Missing AirAsia flight QZ8501: Officials warn aircraft is likely 'at the bottom of the sea' as search is stepped up

AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished Sunday in airspace thick with storm clouds on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore

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The Independent Online

Singaporean officials have warned that missing AirAsia aeroplane QZ8501 may be “at the bottom of the sea” as an aviation expert warned the pilot may have been travelling too slowly.

The AirAsia Flight 8501 carrying 162 people, including one Briton, lost contact with ground control over 24 hours ago during a flight from Surabaya, in Indonesia, to Singapore on Sunday – the third south-east Asian flight to end in tragedy this year.

Aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas, having spoken to several captains, believes that the pilot was ensnared by bad weather which caused the aircraft to stall as the crew attempted to escape the thunderstorm by climbing higher.

“The QZ8501 was flying too slow, about 100 knots which is about 160kmh too slow. At that altitude that’s exceedingly dangerous,” Mr Thomas told reporters.

“He got caught in a massive updraft or something like that. Something's gone terribly wrong,” he said.

“Essentially the plane is flying too slow to the altitude and the thin air, and the wings won't support it at that speed and you get a stall, an aerodynamic stall.”

Mr Thomas compared the disaster to that of the Air France AF447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, after attempting to avoid a thunderstorm.

In the subsequent hours, Indonesian authorities – alongside several other countries - have scrambled to assemble 12 navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and a number of warships. Boats and search planes have also been sent by Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.

A map of where the AirAsia flight QZ8501 went missing

National Search and Rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo told a news conference yesterday: “Based on the coordinates that we know, the evaluation would be that any estimated crash position is in the sea, and that the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea”.

Mr Soelistyo said given the route and believed last known location of the plane, it is thought the flight encountered storms and crashed.

Search teams are hopeful they will find the plane, with the Naval Aviation Center commander First Admiral Sigit Setiayana commenting that visibility was good.

“God willing, we can find it soon,” he said.

The plane’s disappearance marks the end of a tragic year for the airline industry, which saw MH370 disappear in mysterious circumstances and MH17 crash over Ukraine.

Most of the passengers on the latest disappearance are Indonesian, although the British government did confirm yesterday there was a single Briton, Chi-Man Choi, on the flight, believed to have been travelling with his two-year-old daughter.

Tony Fernandes, the British-Malaysian founder of AirAsia, which has never yet lost a plane, described the loss as “my worst nightmare”.

Airborne for only 42 minutes, there was no distress call received from Qz8501. The last communication was at when one of the pilots asked to increase altitude from 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) to 38,000 feet (11,582 meters).

Indonesia's acting director general of transportation Djoko Murjatmodjo said the jet was last seen on radar at 6:16 am and was gone a minute later.

Mr Fernandes asked individuals not to “speculate” adding: ““We have no idea at the moment what went wrong”.

Additional reporting by Associated Press