Dec 30, 2014 1:59 AM

Debris spotted off Indonesia coast; possible link to AirAsia

The Associated Press

SURABAYA, Indonesia (AP) Several pieces of debris seen floating in the sea off Borneo island might be linked to the missing AirAsia jetliner, an Indonesia National Search and Rescue spokesman said Tuesday.

Yusuf Latif said an Indonesian military aircraft saw white, red and black objects, including what appears to be a life jacket, off the coast, about 105 miles (170 kilometers) south of Pangkalan Bun. AirAsia's jets are red and white.

He said the agency has dispatched at least one helicopter to pick up at least 10 pieces of debris to be checked. The items will be taken to the search and rescue coordination post on Belitung island.

"This is the most significant finding, but we cannot confirm anything until the investigation is completed," he said.

The plane with 162 people on board disappeared Sunday on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore after encountering storm clouds. A massive international search effort has been launched since Flight 8501 disappeared from radar over the Java Sea near Belitung island.

The United States announced it was sending the USS Sampson destroyer, joining at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters in the search for the jet, said Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo.

A Chinese frigate was also on the way, while Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to detect pings from the plane's all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders. Malaysia, Australia and Thailand also are involved in the search, and area fishermen were also helping.

The plane vanished Sunday halfway into what should have been a two-hour hop from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. The Airbus A320-200 is believed to have crashed into Indonesia's Java Sea, a busy shipping lane where water on average is only 45 meters (150 feet) deep.

On Monday, searchers made various sightings they thought might be related to the plane but were dismissed by Tuesday.

Soelistyo said an Indonesian navy ship reached the spot where a military craft reported two oil patches in the Java Sea east of Belitung island. It was not jet fuel, or even oil, but coral.

"They were just shadows of two wide shapes of coral clusters that when seen from the air looked like oil spills," he said.

The search has expanded to include not only the sea but nearby land. As the sun rose Tuesday over Pangkalan Bun on the western part of Kalimantan, two Indonesian helicopters flew over the island looking for any sign of wreckage. Two other copters were hundreds of kilometers east over the smaller islands of Bangka and Belitung.

The AirAsia pilots had been worried about the weather on Sunday and had sought permission to climb above threatening clouds, but were denied due to heavy air traffic. Minutes later, the jet was gone from the radar without issuing a distress signal.

Pilots rely on sophisticated weather-radar systems that include a dashboard display of storms and clouds, as well as reports from other crews, to steer around dangerous weather, and it's unlikely that alone would cause the plane to crash.

"A lot more information is available to pilots in the cockpit about weather" than ever, said Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But the technology has limits and sometimes information about storms "can be a little bit stale."

The suspected crash caps an astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular. Malaysia-based AirAsia's loss comes on top of the mystery surround Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.

Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.

Ruth Natalia Puspitasari, who would have turned 26 on Monday, was among them. Her father, Suyanto, sat with his wife, who was puffy-eyed and coughing, near the family crisis center at Surabaya's airport.

"I don't want to experience the same thing with what happened with Malaysia Airlines," he said as his wife wept. "It could be a long suffering."

Few believe this search will be as perplexing as the ongoing one for Flight 370, which remains a mystery. Authorities suspect the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board and ultimately lost in a remote area of the Indian Ocean that's thousands of feet deep. Flight 8501 vanished over a heavily traveled sea that is relatively shallow, with no sign of foul play.

The captain, Iryanto, who like many Indonesians uses a single name, had more than 20,000 flying hours, AirAsia said.

People who knew Iryanto recalled that he was an experienced military pilot, flying F-16 fighters before shifting to commercial aviation. His French co-pilot, Remi Plesel, had been in Indonesia three years and loved to fly, his sister, Renee, told France's RTL radio.

"He told me that things were going well, that he'd had a good Christmas. He was happy. The rains were starting," she said. "The weather was bad."


McDowell reported from Jakarta. Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos, Niniek Karmini and Margie Mason in Jakarta, Chris Brummitt in Singapore, Joan Lowy in Austin, Texas, Scott Mayerowitz in New York, David Koenig in Dallas and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.


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