Indonesia widens search efforts for missing AirAsia plane

Missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501 carrying 162 people—including 155 passengers, two pilots, one engineer and four cabin crew—to Singapore from Surabaya, Indonesia, is thought to have crashed into the sea, a senior Indonesian rescue agency official told reporters on Monday.

"Our evaluation of the coordinates that we have received suggested that it is under water, so our presumption now is that the aircraft is under the sea," Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency, said at a press conference Monday.

The Indonesian government formally asked the U.S. to assist in the search for the flight on Monday, a senior U.S. official told NBC News. U.S. officials are still trying to determine if they can help.

Search and rescue operations resumed at 6 a.m. local time on Monday morning (6 p.m. ET Sunday), after being suspended overnight due to darkness.

Search efforts have so far yielded nothing concrete, however the Indonesian Air Force said that "something" has been spotted in the waters within the search area, according to Dow Jones.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said on local TV that he could not confirm whether the debris spotted was from the missing jet, according to the news agency. He also said that the search was proving difficult given the bad weather.

Indonesian officials have also said that no signals have been detected from the plane's emergency locator transmitters (ETLs), according Dow Jones. Search efforts are being focused on areas northeast of Indonesia's Bangka-Belitung Islands, which are located between Singapore and Surabaya in the Java Sea. The sea depth around the islands is said to be 25 to 50 meters deep, according to Reuters.

Dow Jones reported late Monday that a greater area would be searched on Tuesday, including the areas south of Bangka Island and the western part of Borneo.

Search operations are being led by Indonesia with Singapore, Malaysia and Australia aiding in the efforts.

Twelve navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and a number of warships are taking part, along with assets from the three neighboring countries, First Admiral Sigit Setiayana, the Naval Aviation Center commander at the Surabaya air force base told the Associated Press. Kalla said that local fisherman are being asked to participate in the search.

No distress signal

Stringer | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The Airbus A320-200, which departed Surabaya around 5:35 a.m. local time on Sunday (5:30 p.m. ET Saturday), lost contact with air traffic control about 42 minutes after takeoff.

The aircraft, which was on its planned route, requested to change course due to weather en route, but permission was declined due to traffic in the area. By the time it had been given clearance, just four minutes after its last correspondence, the jet had disappeared from radar, Bambang Tjahjono, director of the state-owned company in charge of air traffic control, told The Associated Press. No distress signal was sent.

Aside from Indonesian nationals, three were from South Korea and one each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. Seventeen passengers were children and one was an infant, NBC News reported, citing AirAsia officials.

The captain in command, identified as Irianto, had a total of 20,537 flying hours of which 6,100 were with AirAsia Indonesia on the Airbus A320. The first officer had a total of 2,275 flying hours with AirAsia Indonesia.

The plane's disappearance marks the third airline disaster linked to Malaysia this year, capping a string of commercial air tragedies this year.

Possible scenario

Peter Reiss, former security consultant to the International Civil Aviation Organization and a former pilot for Northwest Airlines for 35 years said the main scenario that comes to his mind is the aircraft entered an "extremely violent" weather event that threw it out of control.

"I would be very interested to know what simulator training AirAsia Airbus pilots get," he said. "In my 35 years of flying for the airline, I only encountered a couple of severe turbulence instances and the training I had stood solidly for me."

Subhranshu Sekhar Das, head of the aerospace, defense and security practice, Asia-Pacific, at Frost & Sullivan believed the Airbus A320-200 was equipped with sophisticated radar equipment, but not the latest equipment.

AirAsia has not yet commented on the possible cause of the plane's disappearance.

"We have no idea at the moment what went wrong," CEO Tony Fernandes said at a press conference on Sunday. "Let's not speculate at the moment."

The airline chief has also taken to the social media site Twitter to update on events and has said that his focus is on all the relatives of the crew and the passengers. An emergency call center has been established and available for families seeking information.

Since its founding in 2001, the Malaysia-based low-cost carrier has had a good safety record, with no fatal accidents involving its aircraft.

Families await news

The management of AirAsia along with the governor of East Java, the National Search and Rescue Agency of Republic of Indonesia, the Airport Authority of Indonesia and the airport operator met with the members of the families in Surabaya on Sunday to update them on the latest developments.

"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," Sunu Widyatmoko, CEO of AirAsia Indonesia, said.

Sixteen next of kin took the offer to fly from Singapore to Surabaya on Sunday night, according to a statement from Changi Airport Group.

Crisis centers have been set up in Surabaya and Singapore to support to friends and family members.

Widyatmoko is currently stationed at the center in Surabaya.