A massive search and rescue operation for the missing AirAsia flight which lost contact with air traffic control over Indonesia has been suspended for the night due to unworkable conditions.
The fishing boats and official vessels that were sent out by Indonesia’s national search and rescue authority, along with helicopters and Hercules aircraft from Singapore, will resume their efforts at sunrise on Monday morning.
There is an unconfirmed report of a wreckage spotted east of Belitung Island in the Java Sea, 100 miles from where the plane was last tracked.
AirAsia flight QZ8501 departed Surabaya, in Indonesia, on Sunday at 5.30am local time, and was scheduled to land at Changi Airport, in Singapore, at 8.30am (Singapore local time).
However, it lost contact with air traffic control as it flew over Indonesia at about 6.16am local time, a short time after the pilot asked to deviate from the flight path due to ‘bad weather’.
The scenes of anguish were reminiscent of those in March 2014, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 lost contact with air traffic control several hundred miles north of Singapore. No trace of the craft has been found.
The pilot of the plane has been named as Captain Iriyanto, while the co-pilot is believed to be Frenchman Remi Emmanual Plesel. A picture of the pilot has been posted on social media by his daughter Angela Ranastianis. His nephew praised Capt Irianto as ‘a very caring person’
Hadi Mustofa, an Indonesia Transport Ministry official, confirmed the search had now been suspended due to bad weather and poor visibility.
‘We ended at 1730 (1030 GMT) because it was getting dark. The weather was also not too good as it was getting really cloudy,’ he said.
‘Tomorrow we will begin at 7 am, or even earlier than that if the weather is good,’ he added.
A family including a groom to be and his parents and brother were reportedly among those onboard.
Fox News reports that Alain Oktavianus Siaun and his family were intending to enjoy one last holiday together before he married.
His fiancee Louise Sidharta told the Star in Malaysia she was trying to stay positive.
She said: ‘I heard it on the radio and immediately browsed the Internet and saw the news.
‘My heart knew by then that my fiancé was on that flight.’
‘We have to stay positive and hope that they (loved ones) could be found soon,’ she added.
The British passenger aboard the missing AirAsia flight was travelling with his two-year-old Singaporean daughter after other family members got an earlier flight from Indonesia, it is believed.
It is thought the British father, named as Chi Man Choi, and his daughter Zoe, were returning to Singapore and planned to reunite with the young girl’s Singaporean mother, who travelled on an earlier flight from Surabaya, in Indonesia, with Zoe’s older brother.
The search efforts for the plane’s wreckage are focusing around the area of the Java Sea near Belitung.
Boats have been sent from Tanjung Pandan, the largest town on Belitung Island, but are not expected to reach the area until midnight local time, due to inclement weather and sea conditions, reported The Sun Herald.
AirAsia confirmed there were 155 passengers on board – including 138 adults, 16 children and one infant – and also stated there were two pilots, four flight attendants and one engineer on board.
Nationalities of passengers and crew onboard are one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one British, one French, three South Koreans and 155 Indonesians.
Mr Choi, who is believed to be from Hull, Yorkshire, originally and who graduated from the University of Essex, was the managing director at an energy company in Indonesia.
He purchased his plane ticket and that of his daughter on Boxing Day – according to the passenger manifest – and they were seated in the first row, in seats 1B and 1C.
The Foreign Office was unable to formally confirm the British national’s identity but confirmed a Briton was on board and that next of kin had been informed.
A spokesman said: ‘We are aware of an incident regarding AirAsia flight QZ8501.
‘Our thoughts are with the passengers’ families as they await further news.
‘We have been informed by the local authorities that one British national was on board.
‘Their next of kin has been informed, and we stand ready to provide consular assistance.’
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Jakarta said it was working with local authorities to establish further details.
It is believed the three South Koreans on the plane were Park Seong-beom, 37, his wife Lee Kyung-hwa, 36, and their 12-month daughter Park Yuna.
According to officials at Yeosu First Presbyterian Church, the couple had been sent to Indonesia as Christian missionaries and were travelling to Singapore to renew their visas.
Cpt Iriyanto’s nephew told Indonesian news outletDetik.com today that his uncle, who is married with two young children, was ‘a very caring person’.
He said: ‘He is always helping people because he is a very caring person. If there is a sick relative who needed help and even money, my uncle would be there.
‘If there are money problems in the family, he would surely help.’
According to Indonesia’s Director of Air Transport, Djoko Murjatmodjo, contact with the aircraft was lost between Tanjung Pandan and Pontianak, a trading port city in west Kalimantan about 100 nautical miles south east of Tanjung Pandan.
AirAsia Indonesia announced the flight’s disappearance via a statement on Facebook which said: ‘[It] regrets to confirm that flight QZ8501 from Surabaya to Singapore has lost contact with air traffic control at 07.24hrs this morning’.
‘At the present time, we unfortunately have no further information regarding the status of the passengers and crew members on board, but we will keep all parties informed as more information becomes available,’ it said.
‘At this time, search and rescue operations are in progress and AirAsia is cooperating fully and assisting the rescue service.’
It later issued a statement confirming it had set up emergency briefing rooms for family members of the missing passengers at both airports.
Sunu Widyatmoko, chief executive of AirAsia Indonesia, said: ‘We are deeply shocked and saddened by this incident.
‘We are cooperating with the relevant authorities to the fullest extent to determine the cause of this incident. In the meantime, our main priority is keeping the families of our passengers and colleagues informed on the latest developments.
‘We will do everything possible to support them as the investigation continues and have already mobilized a support team to help take care of their immediate needs, including accommodation and travel arrangements.’
Tatang Zaenudin, deputy of personnel at Basarnas, said that the agency was working to approve flights from Australia to aid with the huge operation to locate the plane, reported The Sun Herald.
AirAsia has changed the colour of its logo from red to grey as a mark of respect to the missing plane.
The aircraft was an Airbus A320-200 with the registration number PK-AXC.
The last communication between QZ8501’s pilot and air traffic control was when he requested to increase his altitude due to bad weather.
According to a leaked air traffic control sheet, the plane’s speed had dropped to 353 knots, suggesting it was having trouble climbing, perhaps because of severe weather.
Aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas, speaking to Sydney’s Channel Seven tv network, said the fact that the pilots had reportedly not issued a distress call suggested that the aircraft might have suffered a sudden, catastrophic event.
Djoko Atmojio, Director General of Aviation, Indonesian Ministry of Transportation said that the plane had contacted Jakarta Air Traffic Control at 6.12am.
‘During that contact, the Jakarta Air Traffic Control could still identify the plane on the radar screen,’ Mr Atmojito said.
‘The plane stated that it was trying to avoid cloud and directed the plane to the left of M635 route and asked to go up to altitude 38,00 feet,’ he said.
‘We have not received the ELT (distress) signal so our conclusion so far is the plane lost contact at 6.17 a.m.’
The flight was scheduled to take two hours and ten minutes, and the plane lost contact 42 minutes into the flight time.
An A320 pilot writing on the aviation forum Aviation.net said the weather as the Air Asia flight headed north east was ‘nasty’ but he believed that it would not be enough to cause a major structural failure.
‘While the weather on the route looks rather nasty, I have always found that the A320 is a really sold aircraft in turbulence,’ the pilot, writing from Canada, said
‘I’ve flown it through bad winter storms, tropical thunderstorms and all sorts of combined weather and I’ve never felt that the aircraft was being held together on a hope and a prayer.’
Indonesian Transport Ministry official Hadi Mustofa said the plane had asked for an unusual route before it lost contact.
He said the QZ8501 flight lost contact when it was believed to be over the Java Sea between Kalimantan and Java islands.
The captain-in-command is listed as Captain Iriyanto – many Indonesians use only one name.
According to the airline, he had a total of 6,100 flying hours and the first officer – understood to be French pilot Remi Emmanual Plesel – has a total of 2,275 flying hours.
The four flight attendants are listed as Wanti Setiawati, Khairunisa Haidar Fauzi, Oscar Desano and Wismoyo Ari Prambudi, along with technician Saiful Rakhmad.
On Christmas Eve, Desano wrote on Twitter: ‘Merry Christmas to all my beautiful friends who celebrate it.’
He also posted a picture of himself wearing his Air Asia identification tag.
AirAsia flies mostly in the South East Asian area, its reach being as far as Sydney and the Queensland Gold Coast.
The airline is headed by prominent South East Asian businessman Tony Fernandes, the owner of English football club Queens Park Rangers.
Earlier today, Mr Fernandes tweeted: ‘Thank you for all your thoughts and prays. We must stay strong.
‘My only thoughts are with the passengers and my crew.
‘We put our hope in the SAR (search and rescue) operation and thank the Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysian governments.’
He also said he was ‘touched by the massive show of support’ especially from fellow airlines.
He added: ‘This is my worse nightmare (sic). But there is no stopping.
‘Our priority is looking after all the next of kin for my staff and passengers. We will do whatever we can. We continue to pass information as it comes.
‘I as your group CEO will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together and I will try to see as many of you.’
Upon arriving in Indonesia, he gave a press conference to family and friends of those on board the plane and said the focus should be on the search and the families.
‘We have no idea at the moment what went wrong,’ said Mr Fernandes, who founded the regional low-cost carrier in 2001. ‘Let’s not speculate at the moment.’
The Department of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement to Fairfax Media, saying it was checking with the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the Australian High Commissioner in Singapore to see if any of the passengers were holding an Australian passport.
‘Those concerned about the welfare of their Australian family and friends who were known to be travelling on this flight should contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on 1300 555 135 (or +61 2 6261 3305 if calling from overseas),’ the statement read.
Indonesian authorities have accepted an offer of help with the search for the missing flight from the Singapore Rescue Coordination Centre.
A C130 aircrafts has been requested, with another on stand-by, according to a statement from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott contacted Indonesian Prime Minister Joko Widodo, to offer assistance in the search.
In a statement Mr Abbott said that Australia was willing to do whatever necessary to aid the rescue operation.
Mr Abbott said he ‘was very sorry to hear of the AirAsia Flight QZ8501 tragedy and that there would be many Indonesian families bereft by the loss’.
‘A waiting area, and all necessary facilities and support have been set up for relatives and friends of the affected passengers at Changi Airport Terminal 2 (Level 3),’ it said.
Aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas said time was of the essence when trying to locate a missing plane.
‘When the plane loses contact with the control tower the authorities need to start investigating immediately,’ Mr Thomas told Sky News.
‘When MH370 went missing it took them a couple of hours to do anything about it, which is far too long.
‘It appears that today there have been a couple of hours lag, at least, before something was done.
‘But at least there are plenty of daylight hours left.’
Mr Thomas said the flight path meant the aircraft flew over water for most of the route.
‘The fact that they asked for a different flight path indicates that they were trying to manoeuvre around the storms,’ he said.
‘This is also a very heavy thunderstorm area and the weather can be very nasty.’
At Singapore airport, relatives and friends waiting to greet the passengers grew increasingly anxious when they were told that the flight was delayed.
Announcements on the arrivals board and a statement on the airline’s website also relayed the information about the flight being delayed.
The scenes were reminiscent of those in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur airports as families and friends became aware that something was seriously wrong when the two doomed Malaysia Airlines jets failed to arrive on schedule.
MH370 disappeared in March while on its way from Malaysia to China when it lost contact. The aircraft has not been seen since.
Five months later, MH17 was flying over Ukrainian airspace when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. All 298 people on board the flight died, including 38 Australians.
AirAsia has established an Emergency Call Centre available for family or friends of those who may have been on board the aircraft. The number for the hotline is +622129850801.