- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2014

The disappearance of a Malaysian airline’s jet Sunday had search crews and aviation specialists searching for survivors and answers to yet another flight mystery above South Asian seas, capping a particularly tragic year for commercial aviation.

Storm conditions were considered the most likely culprit, although the vanishing of AirAsia Flight 8501 raised questions of pilot error or even terrorism. Aviation specialists tried to ferret through flight records and distinguish the crisis from inevitable comparisons to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the passenger plane that slipped into the Indian Ocean — and aviation lore — without a trace in March.

The AirAsia plane carrying 162 people, mostly Indonesians, left Surabaya for Singapore at about 5:30 a.m. Sunday, roughly 12 hours ahead of East Coast time in the U.S.

Pilots lost contact with ground controllers 42 minutes after takeoff amid stormy conditions. The search by air had to be postponed overnight Sunday, although some ships continued their watch under darkness near Belitung island in the Java Sea.

On Monday, Indonesia’s naval aviation branch resumed the search in an area east and southeast of Belitung island, according to 1st Adm. Sigit Setiayana, who commands the Naval Aviation Center in Surabaya.

The admiral told The Associated Press that visibility was good for the 12 ships, five fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters deployed in the search.

“God willing, we can find it soon,” he said.

At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room all day Sunday waiting for news, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed. As word spread, more and more family members were arriving at the crisis center to await word.

The crisis marked the latest twist in a horrific year for Malaysia-based airlines, after the March disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the July downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine during a war between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia rebels.

The plane that disappeared Sunday made final contact with ground controllers at 6:13 a.m., when a pilot asked to “avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet.”

Radar contact ceased minutes later, and there was no distress call.

“It looks like this is more pointing towards weather-related,” retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ken Christiansen, an aviation consultant, told CNN. “Of course, this is all speculative until you find any wreckage.”

President Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii, was briefed on the plane’s disappearance and officials were tracking the situation, the White House said.

AirAsia is based in Malaysia, but the flight in question is operated by an Indonesian subsidiary in which the parent company has a 49 percent stake. The company is known as a budget airline, has a good safety record and had never lost a plane before.

Tony Fernandes, group CEO of AirAsia, traveled to Surabaya to meet with his management and deal with the crisis.

“I am touched by the massive show of support, especially from my fellow airlines,” Mr. Fernandes said on Twitter. “This is my worse nightmare. But there is no stopping.”

The plane had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement. The passengers included three South Koreans, a Malaysian, a British national and his 2-year-old Singaporean daughter. The rest were Indonesians.

The Malaysia Airlines incidents earlier this year resulted in 239 missing and presumed dead over the Indian Ocean and 298 killed over Ukraine.

Perhaps mindful of the disjointed response to the Flight 370 incident, Mr. Fernandes vowed to keep relatives of the passengers in the loop.

“Our priority is looking after all the next of kin” of staff and passengers, he tweeted. “We will do whatever we can. We continue to pass information [as] it comes.”

Passing through bad weather such as severe thunderstorms could have been a factor during the flight. Airbus jets are sophisticated and are able to automatically adjust to wind shears or other weather disruptions.

However, weather has played roles in past air disasters at cruise elevation, including the 2009 Air France Flight 447 crash over the Atlantic Ocean.

Another possibility is some type of catastrophic metal fatigue caused by the cycle of pressurization and depressurization associated with each takeoff and landing cycle. Still, metal fatigue is unlikely because this plane is relatively new at 6 years old.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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