderstorms (black) north of Surabaya pic.twitter.com/w8jSzfzvmi
— James Reynolds (@EarthUncutTV) December 28, 2014
Flight 8501 was near land, between Kalimantan and Belitung, at the time of lost contact. But if it went down on land, we could expect a signal from its emergency transmitter, even if everyone was dead. A loss of onboard systems might have precluded normal radio contact between the flight crew and the controllers after the final call, but the emergency beacon should still work. If there are reasons to suspect the plane went down anywhere but in the Java Sea, no one has reported unearthing them.
We don’t know much about the flight crew yet, but the (Indonesian) captain reportedly had at least 6,100 flying hours (the airline’s CEO, Tony Fernandes, told media the actual number is much higher: around 20,000 hours). The first officer had over 2,200.
There were no Americans on the flight. 149 passengers and 6 of the crew were Indonesian; one crewman was French, and there were 3 South Koreans, 1 Singaporean, 1 Malaysian, and 1 Brit among the passengers.
One odd fact is that an unusual number of prospective passengers missed QZ8501. There were 26 no-shows. Some have been tracked down by media and interviewed, but most have not. The ones who have been interviewed have unremarkable reasons for not making the flight. If there’s a pattern among the no-shows, it’s not obvious. I doubt that there’s anything special to know about this, frankly.
An interesting tidbit in the latest BBC report contributes to the sense that weather and/or a system malfunction are the likely causes for this airliner loss. BBC quotes an industry analyst from airlineratings.com:
Geoffrey Thomas, of airlineratings.com, told the BBC that radar plots had shown the plane was flying at 353 knots, 100 knots slower than it should have been.
Although he stressed it was only speculation, he said it was possible the pilots may have lost data on air speed because of an ice-up of pitot tube instrumentation. This was thought to have had happened [sic] in the loss of the Air France Airbus A330 over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
As Mr. Thomas says, it’s only speculation at this point, but if the radar plot of air speed was accurate, bad instrument feedback and a misjudgment of air speed by the flight deck crew would certainly have explanatory value.
We’ll have to wait for more answers than that – as will the families of the passengers and crew of QZ8501, who are keeping an anguished vigil now, and seeing their hopes fade with each passing hour.