The discovery of the black boxes of Air Asia flight QZ8501 has raised hopes that many of the outstanding issues surrounding the crashed passenger plane can now be uncovered.
The Airbus A320 was on a routine two-hour flight from Indonesia to Singapore, on December 28th, 2014. At 6:17 AM local time, it disappeared from the radar with 162 passengers and crew on board. While no technical problems with the aircraft had been apparent, there was bad weather in the area, including a severe thunder storm.
The Air Asia crash was the fourth major air disaster of 2014. In March, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from radar without a trace. In July, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashed in unexplained circumstances over Ukraine. Also in July, an Air Algerie plane crashed on a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers. The total of more than 1,300 deaths as a result of all air disasters in 2014, is the highest number since 2005.
As investigators of the QZ8501 crash examine the information available on the flight recorder, they will hopefully be able to bring clarity to some of the following questions.
10) Did The Pilots Get An Updated Weather Report Before Leaving?
Generally, it is standard practice before the beginning of every flight, that the crew obtain the most current weather report from the relevant air authorities. However, it remains an open question whether or not the two pilots received this update before they took off at 5:35am. Reports suggest that Air Asia only got the latest weather report from the authorities at 7am, nearly 90 minutes after the plane had left and more than 40 minutes after QZ8501 had vanished from the radar. Had the crew known the most current state of the weather on their flight route, they may have been able to have flown a different course, or even taken the decision not to fly if conditions were deemed to risky.
9) Why Did The Flight Leave Two Hours Ahead Of Schedule?
This question is tied up with the previous one, because if the Air Asia flight had stuck to its original departure time of 7:35am, the crew would have had the benefit of the 7am weather report sent to the airline company. Officials at the airline have not yet provided an explanation for the altered flight time, although it could have something to do with the high number of aircraft in the area. Some have also raised the possibility that it was linked to Air Asia not having authorisation to fly between Indonesia and Singapore on Sundays, more on which you can read below.
8) Is The Decision-Making Process For Authorizing Flights In Indonesia Adequate?
In the days following the crash, many professionals in the airline industry pointed out serious shortcomings in the procedures for allowing flights to depart in Indonesia. The Wall Street Journal noted that in North America and Europe, the common practice is for a team of dispatchers to collect weather reports and other relevant information so that a final decision can be taken on the flight’s route, or if it should fly at all. But in Indonesia, it seems like all of the responsibility is placed on the pilots. They have to secure the weather information and other details prior to take-off. An official told the Jakarta Post that briefings by flight officers did not always take place, and that authorization to fly was sometimes given by text message.
7) Did Air Asia Have Authorization To Fly On The Route?
Several media outlets have questioned whether Air Asia as a company, had permission to fly between the two destinations on a Sunday. As well as explaining why the flight time was brought forward, the lack of authorization would also account for the refusal of the pilot’s request to change the plane’s altitude shortly before it lost radar contact. The reason given for rejecting this request was that there were too many other aircraft in the area, suggesting that the overcrowding of the sky played a part in the catastrophe. Had Air Asia stuck to its authorized days of flying, there would have presumably been more room for a plane to have made such a corrective maneuvre to avoid bad weather.
6) Why Did The Pilot Request To Increase The Flight Altitude?
Most experts believe that the request was linked to the storm, which the pilot hoped to avoid by flying above it. But it’s not clear why if this was the case, there was no emergency call made by the crew when they got into trouble shortly afterwards. The cockpit voice recorder will hopefully help investigators to piece together the last moments of the flight, possibly revealing exchanges between the crew that were not relayed to the ground. One significant factor supporting the idea that the thunderstorm forced the pilot to make the request is that none of the other flights in the immediate vicinity were flying at the same altitude as QZ8501, but were all cruising at least 2,000 feet higher.
5) Could The Plane Have Stalled?
This possibility was suggested after radar data showed that the plane had increased its altitude shortly after the pilot made the request, even though it was denied. Its speed also slowed from just over 500 miles per hour, to 406 miles per hour. This led some commentators to draw a comparison with the Air France flight, which crashed en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro over the Atlantic. This tragedy was caused by the pilots’ failure to notice that the Airbus was slowing and would eventually stall. Their inactivity was caused by incorrect measurements of the aircraft’s speed provided by instruments which had iced over. This may have played a role in the Air Asia incident.
4) What Ultimately Caused The Plane To Go Down?
This is a question that only the black box records can answer. By all accounts, the aircraft was in good working order, it was only six years old and it had gone through a maintenance process in November. The most likely cause for the crash has been put forward as engine icing. We don’t fully understand how this works, but it is known that it occurs in bad weather when extremely cool water droplets get into the plane’s engines. Other experts have explained that in such cases, planes can even be broken up if they fly into a storm, but this did not happen to QZ8501.
3) If The plane Landed Intact On The Sea, Why Were No Radio Signals Sent?
This puzzle emerged when the wreckage of the crashed Airbus was located three days after it disappeared. The bodies that have been recovered indicate that the plane did not break apart in mid air, but most likely managed to land on the sea in one piece before sinking. It was then probably blown over by heavy seas and sunk. But if this was in fact the sequence of events, it’s a mystery why no emergency signal was sent by the crew. After all, they would have had a short period of time during the aircraft’s descent from its flying height, and it would have been clear to them by this stage, that they were in serious trouble. The release of further information will clarify whether a problem arose with their communication systems, or whether the sending of a signal was neglected by the crew in the heat of the moment.
2) Would The Availability Of Satellite Technology Have Helped Prevent The Tragedy?
A lot of criticism of airlines has been made for their failure to purchase satellite technology to track the routes of their flights, and their reliance of radar systems that are vastly inferior. Although it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure, the availability of such technology probably wouldn’t have averted the crash by itself. However, it certainly would have helped considerably in locating the plane and retrieving the bodies and wreckage. Satellite surveillance would also have enabled ground crew to follow the flight’s movements during the last few minutes, providing us with vital information about what happened and saving a significant amount of time required to recover and analyse the black box. It also would have meant that any audio from the cockpit would have been transmitted in real time, possibly allowing air traffic control to intervene.
1) Are There Any Links With The Other Airline Disasters That Occurred In 2014?
Because no trace of MH370 has yet been found, it’s difficult to say anything about the reason for that incident. Although searches have continued in the Indian Ocean, it appears increasingly unlikely that anything will be recovered. The other Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, with the only matter in dispute being who carried it out. This does not apply at all to what happened to the Air Asia flight. The Air Algerie flight could potentially have something in common. Severe storms were involved in that case as well, prompting the pilot to request that he be allowed to turn back to Burkina Faso shortly before crashing. Before flight R5017 lost contact over Mali, it had deviated from its flightpath and altered its speed. The investigation into this incident is still on-going.
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