Eko Listiyorini and Andrea Rothman (c) 2015, Bloomberg News
JAKARTA, Indonesia — A week after the first debris and bodies from the doomed AirAsia jet were recovered, search crews have yet to find larger plane fragments and the flight recorders, damping optimism about a quick success in the shallow Java Sea.
Some 10 days into the salvage mission, heavy rain, high waves, poor visibility and a muddy ocean floor continue to frustrate an international team that includes U.S., French and Russian specialists. Only 39 bodies have been found of the 162 people on board, and no pings from the flight-data recorder have been detected to locate them. Reports of a sighting of the fuselage and the tail of the aircraft have produced no results.
While locating the first wreckage took just a few days, the ensuing recovery effort that’s ballooned to 20 planes, 60 ships and 95 divers has become a race against time as high waves scatter debris and the signal from the recorders stops transmitting after a month. The cause of the crash remains mysterious, with an experienced pilot flying a young and tested A320 aircraft into a storm before losing contact with air traffic controllers without transmitting a distress signal.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Paul Hayes, director of safety at London-based Ascend Worldwide, which tracks aviation data including accidents. “There’s so much information out there that later turns out to have no provenance.”
The recovery mission appears more straightforward than in other recent sea salvage operations. The Java Sea where the plane hit the water is relatively shallow at about 30 meters (100 feet) and warm enough to permit prolonged diving missions.
By contrast, the waters where search crews believe Malaysian Airlines MH370 went down are in a remote part of the Indian Ocean that’s thousands of feet deep. In the case of the doomed Air France AF447 in the Atlantic, crews needed two years to locate the black boxes even after recovering debris within days.
The single-aisle Airbus jet, operated as QZ8501 by Malaysia-based AirAsia’s Indonesia affiliate, appears to have flown into a storm cloud, with its engines possibly affected by ice formation, researchers from the Indonesia weather office wrote in a report, citing meteorological data from the flight’s last known location over the Java Sea.
Indonesia has five vessels equipped with hydrophones to try and pinpoint the recorders. The fortified boxes tape cockpit sounds and conversations as well as a flurry of data parameters that can help investigators piece together the final moments of a flight and detect anomalies.
The country’s navy has found several bodies still strapped in their seats. The search has also recovered objects including what appears to be an emergency door, an evacuation slide, and some personal objects belonging to passengers.
Indonesia resumed the search Tuesday morning as improved weather helped investigators scour for the plane’s remains. High-frequency side-scan sonars were deployed by littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth to detect signals emitted by the plane’s cockpit-voice recorder and the flight-data recorder.
“We will try in this limited time of clear weather to also search underwater,” said S.B. Supriyadi, director of operations at Basarnas, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency.
The ocean floor in the Java Sea is flat and muddy, and rarely deeper than 60 meters (197 feet), according to Hans Berekoven, an amateur archaeologist who surveyed the area for oil prospects in the 1990s.
Recovery efforts are focused near Pangkalan Bun, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) southeast of Singapore. The international team set 1,575 square nautical miles (5,400 square kilometers) as the most likely area to find the wreckage.
“The problem is that people want answers immediately, and you have to understand that with an investigation it take time,” said Ascend’s Hayes.
— Rothman reported from Toulose, France. Contributors: Fathiya Dahrul and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta.