First pictures of AirAsia wreckage taken after tail is found on seabed
Breakthrough in search for AirAsia flight QZ8501 as rescue teams locate the tail section expected to contain its ‘black box’ recorders, which could explain the cause of the crash
Recovery teams have found the tail of the crashed AirAsia flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea, the Indonesian search chief said on Wednesday, the 11th day of relief operations.
“We have successfully obtained part of the plane that has been our target. The tail portion has been confirmed found,” search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters in Jakarta.
“I can confirm that what we found was the tail part from the pictures,” he said, adding that the team “is still desperately trying to locate the black box,” he said.
The discovery on the seabed could mark a breakthrough in the search as the tail of a plane usually houses the “black box” flight data recorders, crucial to determining the cause of a crash.
No pings have been detected from the plane’s all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders. That’s because high waves have prevented the deployment of ships that drag ping locators.
The batteries in the pingers on the black boxes are likely to go dead in about 20 more days.
“The location of the tail is relatively far from the point of last contact, about 30 kilometres,” search and rescue agency coordinator Supriyadi said.
“The black box is [typically] located behind the door, to the right of the tail. There is a possibility that the tail and the back of the plane are broken up.”
Soelistyo said a total of 12 objects had now been found, but he did not confirm whether all were parts of the aircraft. The wreckage is thought to also include parts of the fuselage, where many of the bodies of victims may still be trapped.
“I am led to believe the tail section has been found,” AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes tweeted minutes after the announcement.
“If [it is the] right part of tail section, then the black box should be there … We need to find all parts soon so we can find all our guests to ease the pain of our families. That still is our priority.”
The plane vanished from radar screens during a storm on December 28 when it was flying from the city of Surabaya to Singapore with 162 people on board, most of them Indonesian.
Despite a huge recovery operation assisted by various countries, progress has been patchy with poor weather conditions hampering the search. So far 40 bodies have been found, all of them floating on the sea.
Even during a rare break in bad weather, divers could only go into the muddy waters of the Java for minutes at a time.
“We couldn’t dive for long, only five or 10 minutes and then go up,” navy diving supervisor Sergeant Major Rudi Hartanto said.
“The sea bed is mostly mud and sand, and the current is strong – four to five knots – so the mud comes up and the visibility reduces to zero.”
Search chiefs earlier said seven large parts of the plane had been detected but had not confirmed which parts of the aircraft. Discovery of the tail section may allow rescue teams to recover more of the bodies, they said.
Indonesia alleges the plane was flying on an unauthorised schedule when it crashed and AirAsia has since been suspended from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route.
Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic. No distress signal was issued.
“We are confident that rescuers would be able to locate them in time,” said Nurcahyo Utomo, an investigator for Indonesia’s National Committee on Transportation Safety.
For relatives of those aboard the flight, the slow pace of the search has been agonising. “I’m still looking for my younger sibling,” said a woman, who did not give her name, at the crisis centre set up for relatives in Surabaya.
Indonesia AirAsia, 49 per cent owned by the Malaysia-based AirAsia budget group, has faced criticism from authorities in Jakarta in the 10 days since the crash.
The transport ministry has suspended the carrier’s Surabaya-Singapore licence, saying it only had permission to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Unauthorised, flight QZ8501 took off on a Sunday, though the ministry said this had no bearing on the accident.
AirAsia has said it is cooperating fully with the ministry’s investigations.
Indonesia has also reassigned some airport and air traffic control officials who allowed the flight to take off and tightened rules on pre-flight briefing procedures.
The country is one of the world’s fastest growing aviation markets and its carriers, such as Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia, are among the top customers for plane makers Airbus and Boeing.
But its safety record is patchy. The European Commission banned all Indonesia-based airlines from flying to the European Union in 2007 following a series of accidents. Exemptions to that ban have since been granted to some carriers, including Garuda and AirAsia.
With additional reporting from Reuters and Associated Press