By Ali Kotarumalos and Margie Mason ,AP
JAKARTA, Indonesia — A massive sea search was underway for an AirAsia plane that disappeared Sunday while flying from Indonesia to Singapore with 162 people on board through airspace possibly thick with dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning, officials said.
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 incident involving Malaysia this year following two of the worst aviation tragedies that hit Malaysia Airlines �X in March Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people and in July Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on it.
Indonesia and Singapore launched a search and rescue operation for Flight 8501 near Belitung island in Java Sea over which the jetliner lost contact with ground traffic control, about 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. The flight had completed a little less than half of its journey time to Singapore.
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.
The last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6:13 a.m. (2313 GMT Saturday), when the pilot ��asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet (10,360 meters).�� It was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m., and a minute later was no longer there, Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, told reporters.
He said there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.
‘My worst nightmare’: Founder of AirAsia 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 the control of Indonesian Air Traffic Control.
��This is my worst nightmare,�� Fernandes tweeted.
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.
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 and one each from Singapore, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. The rest were Indonesians.
It said the captain had a total of 6,100 flying hours, a substantial number, and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours.