TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Declares MH370 Crash An Accident to Clear Way for Compensation Claims

The wife of a missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 passenger shows a press statement to reporters at a media conference room in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Jan. 29, 2015.
The wife of a missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 passenger shows a press statement to reporters at a media conference room in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Jan. 29, 2015. Azhar Rahim—EPA

Malaysia's civil aviation chief said the searchers pursued every credible lead and reviewed all available data to find MH370

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Authority on Thursday officially declared the crash of Flight 370 an accident, fulfilling a legal obligation that will allow efforts to proceed with compensation claims.

Malaysia civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said that the search for the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared on March 8, 2014, on the way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, “remains a priority.”

“It is therefore with the heaviest heart and deepest sorrow that we officially declare Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 an accident,” he said in a pre-recorded message broadcast on Malaysian television, adding that all 239 passengers and crew on board are presumed to have lost their lives.

Azharuddin said that Malaysia, China and Australia had spared no expense and resources in their search for the plane, presumed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia. The hunt resumed in October after a four-month hiatus with more sophisticated sonar equipment.

Azharuddin said the searchers pursued every credible lead and reviewed all available data that tracked the plane to a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean, but were still unable to locate it.

He said that Chapter 1 of Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, commonly referred to as the “Chicago Convention,” states that the definition of the term “accident” includes “the aircraft is missing”.

“It also states that ‘an aircraft is considered to be missing when the official search has been terminated and the wreckage has not been located.'”

Azharuddin said the investigation by the safety team and Malaysian police were ongoing, but both were limited by the lack of physical evidence at this time, particularly the flight recorders.

“At this juncture, there is no evidence to substantiate any speculations as to the cause of the accident,” he said, adding that an interim report detailing the progress of the safety investigation will be released soon.

TIME Security

Hackers Hit Malaysia Airlines Website

The airline says no customer data at risk

Malaysia Airlines said Monday that its website had been “compromised,” though it denied reports that hackers had actually infiltrated the site itself and said no customer information was at risk.

Beginning late Sunday night, users going on the airline’s website were directed to a page touting messages from a group claiming to be aligned with Islamist extremism. The browser window, reading “ISIS WILL PREVAIL,” stood over a page displaying the image of an aircraft along with the message “404- Plane Not Found.” Malaysia Airlines is still suffering from the fallout of two downed planes in the last year, one of which was shot down over Ukraine and the other that has yet to be recovered.

Others were shown similar messaging over the image of a reptile donning a monocle and top hat.

A hacker group called Lizard Squad, also going by Cyber Caliphate, has taken credit and boasted about the alleged hack on Twitter.

Malaysia Airlines released a public statement on its Facebook page assuring customers that although its site “has been compromised where users are re-directed to a hacker website… Malaysia Airlines assures customers and clients that its website was not hacked and this temporary glitch does not affect their bookings and that user data remains secured.”

Although Malaysiaairlines.com was down Monday morning, the company had created a separate site where customers could check into their flights.

Lizard Squad still claimed that data has been compromised.

 

TIME Aviation

Indonesia Says the AirAsia Tailpiece Has Been Found

Search and rescue teams and flight crew prepare their gear on board an Indonesian Air Force Super Puma helicopter before a search mission for debris and bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501at Iskandar Air Force Base, in Pangkalan Bun
Search-and-rescue workers and flight crew prepare their gear on board an Indonesian air force's Super Puma helicopter at Iskandar air-force base in Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia, before a search mission for debris and bodies from AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 on Jan. 6, 2015 Veri Sanovri—Reuters

That raises hopes for the recovery of the black-box recorders, which are located in the tail section

The tailpiece of AirAsia Flight 8501 has been found at the bottom of the Java Sea, Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency Basarnas confirmed Wednesday, raising hopes that investigators may soon learn what made the Airbus A320-200 crash.

Speaking at a press conference in Jakarta, the head of Basarnas, F.H. Bambang Soelistyo, said, “We have a picture of the part and we can confirm that it’s the tail.”

The tailpiece is where the aircraft’s “black box” flight-data recorders are located, with the information stored on them offering the best hope of explaining why the aircraft disappeared 42 minutes after leaving Indonesia’s second city Surabaya for Singapore early Dec. 28.

Bad weather is still thought to be a key contributor, as the pilot asked to change course and climb from 32,000 ft. to 38,000 ft. to avoid a storm system, but no distress call was received.

The find also raises hopes of recovering more bodies. Only 40 of the 155 passengers and seven crew have so far been recovered, and investigators suspect most bodies may still be strapped into their seats in the stricken plane’s fuselage, which could be located somewhere near the tail.

The black boxes are fitted with locator beacons, but they only have around 20 days of their 30-day battery life left to run. Divers have been trying to approach the wreckage but have been hampered by large waves and strong currents caused by Southeast Asia’s fearsome monsoon.

TIME Aviation

This Is Why It’s Proving So Hard to Find the Missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501

Crewmembers of an Indonesian Air Force NAS 332 Super Puma helicopter look out of the windows during a search operation for the victims and wreckage of AirAsia flight QZ 8501 over the Java Sea
Crewmembers of an Indonesian Air Force NAS 332 Super Puma helicopter search for the victims and wreckage of AirAsia flight QZ 8501 over the Java Sea, Indonesia, Jan. 5, 2015. Tatan Syuflana—Pool/Reuters

At this time of year, the Java Sea is a churning soup of sediment and debris

Divers plunged into the Java Sea soon after daybreak on Tuesday, desperate to use every possible second of a break in the weather to hunt for AirAsia Flight QZ 8501.

On the face of it, recovery operations for the ill-fated aircraft should be straightforward. The Java Sea is shallow, flat-bottomed and a well-traveled maritime thoroughfare, ringed by land on all sides.

So far, however, teams have only managed to recover 37 bodies. The remains of the other 162 passengers and crew, who are presumed dead, are thought be trapped inside the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200, which vanished 42 minutes after departing Indonesia’s sprawling port city of Surabaya for Singapore early Dec. 28.

But, 10 days into the search, nobody knows for certain where the fuselage is, nor have the flight-data recorders been found. (Although if the tail section has actually been spotted, as some believe it has, then there is a good chance of finding the black boxes, as this is where they are kept.)

So why has the search for the AirAsia jet proven so formidable in waters just 130 ft. (40 m) deep?

The answer is the weather, specifically the ferocious Asian winter monsoon, which turns the Java Sea into a tempestuous, murky soup. In fact, had the crash happened during a summer month, like August, it’s very likely that the wreck could have been spotted by simply looking down through the water on a bright, calm day.

“The plane really couldn’t have gone down at a worse time of year,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells TIME.

The Java Sea is so shallow it isn’t really ocean at all, from a geological perspective, but merely part of the continental landmass. During the last Ice Age, the whole area was above sea level and forested. “It’s tantalizing to think that just 20,000 years ago monkeys were roaming around there, and now it’s sea,” says van Sebille.

This means that rather than a rocky bottom, there is a thick layer of organic material that billows up with strong currents. This is exacerbated by monsoon rains lashing the surrounding islands, sending water into rivers that eventually torrents into the sea, depositing a thick layer of sludge and sediment.

Little wonder divers were forced to abandon efforts on Sunday because of near-zero visibility. Nor is it surprising that four large objects spied on sonar, which could be parts of the twin-engine plane, still have not been identified. (One earlier suspected object turned out to simply be a coral reef.)

The shallow water also affects wave patterns. While the Java Sea does not experience the enormous rollers of the open ocean, the area is characterized by extremely quick and precipitous waves that thrash around frenziedly, and are thus tricky to judge and work among. Combined with poor visibility, these choppy conditions mean divers risk being buffeted into debris — including the twisted pieces of jagged metal fuselage they are hunting for.

“It’s a very dangerous situation,” says van Sebille.

Such currents also explain why the search area expanded Tuesday from a 18,000-sq.-mi. (45,000-sq-km) primary search zone to include another 100,000 sq. mi. (260,00 sq km) farther east, in the direction where debris may have drifted. But the sheer mass of flotsam and refuse is another complicating factor. As well as assorted waste from all the surrounding populous islands of Java, Borneo and Sumatra, the Java Sea is thick with shipping traffic, and many vessels dump debris into the water.

There are also an untold number of wrecks from both ships and also other aircraft from as far back as World War II. All this debris tends to get churned around ceaselessly as “there’s not really a current flushing things out,” says van Sebille.

Even though practically every navy in the world has experience and equipment to allow operating at the depths posed by the Java Sea, the search for QZ 8501 has started to take on the same frustration as that experienced during the initial hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370, which is presumed to have gone down in the seemingly bottomless Indian Ocean, and from which not a scrap of debris has been found.

As with MH 370, there is the desperate race to find the black boxes before their batteries run out.

Although locator ships have been deployed, no trace of the devices have yet been found. “We are racing against time, as their battery [will be used] up within 30 days,” Nurcahyo, an investigator with the Indonesian National Transportation Agency, told Xinhua. “Now we have 21 more days left.”

After another disappoint and fruitless day on the Java Sea, make that 20 — or even fewer, if bad weather persists.

Read next: For the AirAsia Bereaved, the New Year Brings Nothing but Grief

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Aviation

Divers Struggle to Find Bodies and Black Boxes From AirAsia Crash

The body of an AirAsia QZ8501 passenger is carried to an ambulance after being transported from a ship by a U.S. Navy helicopter from the USS Sampson at the airbase in Pangkalan Bun
The body of an AirAsia QZ 8501 passenger is carried to an ambulance after being transported from a ship by a U.S. Navy helicopter from the U.S.S. Sampson at the air base in Pangkalan Bun, in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan, on Jan. 4, 2015 Darren Whiteside—Reuters

Only 37 bodies have been found and investigators believe most of the dead are still underwater strapped into their seats

The AirAsia salvage operation shifted Monday to focus on recovering the aircraft’s flight-data recorders, otherwise known as black boxes, but blustery weather continues to undermine search efforts in the Java Sea.

Only 37 bodies have so far been recovered from the 155 passengers and seven crew aboard Flight QZ 8501, which vanished from radar 42 minutes after departing Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya bound for Singapore early Dec. 28.

According to Suryadi B. Supriyadi, director of operations at Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (known by its Bahasa Indonesia acronym Basarnas), at least five ships with black-box pinger locators have been dispatched to where four large objects, believed to be wreckage from the plane, were spotted by sonar.

Once triangulation of black-box signals has been achieved, and conditions sufficiently improve, a team of more than 80 deep-sea divers will be deployed to get visual confirmation. On Sunday, divers had to abandon their forays after being confronted with near-zero visibility in the murky depths.

“If it cannot be done by divers, we will use sophisticated equipment with capabilities of tracking underwater objects and then will lift them up,” Supriyadi told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

Locating the black boxes is crucial to determining what made the twin-engine Airbus A320-200 crash, though severe weather is still presumed to be key factor.

“The most probable weather phenomenon was icing, which can cause engine damage due to a cooling process,” said a preliminary report on the website of Indonesia’s meteorological agency.

However, Mike Daniel, a Singapore-based aviation expert with more than three decades experience with the U.S. Federation Aviation Administration, thinks this is only one of “two different and distinct scenarios.”

“If they find the flight data recorders, it would show if icing is a factor,” he tells TIME. “But my sense is that with the strong storm cell updrafts reported by the meteorological folks that there may be more focus on high-altitude flight upset, as opposed to unreliable airspeed indications due to icing.”

The last cockpit contact between Captain Iriyanto and Indonesian Air Traffic Control occurred when the highly experienced former Indonesian air-force pilot requested permission to change direction and climb from a cruising altitude of 32,000 ft. to 38,000 ft. in order to avoid severe weather. The first request was granted, but the aircraft was only permitted to ascend to 34,000 ft. as there was traffic above.

On Sunday, Basarnas recovered four more bodies as well as more debris believed to be from the aircraft, including the emergency-exit window, some luggage, passenger seats and survival kits, AirAsia said in a statement.

AirAsia has still not responded to claims by Indonesian officials that Flight QZ 8501 did not have permission to fly on the Surabaya to Singapore route on the Sunday it crashed.

“The regulator requires further evaluation on the route, and AirAsia will be fully cooperative throughout the process,” AirAsia spokeswoman Malinda Yasmin said via email.

Indonesian aviation authorities have postponed all Surabaya-to-Singapore AirAsia flights in the meantime, although their Singaporean peers told Agence France-Presse on Sunday that the route was approved at the Singapore end.

Thirteen of the 37 bodies recovered to date have been identified. The remains of flight attendant Wismoyo Ari Prambudi, 24; passengers Jie Stevie Gunawan, 10; and Juanita Limantara, 30, were returned to their families Sunday.

Read next: For the AirAsia Bereaved, the New Year Brings Nothing but Grief

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Aviation

Bad Weather Is Hampering the Recovery of AirAsia Bodies

Indonesia Mourns AirAsia Crash As Recovery Operation Continues
Members of an Indonesian search and rescue team carry the body of a victim of the AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash from a USS navy helicopter at Iskandar Airbase on January 02, 2015 in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti—Getty Images

The longer they're in the water, the more difficult identification becomes

The first identified victim of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 has been laid to rest, but the agony continues for most families as officials say it may take another week for the wreckage to be found, with tempestuous conditions hampering the recovery of remains.

Hayati Lutfiah Hamid, 49, was buried on New Year’s Day, surrounded by friends and family in the village of Sawotratap, a few kilometers outside Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya, from where the doomed Airbus A320-200 departed early Sunday bound for Singapore.

But three members of her family who were with her on the plane still have not been identified.

“Their house has been in a panic since Sunday,” a neighbor named Umaroyah told Reuters. “Everyone in the neighborhood knows someone who was on that plane.”

On Friday, three more of the 22 bodies so far recovered were identified. They were Kevin Alexander Soetjipto, an alum of St. Albertus Catholic high school in Malang; Grayson Herbert Linaksita, a resident of Surabaya; and flight attendant Khairunnisa Haidar, 22. All four identified to date are Indonesian nationals.

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes tweeted Friday that he would accompany his crew member’s remains to join their families. Palembang is Khairunnisa’s hometown.

F.H. Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), told a press conference Friday in Jakarta that the priorities today are to find the body of the plane and the black box in addition to the search and recovery of the bodies.

However, waves of up to 4 m (13 ft.) on Friday meant that the 47 divers charged with finding more of the 162 passengers and crew were struggling to work.

Some 29 ships and 17 aircraft are busy scouring the busy Karimata Strait for wreckage. Reports on Wednesday that the plane had been found on the seabed seem to have been premature, but the search area Friday was whittled down to around 1,575 square nautical miles.

This is was significantly reduced from Thursday’s search zone of some 13,500 sq km — roughly the size of Connecticut.

According to David Newbery, a Hong Kong flight captain and accredited aircraft-accident investigator, “The spot where the plane vanished from radar simply represents when there was a power interruption to the electronics. An airplane without any engines could glide for over 100 miles from 32,000 ft.”

Basarnas says it will speed up sending recovered bodies from Pangkalan Bun, in Central Kalimantan province, to Surabaya, in East Java, to minimize further deterioration. “As soon as the bodies arrive in Pangkalan Bun, we will evacuate them to Surabaya because we are worried the [local] hospital isn’t sterile,” the Basarnas operational director S.B. Supriyadi told reporters Friday in the Central Kalimantan town.

He later added that eight bodies had now been sent Surabaya, 10 were in the hospital at Pangkalan Bun and four were aboard a search vessel.

Forensic attempts to identify one of those recovered have already proved problematic, because fingerprints are inconclusive after bodies have been exposed to seawater for so long. Other identification methods, such as dental records and DNA, take much longer to process, meaning there’s a race against time for families to gain much needed closure and perform funeral rites.

On Thursday, French agency BEA, which investigates all fatal accidents involving Airbus planes, said its investigators were helping with underwater searches for the aircraft’s two data recorders.

Finding the data recorders, colloquially known as black boxes, is crucial to determining what made the single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner crash. Latest analysis of radar signals indicate the plane may have made an extremely steep climb and descent, possibly because of severe weather.

With reporting by Yenni Kwok

TIME Aviation

More Bodies Are Being Recovered From the AirAsia Disaster

Government official tries to calm a family member of passengers onboard AirAsia flight QZ8501 at a waiting area in Juanda International Airport
A government official, left, tries to calm a family member of passengers on board AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 at a waiting area in Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Dec. 30, 2014 Beawiharta—Reuters

But bad weather is stirring up sediment and hampering the search

Seven bodies from AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 have now been recovered from the waters off Indonesian Borneo, including one in a trademark red flight-attendant uniform, as friends and relatives of those who were on the ill-fated Airbus A320-200 struggle to come to terms with the fact that all 162 passengers and crew are presumed dead.

It has emerged that many of the passengers who boarded the flight that left Surabaya’s Juanda International Airport for Singapore early Sunday morning — only to vanish from radar 42 minutes after takeoff — were ethnic Chinese families going on year-end holidays to a destination highly popular with Indonesian Chinese.

The victims included one student and seven graduates of St. Albertus, a Roman Catholic high school in Malang, a town near Surabaya, according to Anne-Marie, a member of the school’s alumni association. The group was traveling with family members. One of them traveled with her fiancé — the two planned to marry next year — his mother and father, who was also an alumnus.

“Many are shocked,” Anne-Marie tells TIME. “Especially because all of them died with their families too.”

The Jawa Pos, a regional newspaper, reported Wednesday that in total 35 residents of Malang had been lost in the disaster.

Officials have meanwhile pinpointed the location of the wreckage on the bottom of the Java Sea, their search greatly aided by two fishermen who brought recovery teams to waters where they said they saw and heard an explosion on Sunday.

Bodies were first spotted about 100 miles (160 km) from Central Kalimantan province, in southern Borneo. A sonar scan later uncovered what is now understood to be the fuselage of the plane on the seabed.

Poor weather is hampering efforts to recover more victims. Lashing rain has stirred up sediment in what is already murky water, and salvagers must sift through a large volume of assorted flotsam — such as discarded fishing nets, shipping refuse and plastic waste — from this busy maritime thoroughfare in order to recover parts of the aircraft.

Working in their favor, however, is the shallowness of this part of the Java Sea — around 100 ft. (30 m). The search for the sunken flight data recorder can be simply conducted by divers using hand-held locators instead of submarines. There is also the likelihood that debris will not have spread far.

“When a plane hits the sea it’s quite normal to get a minimal amount of floating wreckage and for it to be quite concentrated,” David Newbery, a Hong Kong flight captain and accredited aircraft-accident investigator, tells TIME.

Indonesian President Joko Widowo said Tuesday that the priority would be the recovery of bodies from the stricken aircraft. After that, crash investigators will have to piece together what exactly caused the plane to come down, with bad weather still presumed to be a contributing factor.

“To the family members, I feel your loss in this tragedy,” he told those gathered at the Surabaya airport late Tuesday. “I pray you find the strength and will to face this challenging time.” On Wednesday, he issued a national call for restrained New Year celebrations in the wake of the disaster.

The East Java provincial government has canceled a planned New Year’s Eve concert in Surabaya. Instead, Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini will hold an interfaith-prayer meeting.

Ujang Iskandar, the district chief overseeing Pangkalan Bun, the Central Kalimantan town nearest to where bodies and wreckage were seen, has issued an order banning “noisy parties, music and fireworks” out of respect for the AirAsia victims, and will also lead an interfaith-prayer gathering.

TIME Aviation

This Is Why GPS Can’t Find the Missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501

Navy soldiers work on a map of Indonesia monitoring all Navy ships from Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia involved in the joint search and rescue operation for AirAsia flight QZ8501 at a navy base on Batam island
Indonesian navy soldiers work on a map of Indonesia monitoring all ships from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia involved in the joint search-and-rescue operation for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 at a navy base on the Indonesian island of Batam on Dec. 29, 2014 Antara Photo Agency/Reuters

Finding a plane isn't as simple as finding your phone

Objects that appeared to be a body and luggage, seen floating in the Karimata Strait on Tuesday, are the latest clues as to the final resting place of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, which disappeared 42 minutes after leaving Indonesia for Singapore early Sunday.

Indonesia’s Kompas TV said the objects were spotted by an Indonesian air-force pilot.

The sighting joins other unconfirmed leads as to the fate of the Airbus A320-200 and its 162 passengers and crew. According to news agency Agence France-Presse, “items resembling an emergency slide and plane door” were also seen Tuesday floating in the Java Sea by the crew of an Indonesian search aircraft, some 105 miles (169km) from Pangkalan Bun, a town in Central Kalimantan province, in southern Borneo.

Other clues include a few wisps of smoke spotted spiraling from Belitung Island, off the east coast of Sumatra, and an account by two fishermen of Kubu village, in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, who may have witnessed an explosion at sea and are reportedly taking officials to the spot.

There has already been one false lead — the “suspicious objects” seen Monday that were quickly discounted as general flotsam. The others may turn out the same way. But in this age of airborne wi-fi and GPS in every smart phone, a pertinent question must be asked: Why are we relying on smoke signals, fishermen and crewmen peering through the dull plexiglass of aircraft windows, at choppy seas hundreds of feet below, to find a plane?

The answer is investment priorities.

Modern aircraft, QZ 8501 included, have a GPS system, known as ADS-B, that broadcasts the plane’s location. However, this only works for normal flights — once an aircraft is hurtling to the ground, conditions become too extreme for it to function (neither would your phone’s GPS).

“People have been comparing this situation to Apple’s Find My Phone app,” John Walton, a British aviation journalist, tells TIME. “But the app can’t tell you very much on the way down if your phone is thrown off a 10-story building.”

Walton was also quick to tweet his reservations over whether an initial set of objects sighted Tuesday came from QZ 8501.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airways Flight 370 in March, presumed lost in the southern Indian Ocean with 239 people on board, prompted similar frustrations about why better technology isn’t being used to track missing planes.

Despite that, both the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have been “dragging their feet and putting some very feeble proposals forward” regarding developing the necessary technology, says Walton.

In December, a recommended timetable for deploying stopgap technology was vetoed by IATA board members, reports Reuters.

However, industry insiders say there is a valid argument against prioritizing expensive new GPS technology. It is unknown whether it would actually save any lives, and given difficult investment choices in a fiercely competitive marketplace, airlines would be better off putting money into advances that actually make planes safer.

Despite high-profile air disasters — which include Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over Ukraine in July, and the crash of an Air Algeria plane in Mali the same month with the loss of 116 lives — 2014 is on course to be the safest year on record in terms of fatal aviation accidents. There have been just eight as opposed to 11 in 2012, the previous safest year.

According to a Flightglobal study, “airline operations are now almost three times safer than they were 20 years ago.”

This is largely due to improvements to technology and training, spurred by massive investment. And so while it may seem ridiculous that passenger jets can disappear without a trace, it is also remarkable just how reliable they have become. They are still very much the world’s safest mode of transport.

There’s just one snag. When something does go wrong, it goes wrong catastrophically — and our inability to do a simple thing like find an aircraft only gives us more time to dwell on that fact.

With reporting by Yenni Kwok

Read next: AirAsia Relatives in Shock as Indonesian TV Airs Images of Floating Body

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TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: The Missing AirAsia Jet

What You Need to Know About the Missing AirAsia Jet

AirAsia QZ 8501 went missing on Sunday morning with 162 people on board.

This is the second time this year a Malaysian airline’s plane has gone missing, the first being Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which has still not been found.

The plane lost contact with air traffic control, but no distress signal was sent out. Searchers have set out by air and sea, focusing on the area near Belitung island in the Java sea.

The CEO of AirAsia, Tony Fernandes has been tweeting about the disappearance throughout the weekend.

Watch today’s Know Right Now for everything you need to know about AirAsia’s missing jet.

TIME Aviation

Everything We Know About the Missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501

The answer, at this stage of the search operation, is very little

In the third Malaysian-linked aviation disaster this year, an AirAsia plane traveling from Indonesia to Singapore disappeared early Sunday over the Java Sea. Officials indicate that it probably crashed into the ocean, and although possible wreckage has already been spotted, nothing has yet been confirmed.

What happened?

AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 departed Surabaya, Indonesia, bound for Singapore at 5.35 a.m. on Sunday, but lost contact with air traffic control after 42 minutes. The flight path was almost entirely over water.

The pilot asked for clearance to change altitude and direction minutes before contact was lost in order to avoid heavy cloud. This request was reportedly denied.

There were 162 people on board including seven crew. The passengers were mainly Indonesian, but there was also a Singaporean, a Malaysian and a British citizen on the manifest. The copilot was French.

How are search and rescue efforts progressing?

Searchers set out by air and sea soon after the plane did not arrive as planned at 8.30 a.m. at Singapore’s Changi Airport. However, bucketing rain and poor visibility hampered their efforts.

The Java Sea is a major shipping lane, well mapped and comparatively shallow. But strong westerly currents may have shifted any debris from where the last radar contact was received. Efforts are focusing near Belitung island off eastern Sumatra in the Java Sea.

The procedure will be to lay a grid over where the last radar contact was received and expand the search systematically from that point. “If it’s in the water, something will turn up,” Captain Desmond Ross, an Australia-based aviation expert, tells TIME.

Skies cleared overnight and Monday’s search is taking place in better conditions.

What may have caused the plane to go down?

Current theories relate to bad weather in the area, especially since Captain Iriyanto — who, like many Indonesians, only uses one name — had asked for permission to ascend from 32,000 ft. to 38,000 ft. to avoid cloud.

Meteorologists say cloud tops may have reached over 50,000 ft., though, and satellite imagery shows a huge storm that quickly disappeared, indicating a massive amount of rainfall in a short period.

There is speculation that flying through thunderstorms at high altitude could have caused ice to form on instruments, giving erroneous readings and affecting navigation. Similar problems are thought responsible for the ditching in the Atlantic of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009, that killed all 228 people aboard.

However, there are problems with this theory. Firstly, cockpit recordings indicate the Air France crew hadn’t been trained for such circumstances. But ever since, Airbus has put new training in place so that all pilots who fly their aircraft know how to deal with these occurrences. “It’s a new regime,” says Ross.

What’s more, the Air France flight was in the dead of night and so the crew only had instruments to rely on. “I don’t even think they had a horizon,” says Ross. It is unlikely such a tragedy would have occurred in daylight conditions such as QZ 8501 experienced.

Essentially, says Ross, “Weather doesn’t cause accidents. Accidents are caused by poor decision-making or other things like malfunctions.” What’s more, just 10% of fatal crashes from 2004 through 2013 occurred while a plane was at cruise elevation, according to a safety study published by Boeing in August. (Almost half were at approach and landing.)

Monsoon conditions over the Java Sea are well known, and lightning strikes or turbulence do not generally cause planes to come down. If the weather was sufficiently bad to have caused a crash, then this would have been known prior to or early in the flight. At the very least, the plane should have either flown around the storm or turned around and landed back at Surabaya.

A320-200 pilots can generally see a thunderstorm forming from over 100 miles away, and commercial planes sometimes detour their flightpaths even more than that again to avoid such problems.

Did the pilot indicate the plane was in trouble?

No distress call was reported, neither from the radio nor the transponder. The last contact from the cockpit was at 6:12 a.m. local time when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 38,000 feet [11,600 meters],” say officials. Radar contact was lost three minutes later.

The lack of the distress call is not entirely surprising, as pilots are trained to focus first on dealing with any emergency and to communicate only if and when free to do so. However, says Ross,“I’m having a bit of a problem that we haven’t heard anything from emergency locator transmitters or anything else.”

What about the plane?

The Airbus A320-200 used for QZ 8501 had two pilots, four flight attendants and one engineer on board. The single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner was delivered in 2008 and had last had scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16. The A320, which entered service in 1988, has seen a total of 11,163 orders with 6,331 deliveries to date to more than 300 operators globally. (AirAsia is the largest commercial customer of the A320, with 184 orders and 157 deliveries.) It is a true industry workhorse specializing in short-hall flights under five hours.

According the Aviation Safety Network accident database, there have been 54 incidents involving the A320. The most deadly was the crash of a TAM Linhas Aereas plane in 2007 that killed all 187 on board, plus a further dozen people on the ground, after the plane careered off the runway during landing in Brazil’s Sao Paulo airport in wet conditions.

The A320 was also what pilot Chesley Sullenberger was flying in 2009 when he miraculously landed on the Hudson River in New York after hitting a flock of geese. Everyone on board survived.

What is the reputation of AirAsia?

The plane was owned and operated by Indonesia AirAsia, which is 49% owned by AirAsia — a low-cost airline based in Malaysia that primarily serves Southeast Asia but has begun expanding aggressively in China and India and previously has flown to European and U.S. destinations.

Charismatic CEO Tony Fernandes, who also hosts the Asian version of The Apprentice, took over the airline in 2001 when it had just two planes, and has overseen meteoric growth. Today, AirAsia flies to 88 destinations and has a spotless safety record.

“AirAsia are considered to be quite well funded and apparently Tony Fernandes is a stickler for safety and good maintenance,” says Ross. “There are no black marks against them at this point in time.”

Indonesia AirAsia likewise has a good reputation for safety.

What about the pilots?

Captain Iriyanto boasted a total of 6,100 flying hours. First Officer Remi Emmanuel Plesel, 45, a French National, had 2,275 flying hours. Iriyanto’s nephew Doni told Indonesian news portal Detik.com that his uncle was a good man who wanted to help people. “He is a very caring person,” he said, according to the Malaysian Insider. “If there is a sick relative who needed help and even money, my uncle would be there.”

So what is up with Malaysian air carriers?

Following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in March and the shooting down of MH37 over Ukraine in July, this appears to be the third major aviation disaster connected with Malaysia this year. But it could just be a horrifying coincidence. All three incidents are sufficiently unique to rule out any kind of systemic flaw across the national, or regional, aviation industry.

Read next: Objects Spotted That May Be Related to Missing AirAsia Jet, Say Officials

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