PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia (AFP) – Signals believed to be from the black box data recorders of crashed AirAsia flight QZ8501 were detected Friday, Indonesian authorities said, offering the strongest lead to explain the disaster.
“A ship detected the pings. The divers are trying to reach it,” said SB Supriyadi, a director with the National Search and Agency who is stationed at the search headquarters of Pangkalan Bun.
“The location of the ping is reported to be near where the tail was found.”
The plane crashed into the Java Sea on December 28 during stormy weather as it flew from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, claiming the lives of all 162 people on board.
Rough seas and strong currents have slowed multinational efforts to find the wreckage of the plane in relatively shallow waters and determine why it crashed.
The black boxes are regarded as crucial to explaining the cause of the disaster, as they should contain recordings of the pilots’ final words and general flight data.
They are designed to give a ping signal for 30 days after a crash so that the recorders can be found.
The tail of the plane, where the black boxes were housed, was discovered on Wednesday partially buried in the seabed 30 metres underwater.
But no pings were initially detected.
Search officials have since Wednesday focused their efforts on and around the tail, believing the black boxes should be there unless they were dislodged.
Dozens of elite Indonesian Marine divers have tried but failed to thoroughly search the tail because of the powerful currents and the fact it is partially buried in the seabed.
Supriyadi and other Indonesian authorities said divers would continue searching underwater on Friday to track the pings to the black boxes.
He said Indonesian authorities were also planning to try and lift the tail using a crane and floatation devices.
American, Russian and other foreign naval ships were also involved in the hunt for other parts of the plane’s wreckage, as well as bodies of most of the passengers.
Just 46 bodies have been found so far, according to Supriyadi.
All but seven of those on board were Indonesian.
The non-Indonesians were three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one Briton and a Frenchman – co-pilot Remi Plesel.
Supriyadi said another object was found on Friday that could be the nose of the plane, however searchers had yet to reach it to confirm.
“The shape of the object looked like the nose of a plane… we have deployed an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) but the visibility wasn’t very good, we are trying to send divers.”
Meanwhile, the transport ministry was expected to announce on Friday the findings of an audit into scheduling of flights in the domestic aviation industry.
The ministry launched the probe after alleging that Indonesia AirAsia did not have a permit to fly the Surabaya-Singapore route on a Sunday, the day of the crash.
It also banned Indonesia AirAsia from flying the route, while sacking one transport ministry official and taking disciplinary action against several others for allowing the flight on the Sunday.
Still, investigators have not linked flying on an unauthorised day to the crash.
The Indonesian meteorological agency has said weather was the “triggering factor” of the crash, with ice likely damaging the engines of the Airbus A320-200.
Before take-off, the plane’s pilot, Captain Iriyanto, had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a major storm. But the request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.
In his last communication, the experienced former air force pilot said he wanted to change course to avoid the storm. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after take-off.
FACTBOX ON AIRASIA FLIGHT QZ8501
SEARCH FOR BLACK BOXES:
This week, divers and an unmanned underwater vehicle were able to capture the first images of the wreck. The tail of the Airbus A320, partially buried in the sand of the shallow waters, provided a boost to searchers. Officials are confident that the cockpit voice and flight data recorders are still in the aircraft’s rear, and experts hope to use a crane or a lifting balloon to hoist the wreckage from the seabed.
It remains unclear what caused flight QZ8501 to go down. The last contact the pilots had with air traffic control indicated they were entering stormy weather. They asked to climb from 9,753 metres to 11,582 metres to avoid threatening clouds, but were denied permission because of heavy air traffic above them. Four minutes later, the plane dropped off the radar. Floating bodies and pieces of debris were found about 10 kilometres from the last point of contact. The black boxes are key to the investigation.
STATUS OF THOSE MISSING:
So far, 48 of the 162 passengers and crew on board the plane have been recovered, with four new bodies discovered Friday. A few have been found floating while strapped to their seats, but officials say many of those still missing are likely entombed in the fuselage. The bodies are sent to Surabaya for identification and handed over to their families for burial, but the process is becoming more difficult due to decomposition.
The plane went down in the Java Sea, with bodies and wreckage found about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Pangkalan Bun on Borneo island, the closest town. The area is being lashed by seasonal rains, causing big waves and murky runoff from rivers that have hampered divers, helicopters and equipment being used to search for the plane. Ships with sonar detectors have identified several large chunks of what is believed to be the plane’s body on the ocean floor, but visuals have not been captured. – AP