QZ8501: All presumed lost but why no wreckage yet?

Air Asia’s QZ8501, Airbus A320-200 most probably flew into a violent thunderstorm which it could not or did not avoid and suffered a catastrophic structural failure. This is plausible and pilots avoid violent thunderstorms if at all possible. Flying through a storm is most inadvisable and usually aircraft fly around them. Just this year, this could be the third aircraft (the others were cargo aircraft) to have been lost to a thunderstorm near the equator. But why no wreckage yet?

The pilots had requested permission to increase altitude from 32,000 to 38,000 feet to avoid bad weather but this change was denied by air traffic control presumably because of other traffic on this busy route. The denial is not unusual but the storm may have had a much greater vertical spread than expected. Thunderstorms in the Java Sea can sometimes have plumes (towers) extending up to 50,000 metres feet. In emergencies, commercial pilots are trained to first control the plane, then to navigate and only then to communicate. So the lack of a distress signal – is worrying – but not a reason to rush to conspiracy theories or to invoke magic. It does suggest that whatever happened happened fast. There were 23 no-show passengers booked on the plane but this also does not seem extraordinary for a flight leaving in the early hours.

BBC: He said the captain had more than 20,500 flight hours, almost 7,000 of them with AirAsia. The flight left Surabaya in eastern Java at 05:35 local time (22:35 GMT) and was due to arrive in Singapore at 08:30 (00:30 GMT).

The missing jet had requested a “deviation” from the flight path to avoid thick storm clouds, AirAsia said. Indonesia’s transport ministry said the pilot had asked permission to climb to 38,000ft (11,000m).

Ministry official Djoko Murjatmodjo said the request “could not be approved at that time due to traffic, there was a flight above, and five minutes later [flight QZ8501] disappeared from radar”.


QZ5801 planned route

This morning one of the rescue officials said that the aircraft was probably at the bottom of the sea. But I have difficulty to reconcile a “catastrophic failure” with the absence of any wreckage. The weather is still bad in the most likely location. Perhaps more time is needed. The chance of survival for the 162 people on board is diminishing very fast.

The loss of 162 lives is tragedy enough but the thought of another “vanishing act” like MH370 without any wreckage or any other physical evidence is somehow even more disturbing. Can there be a catastrophic failure without the plane breaking up into smaller pieces where some would surely float? To be “at the bottom of the sea” would surely need that the aircraft went down largely intact or in very large pieces. Then why no “distress call”? Even an implausible lightning strike which disabled all power instantaneously may have caused the plane to descend very fast but it should not have disabled all communication devices.

Only questions about QZ8501 right now. But almost every question about MH370 is still open. The loss of life is deeply tragic. That Malaysian aviation could be singled out to be hit by 3 tragedies in one year is perplexing.  But the idea that the open questions will never be answered is terrifying.


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