29 Dec 2014

AirAsia mystery: another MH370?

The disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501 caps a nightmare year for the region’s airlines. How similar is the latest tragedy to doomed Malaysia Airlines flight MH370?

Flight QZ8501 before take-off (Reuters)

Countries around Asia have sent planes and ships to the Java sea to help locate the missing Airbus A320-200.

Flight QZ8501 left Indonesia’s Surabaya airport just after 5.30am local time on Sunday with 155 passengers, 16 of them children, and seven crew members on board.

It went missing about 45 minutes later somewhere over the Java sea between Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island and Pontianak on the island of Borneo. Search and rescue officials say the plane is probably “at the bottom of the sea”.

The incident comes after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared over the South China sea in March with 239 people on board. Wreckage from the presumed crash has never been found.

The carrier was caught up in another disaster in July when flight MH17 was shot down over the border between Russia and Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew.

With no confirmed wreckage from QZ8501 yet found, comparisons are inevitably being drawn with vanished MH370. What are the similarities and the differences?

The pilots

The missing AirAsia jet’s Indonesian captain, Iriyanto, is a former fighter pilot who has clocked up more than 20,000 flight hours flying civilian planes, more than 6,000 of them with AirAsia.

His first officer, French citizen Remi Emmanuel Plesel, has more than 2,000 hours of flying experience, according to AirAsia.

There is no suggestion that foul play by someone on board led to the latest disappearance. But some theories about the fate of MH370 have centred on the captain, Zaharie Shah.

Mobile phone image of Zaharie Shah (Reuters)

According to the Sunday Times, Malaysian police investigators identified the pilot as the prime suspect after realising he had made no social engagements after 8 March, the date of the flight.

Other media reports said Capt Shah had used a flight simulator to practise landing an aircraft on a small island in the southern Indian Ocean, the region where search efforts for the missing jet were later focussed.

The planes

Flight QZ8501 was an Airbus A320, one of a family of models that has suffered 26 catastrophic “hull loss” crashes since it came into service in 1988.

MH370 was a Boeing 777, a larger model that has suffered five hull loss incidents since coming into service in 1995.

The airlines

AirAsia Indonesia is a subsidiary of a leading Malaysian low-cost airline. CEO Tony Fernandes said the company had carried 220 million people until this week.

The presumed loss of QZ8501 is the first time an AirAsia flight has been involved in a fatal incident.

Until this year, Malaysia Airlines also had an enviable safety record, being ranked as the 34th safest airline in the world by Germany’s Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre.

But after the MH370 and MH17 disasters, the airline now has 671 fatalities to its name, according to the Swiss Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives (B3A).

After adding the latest casualties, B3A says 2014 was the deadliest year for air travel since 2005.

MH370 and QZ8501: flight routes and search zones

The routes

MH370 was supposed to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but we still do not know where the plane came down. The crew last made contact with air traffic control over the South China sea less than an hour after takeoff.

It appears to have veered off course – fuelling theories that someone on board was involved – and it is thought to have run out of fuel somewhere over a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean.

The latest search efforts have focused on a 23,000 square mile corridor of seabed off the coast of western Australia.

The AirAsia plane had less fuel on board and officials say the search zone, in an area criss-crossed with sea routes, is much smaller at just 70 square nautical miles, and the Java sea is shallower at just 50 to 100m deep.

The last moments

Unlike MH370, QZ8501 appears to have run into bad weather. Five minutes before it lost contact with air traffic control, the plane was travelling at 32,000ft and had asked to climb to 38,000ft to avoid clouds.

Permission was denied as other planes were flying at higher altitude nearby.

As with MH370, no distress signal was sent, though experts disagree about the significance of that.

Australian aviation expert Geoff Thomas said unconfirmed secondary radar which appears to show the plane climbing at just 353 knots could be significant.

“At that altitude, that speed is exceedingly dangerous. At that altitude, the thin air, the wings won’t support the aircraft at that speed and you get an aerodynamic stall.”

Others have stressed that it is almost unheard of for bad weather alone to bring down a modern passenger jet.