AirAsia flight QZ8501: Search teams take advantage of brief respite from bad weather

Workers assembling a beacon buoy that will be placed on the site where, according to officials, the tail of crashed AirAsia flight QZ8501 has been located, near Kumai port in Pangkalan Bun on Jan 5, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Workers assembling a beacon buoy that will be placed on the site where, according to officials, the tail of crashed AirAsia flight QZ8501 has been located, near Kumai port in Pangkalan Bun on Jan 5, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia (REUTERS) - Search teams trying to find the black box flight recorders from a crashed AirAsia jet and recover bodies of victims scrambled on Tuesday to take advantage of a brief respite in the bad weather that has frustrated the operation for the last nine days.

Indonesian officials believe they may have located the tail and parts of the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200 at the bottom of the Java Sea, but strong currents, high winds and big waves have hindered attempts to send divers to investigate.

Flight QZ8501 plunged into the water off Borneo island on Dec 28, about 40 minutes into a two-hour flight from Indonesia's second-biggest city of Surabaya to Singapore. There were no survivors among the 162 people on board.

Jakarta has launched a crackdown on its fast-growing aviation sector in the wake of the crash, reassigning some officials and tightening rules on pre-flight procedures in a country with a patchy reputation for air safety.

Air force Lieutenant-Colonel Jhonson Supriadi, speaking from Pangkalan Bun, the southern Borneo town where the multinational search and recovery operation is based, said there was a narrow window of better weather early on Tuesday.

"It's pretty good. We will start searching as quickly as possible," he said, adding that the weather was expected to "get uglier again" later in the day.

The main focus of the search is about 90 nautical miles off Borneo, where five large objects believed to be parts of the plane - the largest about 18m long - have been located in shallow waters by ships using sonar.

The captain of an Indonesian navy patrol vessel said on Monday his ship had found what was believed to be the tail - a key find since that section of the aircraft houses the cockpit voice and flight data recorders - but search and rescue agency officials said that was not yet confirmed.

Officials had previously suggested the larger objects were also likely to include part of the aircraft's fuselage, where many bodies may still be trapped.

The crash was the first fatal accident suffered by the AirAsia budget group, whose Indonesian affiliate has come under criticism from the authorities in Jakarta since the disaster.

The transport ministry has suspended Indonesia AirAsia's Surabaya-Singapore licence, saying the carrier only had permission to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Flight QZ8501 took off on a Sunday.

Indonesia AirAsia, 49 per cent owned by Malaysia-based AirAsia, has made little comment, but said it would fully cooperate with the authorities' investigations.

While the cause of the crash is unknown, the national weather bureau has said the seasonal tropical storms common in the area were likely to be a factor.

Last week, the authorities questioned whether the pilot had followed proper weather procedures.

On Monday, the transport ministry said officials at the airport operator in Surabaya and air traffic control agency who had allowed the flight to take off had been moved to other duties while the accident investigation is completed.

It also said it had issued a directive making it mandatory for pilots to be briefed face-to-face by an airline flight operations officer on weather conditions and other operational issues before every flight.

Indonesia is one of the world's fastest growing aviation markets and its carriers, such as Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia , are among the top customers for plane makers Airbus and Boeing.

But its safety record is chequered. The European Commission banned all Indonesia-based airlines from flying to the European Union in 2007 following a series of accidents.

Exemptions to that ban have since been granted to some carriers, including Garuda and AirAsia.

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