Indonesian Official: Search Planes Spot Oil in Sea in AirAsia Search Area

'We're checking whether it's jet fuel or fuel from a ship,' Air Force spokesman adds.

Ahmad Pathoni
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Airforce soldiers during search operations for AirAsia flight, Belitung island, Dec. 29, 2014.
Airforce soldiers during search operations for AirAsia flight, Belitung island, Dec. 29, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Ahmad Pathoni

DPA -- Searchers scoured land and sea Monday for an AirAsia plane missing in Indonesia with 162 people on board.

AirAsia Indonesia flight 8501 disappeared from radar over the Java Sea after taking off from Surabaya in East Java en route to Singapore on Sunday morning.

"Our suspicion for now is that the plane is at the bottom of the sea based on the last coordinates of the plane detected by the radar," Indonesia's National Search Agency chief Bambang Sulistyo said.

"If it is at the bottom of the sea, we will have difficulty locating it because our equipment is not adequate," he said referring to specialized sonar technology to detect objects lying on the sea floor.

Searchers using aircraft spotted an oil slick 105 nautical miles off Belitung island but its source was not clear, Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said. "We're checking whether it's jet fuel or fuel from a ship," Tjahjanto said.He said an Australian plane taking part in the search had detected a weak signal but nothing had been found.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla there was no time limit for the search. "What is important is we find the plane and its passengers," Kalla said in a televised press conference after meeting the families of the passengers in Surabaya. But he warned people to prepare for "the worst."

Search chief Bambang said Indonesia might need help from countries such as France, Britain and the United States to provide a specialized vessel to lift any wreckage of the aircraft.

Bambang said the search area had been expanded to include Bangka-Belitung Islands and the western part of West Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo.

Dozens of ships, boats and aircraft were involved in the operation, he said.

Singapore and Malaysia each deployed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and three ships, while Australia contributed two Orion planes.

Indonesia's National Transport Safety Committee chief Tatang Kurniadi said investigators from aircraft maker Airbus had arrived in Indonesia to help with the probe. The European Aviation Safety Agency had also offered to assist, he said. "Right now we don't have significant information about the aircraft," he said.

The Airbus A320-200 last made contact with air traffic control in Jakarta to request permission to ascend to an altitude of 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to avoid bad weather, the Transportation Ministry said.

AirAsia said 155 of the people on board were Indonesians. The others included three from South Korea, and one each from Singapore, Malaysia, France and Britain.

The company said the pilot, an Indonesian named Iryanto, had 20,537 flying hours, 6,100 of them logged with AirAsia.

The co-pilot was a French national with 2,275 flying hours, it said.

Relatives of the passengers flocked to Surabaya's Juanda airport to hear news about their loved ones.

Intan, who goes by one name, said her brother, his wife, their baby and nanny were on the plane.

"Our hope is that the government will update us with the latest information and not cover up anything," Intan told TVOne broadcaster.

Bambang Andreas said his daughter, a tour guide, was a passenger.
"It was one of her frequent overseas trips," he was quoted as saying by the Detik.com news website.

AirAsia, based in Malaysia, has an "above average" safety record, said aviation expert and former Indonesian Air Force chief Chappy Hakim.

"AirAsia has an excellent safety culture," he said. "This is probably the first major incident involving AirAsia."

AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes said the airline had carried 220 million passengers since it began operating 13 years ago.

"Until today, we never lost a life," he said.

He later expressed confidence about the airline's future. "We are confident in our ability to fly people," he said. "We'll continue to be strong and continue to carry people who never fly before".

The air incident was the third this year involving Malaysia, where budget carrier AirAsia in based. The first was on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, Flight 370 with 239 people aboard from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished without trace. Then, on July 17, all 298 passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were killed when the Boeing 777 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

Indonesia has experienced several fatal air accidents in the past decade.
It took Indonesian searchers 10 days to start finding debris from an Adam Air jet that crashed into the sea off Makassar in South Sulawesi in January 2007.

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