On December 28, 2014, at approximately 5:36 a.m. local time, AirAsia 8501 departed from Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia bound for Singapore. Aside from the plane being roughly 16 minutes behind schedule (QZ8501 was supposed to depart at 5:20 a.m.), nothing was out of the ordinary when the Airbus A320-200 left the runway and began its journey with 162 people on board.
Everything changed 41 minutes into the flight.
In order to avoid threatening clouds in their flight path, Captain Iriyanto and First Officer Remi Emmanuel Plesel contacted air traffic controllers and requested permission to climb from an altitude of 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet. Their request was denied due to heavy air traffic.
What Happened to AirAsia 8501?
What happened next has left investigators puzzled. Data from the flight recorder shows that the pilots began climbing at a rate of 6,000 feet per minute. According to Indonesia’s Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan, a commercial plane normally climbs at a rate of 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet per minute. In Jonan’s words, the 6,000 feet per minute climb “can only be done by a fighter jet.”
Some have brought up the possibility that the pilots were under duress, possibly part of a terrorist attack…after all, what else could explain the drastic climb? But based on the information gathered by the Indonesian government, the possibility of a terrorist attack has been ruled out. Investigators told the media that no threats could be heard from the cockpit voice recorder.
The only voices that could be heard were those of the pilots, and they sounded “very busy” according to investigators. That’s because the two men were busy addressing loud warning alarms that were going off before the plane disappeared from radar. This revelation has led many to speculate that the plane entered into a stall, one from which the pilots were unable to recover.
So what factors led to this tragedy? Did the weather cause the crash? Mechanical failure? Or was pilot error to blame? A preliminary report is expected to be delivered to the International Civil Aviation Organization by the end of January, and a full investigative report will likely take a year to complete.
Search Teams Still Recovering Bodies
As investigators are working to figure out what happened to AirAsia 8501, search teams are still having trouble locating and recovering the bodies of victims. Nearly a month after the crash, less than half of the victims have been recovered. Search teams have been facing high winds and strong ocean currents, preventing divers from reaching the seafloor, where many of the victims are likely still strapped into their seats.
AirAsia 8501 Timeline (Local Indonesia Time)
- 5:20 a.m. Scheduled departure time for QZ8501.
- 5:36 a.m. AirAsia departs from Surabaya International Airport in Indonesia.
- 6:12 a.m. Pilot asks air traffic controllers for permission to make a left turn and climb from an altitude of 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet in order to avoid clouds.
- 6:16 a.m. QZ8501 visible on radar.
- 6:18 a.m. AirAsia 8501 drops off of radar. AirAsia officials have said they lost contact at 6:24 a.m.
- 7:30 a.m. Scheduled landing time in Singapore (8:30 a.m. Singapore time).
- 7:55 a.m. AirAsia announces that Flight 8501 is missing with last known coordinates over the Java Sea between Borneo and Belitung.
QZ8501 Flight Manifest
- 162 People Onboard (Passengers and Crew)
- 23 ‘No Shows’
- 149 Indonesia
- 3 South Korea
- 1 United Kingdom
- 1 Singapore
- 1 Malaysia
AirAsia 8501: What We’ve Learned
January 29, 2015
Indonesian Investigators: Preliminary Report on AirAsia 8501 Not Available to the Public
When Indonesian officials made the announcement last week that a preliminary report on the AirAsia Flight 8501 crash would soon be released, it came with one caveat: The general public will not be given access to the full report. Tatang Kurniadi, chairman of Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee told reporters that the preliminary report would only be made available to countries involved in the crash. Kurniadi added that no comment or analysis would be offered by NTSC.
French Co-Pilot at Controls Before Crash
NTSC lead investigator Mardjono Siswosuwarno told the media today that French co-pilot Remi Plesel was at the controls just before the airliner crashed into the Java Sea. “He was flying the plane,” Siswosuwarno said, adding that 53-year-old Captain Iriyanto was monitoring. As expected, Indonesia’s NTSC released their preliminary report but did not make very much information available to the public.
According to Siswosuwarno, the flight data recorder has given investigators a fairly good idea of what happened in the moments leading up to the December 28, 2014 crash. Earlier reports from Indonesian officials indicate that the Airbus A320 went into a steep climb from its cruising altitude before it stalled, or lost lift.
A warning with an automated voice saying “stall, stall” would have been heard in the cockpit as the plane began to fall toward the ocean. Once in the stall, it is believed that Captain Iriyanto, the veteran pilot with more than 20,000 hours of flying experience, took over the controls. According to flight data, the plane remained in a stall until seconds before impact.
Parallels With Air France Flight 447?
Reports of parallels between QZ8501 and AF447 have continued to materialize after Indonesian weather officials said tropical storms were likely a contributor to the crash. In the AF447 crash, icing on the airframe resulted in pilots losing airspeed readings, and the flight crew’s reaction to the airspeed sent the plane into a stall they weren’t able to recover from. Sources familiar with the investigation told Reuters that icing does not seem to be a factor in the QZ8501 crash.
70 Bodies Found Thus Far
A multinational search effort has found the bodies of 70 victims in the Java Sea. Officials hope to find many more when they are able to excavate the plane’s fuselage. Presumably, many of the remaining victims are still strapped to their seats at the bottom of the sea. Bad weather conditions and poor underwater visibility have thus far hampered search teams from reaching the seafloor.
Flight Crew Nationalities
- 6 Indonesia
- 1 France