A specialist multinational team armed with acoustic equipment will arrive at the suspected crash site of a sunken AirAsia jet off Borneo on Friday, bolstering the search for the plane’s black box flight recorders.
Bad weather has hampered the search, keeping divers from looking for the wreck of the Airbus A320-200, which was carrying 162 people when it crashed Sunday en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
France’s BEA crash investigation agency said late Thursday that a ship with two hydrophones, or underwater acoustic detection devices, was due to arrive at the scene early Friday with French, Singaporean and Indonesian experts aboard.
The Indonesian-led search for the wreck of Flight QZ8501 is centered in the northern Java Sea, close to the Karimata Strait, where search teams have recovered bodies and pieces of the plane. Previous reports of a sonar image showing the plane body in the water have not been confirmed, officials said.
Officials earlier said it might take up to a week to find the black boxes, which investigators hope will reveal the sequence of events in the cockpit and in the heavily computerized jet’s systems. The BEA team attends the crashes of all Airbus planes.
Two more bodies were recovered Thursday, bringing the total to nine. Debris, a suitcase, an emergency slide and a lifejacket have also been pulled from the water.
One of the bodies was that of a female flight attendant, who was found in her uniform, according to East Java disaster official Budiyono Mars.
At a news conference Thursday in Jakarta, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue agency, confirmed the number of bodies recovered: “Six bodies have already been transferred to Surabaya. Two bodies are still in Pangkalan Bun and the other one is still on the ship Yos Sudarso.”
Indonesia’s chief forensic police officer, Anton Castilani, said formal identification was transferred from central Kalimantan’s Pangkalan Bun to Surabaya, where relatives of the victims were waiting.
Budiyono Mars also said the identity of the first body recovered, that of a female passenger, was now confirmed.
“The body with the label 001 has been identified as Hayati Lutfiah Hamid,” he said.
Her body, in a dark casket topped with flowers, was handed over to family members during a brief ceremony in Surabaya. The coffin was then taken to a village and lowered into a muddy grave, following Muslim obligations requiring bodies to be buried quickly.
Three other members of her family aboard the flight have yet to be found.
Officials were waiting to comb an area where aerial searches on Wednesday spotted what appeared to be a large shadow in a relatively shallow section of the sea. Once conditions improve, a team of 47 Indonesian divers is on standby to investigate the site. But officials have stressed they do not know if the shadow is the main body of the plane, as some have speculated.
Searches on Thursday spanned an area of 13,500 square kilometers (5,200 square miles) involving 19 ships, four helicopters and five planes, Soelistyo said.
The twin-engine jet disappeared from radar, without a distress call, about a half-hour into its flight.
Before takeoff and during the last moments of the flight, the pilots requested to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm cloud. The request was not approved because other planes were in the area.
Some experts think the plane may have experienced icing at 35,000 feet that affected its capacity to fly, buffeted by powerful updrafts of air, and that it may have been ascending at too slow a speed for such a large aircraft.
Asia’s aviation industry has experienced strong growth over the past decade. The International Air Transport Association said the Asia Pacific region accounts for more than 30 percent of global passenger traffic. This is set to rise to over 40 percent within 20 years.
Fears about risk management
The rapid growth has raised fears over risk management in Indonesia and across the Asia Pacific, said Hugh Ritchie, chief executive of Sydney-based Aviation Consultants International.
Ritchie said a full investigation needs to be carried out to improve regional air safety standards. A recent report found Indonesia’s air safety record was still well below the global average.
“With this growth in aviation — and it’s a manic growth — it’s an uncontrolled growth and the regulators cannot keep up with it. They cannot keep up with the oversight,” he said. “[Standards] need to be raised, they need to be enforced and there has to be a detailed training process, not just for the airline management and senior personnel, but for the regulators.”
The tragedy is the first for AirAsia, a low-cost carrier that has been operating since 2002 and is a leader in the growing market, with more than 170 aircraft in the region.
The head of the airline, Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, has maintained a high profile during the crisis, meeting with victims’ families, and AirAsia has provided regular updates on the search and recovery.