JAKARTA: Indonesia suspended until first light the search for an Air-Asia plane that went missing Sunday in the Java Sea with 162 people on board after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to bad weather.
The Airbus A320-200 disappeared en route from Surabaya in Indonesia’s east Java to Singapore, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
Around 11 hours later, the search halted with no sign of the plane. It would resume at 7am Monday, or even earlier if the weather was good, Indonesian transport ministry official Hadi Mustofa told AFP.
Air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya’s Juanda international airport at about 5:20am (2220 GMT Saturday). No signal was received from it.
AirAsia said 155 of those on board Flight QZ8501 were Indonesians, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France.
The Frenchman was the co-pilot. Shortly before disappearing, the pilot asked to ascend by 6,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid heavy clouds, according to an Indonesian transport ministry official.
“The plane requested to air traffic control to fly to the left side, which was approved,” Djoko Murjatmodjo told a press conference.
“But their request to fly to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet could not be approved at that time due to traffic, there was a flight above, and five minutes later the flight disappeared from radar.”
“According to our climate radar, the weather was not good. There was enough cumulonimbus (cloud) there,” said Murjatmodjo.
He said Indonesia had deployed seven aircraft, four navy ships and six boats from the search and rescue agency.
The search focused on waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island.
But Murjatmodjo said the transport ministry had also asked the army to carry out ground searches, including in mountainous areas.
“We have focused all our strength, from the search and rescue agency, the military, police and help from the community as well as the fishermen,” said rescue agency chief F.H.B. Soelistyo.
He said three ships and three planes from Malaysia would join the search Monday. A Singaporean C130 plane joined Sunday’s operation, and two Singaporean planes would be deployed Monday with Australia also offering help.