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Hopes fade for 162 lives as jet goes missing in storm

Several hours of searching Indonesian waters turned up no sign of an AirAsia plane that disappeared with 162 people on board in airspace possibly thick with dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning, officials said.

Aircraft searching for AirAsia Flight 8501 called off the effort for the night and will resume this morning, said Achmad Toha of Indonesia's search and rescue agency. Some ships were continuing the search overnight, he said.

The plane took off yesterday morning from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and was about halfway to its destination, Singapore, when it vanished from radar.

The last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6.13am, when the pilot "asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet". It was last seen on radar at 6.16am, and a minute later was no longer there, Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia's acting director general of transportation, told reporters.

More than 12 hours later, shocked family members huddled at the Surabaya airport from where the Airbus A320 had taken off, awaiting any news of the jetliner, operated by an airline whose parent company is based in Malaysia. It is the third major aviation incident involving Malaysia this year: in March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people, and in July, a jet from the same airline was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.

Indonesia and Singapore launched a search and rescue operation for Flight 8501 near Belitung island in Java Sea, the area where the jetliner lost contact with ground traffic control about 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya.

Murjatmodjo said there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.

"We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it," he said.

Speaking 10 hours after the plane lost contact, Indonesia Vice President Jusuf Kalla expressed deep concern.

"It is most possible that it has experienced an accident," he said.

AirAsia, a regional low-cost carrier founded in 2001 by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, said in a statement that the plane was on the submitted flight plan route. However, it had requested deviation due to weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under Indonesian air traffic control.

"This is my worst nightmare," Fernandes tweeted.

LIGHTNING

Sunardi, a weather forecaster at the Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, said dense storm clouds were detected up to 44,000 feet in the same area at the time the plane was reported to have lost contact.

"There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds," said Sunardi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

The plane had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement.

Among the passengers were three South Koreans, a Malaysian, a British national and his 2-year-old Singaporean daughter. The rest were Indonesians.

hnews@herald.ie


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