AirAsia flight QZ8501: Better weather offers window of opportunity in search

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia (Reuters/AFP) - A multinational team searching for the wreck of an AirAsia passenger jet is hoping a break in the weather at the crash site will give them a "window of opportunity" on Sunday to find the plane's black box and recover the bodies of more victims.

Indonesia officials believe they are close to a major breakthrough after pinpointing four large objects on the sea floor thought to be parts of the Airbus A320-200 that crashed a week ago with 162 people on board. "Weather should provide the search effort with a window of opportunity today, with lower waves expected for the next two days," said Mr Rukman Soleh, weather bureau chief in Pangkalan Bun, the southern Borneo town where the search operation is based.

The weather on Jan 4, the eighth day of the search operations, after 10 am local time is forecast to be more conducive for search operations and evacuation, with tides between 1.5m to 2m, compared with 3m to 5m yesterday, according to Indonesia's meteorology, geophysics and climatology agency (BMKG).

Wind speed is forecast today at 10 knots to 15 knots, coming from the north-west, with light to medium rain. Wind speed of up to 20 knots is normal in the area, says BMKG.

Speaking at the same morning briefing for pilots, Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson Supriadi said efforts would be divided between recovering bodies and locating wreckage and the all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

High seas throughout the week have hampered the relief process, a huge operation assisted by several countries including the United States and Russia, but divers were preparing to go down to the wreckage Sunday as the weather cleared.

"The waves are calmer, only 1m to 2m high," search and rescue official S.B Supriyadi told AFP, adding that 95 divers were on standby on various ships.

"We'll be concentrating on the underwater search, hopefully we'll be able to evacuate more bodies. We want to speed up the evacuation of bodies which might be stuck inside the plane's body," he said.

He said they would be using sonar equipment in their underwater searches, while aircraft would continue to scour the sea and coastline.

The four objects that are the main focus of the search were located by ships about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Central Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo. The largest object is around 18m long.

The suspected wreckage is lying in water around 30m deep, which experts say should make it relatively straightforward to recover if the rough weather that has hampered the search all week abates.

Efforts to capture images with remote operated vehicles (ROVs) were frustrated on Saturday by poor visibility, but officials hope to send down divers on Sunday, including a Russian team that headed to the target site during the night.

Thirty bodies of the mostly Indonesian passengers and crew have so far been recovered, including some still strapped in their seats. Many more may be still trapped in the fuselage of the aircraft.

Flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea last Sunday, about 40 minutes after taking off from Indonesia's second largest city Surabaya en route for Singapore. There were no survivors.

Until investigators can examine the black box flight recorders the cause of the crash remains unknown, but the area is known for intense seasonal storms and Indonesia's meteorological bureau has said bad weather was likely a factor.

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

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, 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based AirAsia.

The crash was the first fatal accident suffered by the AirAsia budget group, whose Indonesian affiliate flies from at least 15 destinations across the sprawling archipelago.

The airline has come under pressure from the Indonesian authorities, who have suspended its Surabaya to Singapore operations saying the carrier only had a licence to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Indonesia AirAsia said it would co-operate with the Transport Ministry whilst it investigates the licence.

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