An Australian Orion aircraft has detected suspicious objects that may be related to the missing AirAsia jet, in the Java Sea around 700 miles (1,120 km) from where contact with Flight QZ 8501 was lost.
The sightings were made near the tiny island of Nangka, located in the western part of the Indonesian archipelago, approximately midway between the large islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
However, the commander of Jakarta air-force base, Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto, stressed that nothing could be confirmed. “We cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane,” he told the Associated Press. “We are now moving in that direction, which is in cloudy conditions.”
The Singapore-bound QZ 8501 lost contact with air-traffic control early Sunday, 42 minutes after departing Surabaya, Indonesia, at 5:35 a.m. local time. There were 162 people on board.
On Sunday, search vessels and aircraft were not able to spot any sign of the Airbus A320-200.
“Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told a press conference earlier on Monday.
“Even fishermen are being asked to find the plane,” Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters at Surabaya’s Juanda Airport on Monday afternoon. “Of course, we hope that we find survivors, we pray for that, but we realize that the worst may have happened.”
Records show that Iriyanto, the captain of QZ 8501, who like many Indonesians only uses one name, had requested to ascend from 32,000 ft. (9,700 m) to 38,000 ft. (11,600 m) to avoid cloud, but this was denied. Meteorologists say cloud tops may have reached over 50,000 ft. (15,200 m), and satellite imagery shows a huge storm that quickly disappeared, indicating a massive amount of rainfall in a short period.
Experts are speculating the plane may have come down because of adverse weather. “In that area of the world, weather is something you have to deal with all of the time and it’s why we have a weather radar to keep clear of the most intense areas of rain and turbulence,” David Newbery, a Hong Kong flight captain and accredited aircraft-accident investigator, tells TIME.
“I’m very devastated by what’s happened,” AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes told reporters in Surabaya late Sunday. “It’s unbelievable. But we don’t now what’s happened yet. Our concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin — nothing is more important for us.”
In a statement posted to his Facebook page on Sunday evening, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged all those looking for the missing plane to “keep up the hard work.” He added: “I am also praying to God for the safety of the passengers of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501.”
Indonesia is providing 12 ships, three helicopters and five military aircraft for the search efforts, while Malaysia has offered a C-130 plane and three ships. Singapore has dispatched a C-130 and Australia is also providing aerial assistance. India has put ships on standby.
Sunday’s search was hampered by heavy rain and poor visibility, but the skies cleared overnight, the bright sun burning off sea fog, and raising hopes that some wreckage may be spotted Monday.
The waters of the Java Sea, a major shipping route, are comparatively shallow, and pinpointing the missing jetliner’s location should, in theory, be straightforward, given that its last known position was just one third into a two-hour flight. Sonar pings from the black box would likely be audible, and divers could even reach the seabed without the use of submersibles.
The loss of QZ8501 is the third major aviation disaster this year with Malaysia links, after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July. AirAsia Indonesia, which operated QZ8501, is 49% owned by the Malaysia-based AirAsia.
— With reporting by Yenni Kwok
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