Signals believed to be from the black box data recorders of crashed AirAsia Flight 8501 were detected Friday, Indonesian authorities said, raising hopes they could be retrieved and the disaster explained.
However the signals indicated the boxes may have been dislodged from the wreckage of the plane’s tail and fallen hundreds of metres (yards) deeper into the Java Sea, one of the search coordinators, S.B Supriyadi, told reporters at nightfall.
“We can’t get the coordinates yet. The possibility is the black box was thrown off and fell to the seabed and is buried in mud,” said Supriyadi, a director with the National Search and Rescue Agency who is stationed at search headquarters in the town of Pangkalan Bun on Borneo island.
The plane crashed 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, which is lying 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 (100 feet) underwater.
But the late Friday comments from Supriyadi, echoed by Indonesian military commander General Moeldoko, indicated the search had taken another frustrating twist and divers would have to go much deeper to retrieve them.
– Divers battle currents –
Dozens of elite Indonesian Marine divers had tried but failed to thoroughly search the tail after its discovery on Wednesday, in a task complicated by powerful currents and the fact it was partially buried in the seabed.
Those problems continued throughout Friday, with efforts to lift the tail using floatation devices also scuppered by rough seas.
Indonesian authorities have also brought a crane to the KRI Banda Aceh Navy vessel stationed close to the tail site, in hopes of using that to lift the wreckage.
Supriyadi said the conditions were severely hampering all search efforts — for the black boxes, other parts of the plane, and bodies.
“Hopefully the weather and the sea are better tomorrow so we can do our operation,” he said.
American, Chinese and other foreign naval ships are also involved in the hunt for other parts of the plane’s wreckage, as well as for the bodies of passengers. Just 48 bodies have been found so far, according to Indonesian authorities.
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.
– Probe –
In Jakarta, Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan announced 61 domestic flight routes operated by national flag carrier Garuda and four budget airlines had been suspended because they did not have permits.
The ministry launched the probe into the permit system after finding that Indonesia AirAsia did not have authorisation to fly the Surabaya-Singapore route on a Sunday, the day of the crash.
It quickly banned Indonesia AirAsia from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route on any day.
However, investigators have not linked the lack of authorisation to the crash, and Jonan said on Friday the audit had not uncovered any more permit violations by AirAsia.
The Indonesian meteorological agency has said weather was the “triggering factor” for 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.