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International Teams Step Up Search for AirAsia Wreckage

  • Ron Corben

Search teams and vessels from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and the United States were helping to intensify the search Saturday for the wreckage of AirAsia Flight 8501, which crashed in heavy weather Sunday.

Technical teams using metal detectors were scanning the Java Sea as the challenging weather conditions of recent days eased. An Indonesian team reported locating two "big objects" about 30 meters (90 feet) underwater, search-and-rescue chief Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo told reporters. His agency was trying to get images using remotely operated underwater vehicles, he said.

The search-and-rescue agency said the search area had been widened as debris from Flight QZ8501 may have drifted more than 200 nautical miles. Helicopters would concentrate on searching the coastline of southern Borneo, it said.

The U.S. 7th Fleet announced Friday that it has sent a second ship to the search area, where the USS Sampson, a Navy destroyer, is already assisting. Although the USS Fort Worth has not yet been tasked with joining the search effort, it will be on standby in case it is requested by the Indonesian government.

On Friday, at least six bodies were located by helicopters from the USS Sampson.

Indonesian officials say 30 bodies have been retrieved after more than a dozen were recovered Friday, many of them by the USS Sampson.

Indonesian media reported the bodies were being transported back to Surabaya for formal identification after initially being taken to Pangkalan Bun, in Kalimantan, the town nearest to the site of the crash.

Hugh Ritchie, chief executive of the Sydney-based Aviation Consultants International, said search teams hope the aircraft is still largely in one piece after crashing into the sea.

“The common belief is that (the aircraft) broke up on impact rather than in the air - that’s why we've got bodies in such a close proximity,” he said.

On Thursday, the body of the first victim formally identified, a woman from Surabaya, was returned to her family. Late in the day her coffin was buried as 150 people looked on in drizzling rain.

Officials say the weather outlook remains a challenge for search teams, with rain, strong winds and waves up to four meters predicted through Sunday, while strong sea currents keep debris moving.

Flight recorders will be key evidence

Experts participating in the search include those from the French company BEA, the manufacturer of the Airbus A300 that went down with 162 passengers and crew on board halfway through a routine flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

BEA said in a statement hydrophones would be used to try to locate the acoustic beacons of the cockpit voice and flight recorders, which have a signal range of up to 3,000 meters.

One Indonesian official warned it could take at least a week before the plane and its recorders are found.

Analysts say once the recorders are recovered, analysis of the data is expected to lead to an interim report within weeks as to the cause of the accident. A final, more detailed report may take a year.

Stall theory

Investigators are working on a theory that the plane stalled as it climbed steeply to avoid a storm about 40 minutes into a flight that should have lasted two hours.

A source close to the investigation said radar data appeared to show the aircraft made an “unbelievably” steep climb before it crashed, possibly pushing it beyond the A320's limits.

“It appears to be beyond the performance envelope of the aircraft,” he said.

Online discussion among pilots has centered on unconfirmed secondary radar data from Malaysia that suggested the aircraft was climbing at a speed of 353 knots, about 100 knots too slow, and that it might have stalled.

The Indonesian captain, a former air force fighter pilot, had 6,100 flying hours on the A320 and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, according to Indonesia AirAsia, which is 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based AirAsia.

Some material for this report came from Reuters.