Divers Deployed to Find AirAsia Debris Hindered by Weather

Indonesian authorities began deploying divers to retrieve debris from the crashed AirAsia Bhd. jetliner as a day of adverse weather hindered efforts to find the plane’s black boxes.

Searchers pulled seven bodies so far, including that of a female flight attendant, from the wreckage site of Flight 8501, while 17 helicopters assisted recovery efforts, F.H. Bambang Sulistyo, head of the national search and rescue agency Basarnas, said today in Jakarta. Parts of the aircraft body were identified after establishing sonar contact at 24 meters (79 feet) under water.

Aerial operations were suspended because of bad weather, officials said late in the day. Sixty-seven divers were readied by Indonesia to scour the area for the fuselage of the Airbus Group NV A320, plus the black boxes that may answer what doomed the 162 people on board. The cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders are essential to piecing together what happened in the six minutes between the time the pilot asked the control tower for permission to deviate from the flight path and when the jet dropped off radar contact.

Preliminary data appeared to show that AirAsia made an “unbelievably” steep climb before it crashed, possibly pushing it beyond the plane’s limits, Reuters reported, citing an unidentified person familiar with the probe’s initial findings.

Bodies Found

The aircraft went missing Dec. 28 en route to Singapore from the central Indonesian city of Surabaya. Search crews found objects including what appears to be an emergency door as well as submerged items resembling plane parts, Sulistyo said yesterday. Searchers recovered an evacuation slide today.

The bodies of four males and three females were found. Indonesia can’t yet say if there were any survivors, Sulistyo said. No bodies were found wearing a life jacket, Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said in an interview today.

Flight 8501 pilots requested to climb to 38,000 feet and were given a response two minutes later to fly at 34,000 feet, Wisnu Darjono, director at AirNav Indonesia, the nation’s air navigation operator, told Bloomberg News today, citing a transcript of the conversation between traffic controllers and the plane. The transcript is being submitted for review by the National Transport Safety Committee.

The pilots didn’t reply to the controller’s response, Darjono said. The actual transcript won’t be released to the public.

Rough Weather

Rough weather was hampering the search today.

“The weather’s terrible: It’s monsoonal and there’s quite a bit of wave height,” said Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York. “You just don’t have visibility and you don’t have a stable platform to work from.”

The recovery effort will involve salvaging large pieces of the plane, engines, landing gear and other wreckage requiring heavy-duty lifting capability.

“It’s not an easy task,” Mann said.

Bad weather may persist for the next few days, Tatang Zaenudin, deputy for operations at the search agency, said at a Jakarta news conference in the early evening.

Flight 8501 is the third high-profile incident involving a carrier in Asia this year, raising safety concerns in one of the fastest-growing aviation markets in the world. AirAsia is the biggest customer by units of the A320, a workhorse airliner that’s used by hundreds of carriers around the world.

No Pings

The black boxes, which are encased in bright orange to facilitate their retrieval, are waterproof, fortified and designed to emit an electronic signal underwater for 30 days to help searchers find them. No pings have been detected, Indonesia’s Air Force said yesterday.

Safety advocates have been pushing for years to improve black boxes, by enabling them to float and to stream data to ground stations in real time.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board held a forum in October on the subject and is “is currently exploring what the next steps might be,” including possible safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.

The black boxes could answer questions for families who wonder what happened, provide insight to the industry about what causes accidents and prompt changes to practices or new technologies.

Losing the AirAsia plane caps the worst year for air-passenger fatalities since 2010. The AirAsia pilots didn’t send a distress signal, drawing comparisons with Malaysian Airline System Bhd Flight 370. The hunt continues for that plane which disappeared in March and has become the longest search for a passenger jet in modern aviation history.

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