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Air Asia QZ8501 Disappearance: Air France 447 all over again?

Updated on January 22, 2015
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I'm a lawyer and mother of two from New Zealand. I have a passion for the written word and am interested in lots of topics (esp. Travel)!

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Air Asia QZ8501 - The Facts

Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 (QZ8501/AWQ8501) was a scheduled international short haul passenger flight, from Surabaya (Indonesia's second biggest city), to Singapore. The flight departed from Surabaya airport at 05:35 local time, and was scheduled to arrive at Singapore Changi Airport at 08:30 Singapore Time.

However the flight never arrived. Almost halfway into the two hour flight, on 28 December 2014, the aeroplane -an Airbus A320, crashed in bad weather, killing all 155 passengers and 7 crew on board. At first the incident was reported as a disappearance, and for 2 days, the plane could not be located.

Two days after the crash, debris from the plane and human remains were found floating in the Karimata Strait, connecting the Java Sea to the South China Sea (see map). The first bits of wreckage were located by fishermen off the island of Pulau Tujuh, and reported to Indonesian authorities. Searchers located wreckage on the sea floor beginning on 3rd January, and the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) were recovered by 13 January. Further search and recovery is still in progress.

On 20 January 2015, it was reported that the aircraft had stalled during an abnormally steep climb and had been unable to recover. After having listened to the cockpit voice recording, the investigators ruled out a terrorist attack as the cause.

The accident is AirAsia Group's first fatal accident since its founding in 1996.

How did the plane crash?

The plane was under Indonesian air traffic control (Jakarta) when it requested and received permission to deviate left from its original flight path because of poor weather conditions (06.12am).

The pilot then requested to climb from FL 320 to FL 380, equivalent to 32,000 to 38,000 feet (9,750 to 11,600 m), giving no reason this time, according to the director of Safety and Standard AirNav Indonesia.

Permission for the flight level change wasn't immediately given by ATC -the request to climb was deferred by air traffic controllers because of heavy air traffic: there were seven other aircraft in the vicinity, all at higher altitudes.

ATC offered permission to climb at 06:14, but there was no acknowledgement from the pilots. The aircraft disappeared from radar at 06:17 and the ADS-B transponder signal was lost at 06:18 WIB.

The last altitude recorded by Flightradar24 from the ADS-B transponder was 32,000 ft (9,750 m). The plane disappeared near Belitung island, over the Java Sea between Borneo) and Java. A meteorological analysis revealed that the aircraft was traversing a storm cluster during the minutes prior to its disappearance.

The Indonesian Transport Ministry reported that no distress signal was sent from the aircraft.

Bodies from Air Asia 8501 wreckage being transported to Surabaya
Bodies from Air Asia 8501 wreckage being transported to Surabaya | Source
Wreckage of the plane's fuselage shown from underwater camera
Wreckage of the plane's fuselage shown from underwater camera | Source
Captain Iriyanto
Captain Iriyanto | Source
First Officer Remi Plesel
First Officer Remi Plesel | Source

The Pilots

When Malaysian Airlines MH770 went missing in March last year, and was never found, speculation ran wild for months on end. Every aspect of the pilots' lives, families, politics and beliefs were scrupulously combed over for clues about whether they may have deliberately run the plane into the sea for some reason. Nothing was ever proved. This time round, the media are being more cautious about probing into the lives of the flight crew.

Here are some brief details about the pilot and first officer on Air Asia Flight QZ8501:

Captain Iriyanto, age 53, an Indonesian national, had a total of 20,537 flying hours, of which 6,100 were with AirAsia Indonesia on the Airbus A320. Iriyanto lived in East Java, and had began his career with the Indonesian Air Force, graduating from pilot school in 1983 and flying F-5 and F-16 aircraft. He took early retirement from the Air Force in the mid-1990s to join Adam Air (a private budget airline that had numerous safety and staffing issues, and was eventually shut down by the Indonesian government in 2007) and later worked for Merpati Nusantara AIrlines and Sriwijaya Air before joining Indonesia AirAsia.

First Officer Rémi Emmanuel Plesel, age 46, a French national, had a total of 2,275 flying hours with AirAsia Indonesia. He was originally from Martinique, and had studied and worked in Paris. He was living in Indonesia at the time of the flight.

Diagram of intertropical convergence zones
Diagram of intertropical convergence zones | Source
Cumulonimbus (towering cumulus) cloud
Cumulonimbus (towering cumulus) cloud | Source

What do we know so far?

The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder from Flight 8501 have only just been recovered (on 13 January 2015). They're in the process of being analysed, but some important information has already emerged from the investigation, notably:

  • The plane (an Airbus A320) was flying into a storm pattern at the time it disappeared, into a hurricane prone area known as the intertropical convergence zone (or "doldrums");
  • The pilots had requested clearance to climb to a higher altitude (presumably to avoid the bad weather);
  • The plane was climbing at an "abnormally fast" speed when it disappeared from radar (the speed being approximately 6000 ft/1828m per minute). This information was obtained some weeks ago from ground based radar data, not from the FDR;
  • The plane then stalled, and plunged into the sea;
  • The flight was reported to be the lowest flying plane in the region at the time of its disappearance (at least 2000 ft lower than surrounding planes);
  • AirAsia did not have permission to fly the Surabaya to Singapore route on the day of the accident. The airliner, however, was licensed to fly on four other days of the week;
  • There were 155 passengers, including 17 children and one infant. The seven crew were made up of two pilots, four flight attendants and an engineer. The first victim found was a 49 year old air hostess. Fewer than 1/3 of the bodies have so far been recovered;
  • Items recovered from the sea surface include a life jacket, children's shoes, luggage and what investigators believe to be an emergency exit door and inflatable slide belonging to the plane;
  • The fuselage of the plane, believed to hold most of the remaining bodies, has also been located and search teams are now working out how to retrieve it;
  • Recovery efforts, led by the Indonesian military and the Indonesian search and rescue agency, have been severely hampered by bad weather and heavy seas.

Wreckage of Air France 447
Wreckage of Air France 447 | Source

Air France 447 Facts

Air France Flight 447 (AF447/AFR447) was a scheduled, international, long haul passenger flight, operated by the French airline Air France from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. On 1 June 2009, the aircraft being flown, an Airbus A330, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just after 02:14 UTC. All 228 passengers, aircrew and cabin crew aboard the plane were killed.

The accident is the deadliest in the history of Air France. It was also the Airbus A330's second and deadliest accident, and its first in commercial passenger service. Here's the sequence of events:

  • The last verbal contact with the aircraft was at 01:35 UTC, 3 hours and 6 minutes after the 22:29 UTC departure, off Natal, on Brazil's north-eastern coast. The aircraft left Brazilian Atlantic radar surveillance at 01:49 UTC.
  • The Airbus A330 is designed to be flown by a crew of two pilots. However, because the 13-hour "duty time" (flight duration, plus pre-flight preparation) for the Rio-Paris route exceeds the maximum 10 hours permitted by Air France's procedures, Flight 447 was crewed by three pilots: a captain and two first officers.
  • With three pilots on board, each of them can take a rest during the flight, and for this purpose the A330 has a rest cabin, situated just behind the cockpit.
  • The non-flying senior captain (Marc Dubois) left the cockpit to rest at 02:01:46 UTC. At 02:06 UTC, the pilot warned the cabin crew that they were about to enter an area of turbulence. 2-3 minutes after this that the airplane encountered icing conditions (ice hitting the plane could be heard on the CVR) and ice crystals started to accumulate in the pitot tubes. The pilots turned the aircraft slightly to the left and decreased its speed.
  • At 02:10:05 UTC the autopilot disengaged (the investigation found that this was because the speed readings from the pitot tubes had stopped being reliable, and were recording extremely slow (and wrong) speeds, meaning the auto pilot system could no longer function). A warning sounded requiring the pilot to resume manual control of the aircraft. First Officer Bonin who was now flying the plane took over the controls.
  • Without the auto-pilot, the aircraft started to roll to the right due to turbulence, and the pilot reacted by deflecting his side-stick to the left. One consequence of the change to alternate law was an increase in the aircraft's sensitivity to roll, and the pilot's input over-corrected for the initial upset.
  • By the time the pilot had control of the aircraft's roll, it was climbing at nearly 7,000 ft/min (for comparison, typical normal rate of climb for modern airliners is only 2,000–3,000 ft/min at sea level, and much smaller at high altitude).
  • The pilot continued making nose-up inputs. It's unclear why he continued to make the plane climb. At 02:11:10 UTC, the aircraft had climbed to its maximum altitude of around 38,000 feet. The wings lost lift and the aircraft stalled.
  • At 02:11:40 UTC, the captain re-entered the cockpit. The angle of attack had then reached 40 degrees, and the aircraft had descended to 35,000 feet. The automatic stall warnings stopped, as all airspeed indications were now considered invalid by the aircraft's computer due to the high angle of attack. From there until the end of the flight, the angle of attack never dropped below 35 degrees.
  • The flight data recordings stopped at 02:14:28 UTC. The aircraft remained had stalled during its entire 3 minute 30 second descent from 38,000 feet, and dropped out of the sky like a stone, before it hit the ocean surface at a speed of 152 knots (280 km/h). The aircraft broke up on impact; everyone on board died instantly.

Captain Marc Dubois (58)
Captain Marc Dubois (58) | Source
Cedric Bonin
Cedric Bonin | Source

The Air France 447 Investigation Report

The third (and final) investigation report found the following factors had caused and/or contributed to the loss of Air France 447:

  • Inconsistent/inaccurate air speed indications caused by the plane's pitot tubes icing over and malfunctioning, causing the autopilot to disengage;
  • The pilots made inappropriate inputs to the controls that destabilized the plane during manual flight;
  • Pilots failed to follow the correct procedures after loss of airspeed indications;
  • Pilots were late in identifying and correcting the deviation from flight path;
  • Pilots responded inappropriately to the stall warnings -showing a lack of knowledge/understanding of how to correct a stalled plane;
  • There were crew knowledge and training issues (system failures)
  • The crew managed the situation in the cockpit poorly, in terms of how they responded and allocated tasks between them.

Important factors that were also highlighted related to issues of fatigue amongst the three man crew in the cockpit. The senior (non-flying) pilot Captain Marc Dubois had only had 1 hour's sleep prior to the flight, because he had been out partying with his girlfriend the night before, and sightseeing in Rio during the day. He went to have his regulation sleep at a critical (and it was said inappropriate) time in the flight, just as the plane was approaching bad weather, and he left control of the aircraft in the hands of the most junior of the three pilots - Bonin, who had only 2936 flight hours experience; most of these on fully computerised aircraft.

The other co-pilot who was first officer at the time the plane went down was David Robert, a slightly more experienced pilot than Bonin, who however had transitioned to a management role in the flight operations center at the time of the accident, and was only piloting this flight in order to maintain his flight credentials.

Since this accident, Air France and Airbus have been sued by a number of the victims' families, and manslaughter charges were also filed.


Eerie Similarities between Air Asia 8501 and AF 447 Accidents

Air Asia 8501
Air France 447
Plane was an Airbus A-320
Airbus A-330
Flying through intertropical convergence zone in Java sea
Flying through intertropical convergence zone in Atlantic
Encountered bad weather
Encountered cumulus clouds
Went off radar with no distress signal
Went off radar with no distress signal
Climbing rapidly caused a stall
Climbing rapidly caused a stall
The table shows there are many similarities between the two accidents
Source

Is it too early to conclude this is a repeat of AF447?

Many commentators so far have noted the eerie similarities between the events of Air France 447, and Air Asia 8501, especially since the information was revealed that the Air Asia plane was climbing steeply, and stalled, before it plunged into the sea.

Both flights involved Airbus A-300 series aircraft -which are fully computerised; requiring only a few minutes of manual flying from the pilots on each flight. Some commentators believe that highly computerised aircraft make it difficult for pilots to maintain their skill level at flying planes, and that their ability to handle difficult situations may become degraded. We have to wait and see if this was the case for the Air Asia pilots.

In both flights, they were flying into storm systems across inter-tropical convergence zones. These events can create icing on the plane -and interfere with instrument systems. They can also require pilots to take action at times to avoid dangerous weather. So far we don't know for sure that weather was a causal factor for the Air Asia flight, as it was for the Air France flight -we can only note the similar scenario.

Another interesting parallel is that in both cases, the planes were being piloted by a crew of one much more experienced pilot, and a newer, much less experienced pilot. For Air Asia, both pilots were described as experienced, with Capt Iriyanto clocking up 20,537 hours of flying time. His co-pilot, Remi Emmanuel Plesel, had 2,275 hours of flight experience (however that's a lot less experience than Iriyanto). Again it's not clear if this was a factor -only the transcript from the Air Asia CVR, and inputs from the FDR, will reveal who was actually flying the plane at the time it went down, and that information hasn't yet been announced.

Perhaps the most telling piece of information is that both planes were climbing steeply at the time they disappeared. Neither plane was maintaining a level flight path. We now know that stall warnings were going off audibly in the Air Asia cockpit, and they were being ignored. It therefore seems likely that the Air Asia airbus plane stalled for similar reasons to the Air France plane, and that the crew were unable to correct the stall in time to prevent the plane plunging into the sea.

Whether the weather conditions, the plane, or the crew are primarily to blame remains to be seen, but the early money is on some kind of repeat of the AF447 incident.

My deepest sympathies go to the families of the victims of both flights. May the victims rest in peace.

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    • KayaRaya profile image

      KayaRaya 2 years ago

      Tomorrow 08.03.2015 marks exactly 1 year that MH370 has gone missing. As a Malaysian, I can still remember the fear and worry that gripped our hearts on that fateful day. Little did we know that there would be 2 more aviation tragedies (involving our Malaysian airlines) to come. Logically speaking, the probability of a few aviation tragedies happening within a few short months is super slim. We will continue to pray for all on board MH370. And may this year be a safe and better year for everyone.

    • bonmotsminot profile image
      Author

      Sue Minot 3 years ago from Wellington, New Zealand

      Thanks ginjill ashberry for your comment. I too hope the families get some kind of closure soon. It took years for the Air France investigation to complete its report (and even for the black boxes to be found), so it's very positive that things are happening more quickly with the Air Asia accident. There's always a risk of cover-up, and I really hope that won't be the case here, and that the full, honest picture will emerge of what really happened out there. It's nothing less than the families deserve.

    • ginjill ashberry profile image

      Ashley TKL 3 years ago

      Hi Sue,

      I am glad you write about this. It was a year of tragedies for Malaysia airlines. And many are still curious about the truth. Hopefully there will a closure to the many airline tragedies in the world. For us to know what really happened and learn from it, that we may improve aviation all over. By the way I noticed an honest error. It could be your speed typing but it was MH370, not MH770.

      Thank you for publishing this hub!