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What we know about the Air Asia jet disappearance so far

What we know about the Air Asia jet disappearance so far

Spoiler: it’s not much

162 people have disappeared along with their plane somewhere over Indonesia, and no one knows what happened.

Air Asia Flight 8501 disappeared last night as it approached stormy weather over the Java Sea. At 6:24 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the plane lost contact with air traffic control, and hasn’t been heard from since. According to NPR, the flight crew had requested a change in flight plan after encountering increasingly violent weather, and fell off the grid soon after.

Indonesian officials have released what details they know about the plane’s flight path and location, and Air Asia seems to be doing what it can to remain as transparent about the situation as possible.

AirAsia said in a statement that the plane has six Indonesian crew, a French crew member and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant. Among the passengers are three South Koreans, a Singaporean, a Malaysian and a Briton. The rest are Indonesians, the statement said.

[Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation] said the plane is believed to have gone missing somewhere over the Java Sea between Tanjung Pandan on Belitung Island and Pontianak, on Indonesia’s part of Borneo island. Contact was lost about 42 minutes after takeoff from Surabaya airport, authorities said.

At Surabaya’s Juanda International Airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room, many talking on mobile phones, crying and looking dazed as the hours dragged on without additional news. As word spread, more and more family members arrived at the crisis center to await word.

Of course, theorists and “experts” have come out of the woodwork in an attempt to explain what happened:

Meanwhile, Air Asia is providing updates via its Facebook page:

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Search efforts were suspended as darkness fell over the the area, but will resume as soon as possible.

We will continue to provide updates as they become available.

Map in featured image via Slate


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It was an Airbus entering severe weather, not entirely unlike the Air France flight whose pilots lost control on a flight over the South Atlantic from Rio to Paris.

There is a cultural difference, incredibly, or maybe not so incredibly, between Airbus and Boeing. All new aircraft are “fly by wire” meaning ailerons, elevators and rudders are controlled electrically not by cables or hydraulics. That means a computer actually gives the order to the flight controls. Question is, who commands the computer? The pilots? Or the software engineer at the Airbus or Boeing factory? Airbus culturally limits what the pilots are allowed to do that contradicts what the computer insists is “right”. Boeing culturally gives final authority to the pilots even though the computer says “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”.

Curiously, although I’ve been continuously employed writing systems and embedded software since 1969, and a commercial pilot and flight instructor since 1978, I prefer the Boeing implementation.

    Doug Wright Old Grouchy in reply to FrankNatoli. | December 28, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Highly agree! Software testing can be very difficult, especially the more complex the system (Insert your own take on what “system” means, per se!) Boeing does seem to recognize that factor with what you’re saying. Even after much extensive testing, or even much usage, complex computer controls might never be thoroughly tested with each possible permutation, which could result with errors appearing under the worst conditions; that could be terribly hard to take!

      A century of aviation is full of stories of pilots doing what was absolut verboten to save the ship. Just one example: a 727 was flying from New York to Chicago at night. It was well known, but forbidden, that a 727 could “go faster” at high altitude if the pilots dropped 1/2 degree of flaps. But Boeing [I suppose somewhat contradicting my comment above] as a safety measure had wired the 727 to prevent deploying any flaps under those conditions. The “fix” was to pop the circuit breakers of the flap controls and lower the flaps manually. The pilots did this while the flight engineer had left the cabin for a call of nature. When the flight engineer returned, he noticed a popped breaker, and did the natural thing: he reset the breaker, but only the one he saw, on one side, which caused an immediate retraction of the flap on that side. The asymmetric lift condition caused an uncontrollable roll, the plane going inverted, and hurtling down at such high speeds that the flight data recorder had pegged the ASI reading. As the altimeter wound closer and closer to Mother Earth, the captain, “Hoot” Gibson, dropped the landing gear to act as a massive speed brake. That worked. That also tore off the doors of the landing gear but thankfully no other damage. My point: a computer would have never let Gibson drop the gear, but that is precisely what saved the ship. Boeing has it right. The Pilot in Command must be the final authority, not the computer.

        JackRussellTerrierist in reply to FrankNatoli. | December 29, 2014 at 1:56 am

        Why did the pilots do this? Just to get there a wee bit faster? Was anything done about this?

          read into it and read reports of similar 727 issues years later that courts and ntsb refused to listen to.
          very good chance the crew didn’t pull breakers and extend.

          up that high with the 27 limited wing area it added lift allowing less pitch and more speed.

          @dmacleo. Agree with your additional info. AW&ST would publish incident reports on such occasions, and I recall at the time the observation that, at the relatively high altitude the 727 was flying at, the difference between IAS and TAS was very large, but the difference between IAS and stall speed was very small. The pilots had a very small margin on the ASI to avoid entering a stall/spin. How exactly they got into the stall/spin is a mystery. My intention in relating the story was to show how getting out of there required permitting the pilot to do something “wrong”, i.e., drop the gear at an airspeed much higher than the book permitted. Of course, one could argue that in this particular case, the plane would not have gotten into trouble if the plane prevented the pilot from violating the book. Bottom line, if the choice is whether or not to let the PIC make the decision, I say let him.

    aileron and elevator control a real issue with this when you have rudder pca break. the FDC won;t allow pilot enough throw to compensate. had an emb135 break pca rods just after takeoff at KBGR few yrs back and they almost lost it due to inability to throw as much as needed to compensate.

    problem is the size of the a/c (like these) now really rule out pure mechanical so electric is needed. whats needed is ability for pilot/copilot to flip an over ride switch.

    rorschach256 in reply to FrankNatoli. | December 29, 2014 at 10:42 am

    FrankNatoli has it right, but it goes even deeper than that. The design rules built into the FCA are based on the safety margins of the structure, not the UTS of the structure. Therefore when there may well be the ability of the airframe to perform the commanded action without structural damage, the FCA will countermand the pilot anyway. If you recall some 15 years or so ago the A320 that lost it’s rudder due to Vortex Turbulence from the aircraft Climbing out just ahead of the Airbus. The pilot was fighting the rudder to maintain control of the aircraft so he was justified in commanding the Rudder being hard over. However the Airbus 300/310/320 airframe design has a design flaw in the attachment point of the rudder. It is not strong enough to withstand the forces required to control the aircraft under such turbulence. Airbus’s “fix” was not to strengthen the attachment point but instead to implement new software to limit rudder throw at high speed. But strong turbulence can impart similar forces onto the rudder regardless of rudder position. therefore the “fix” was in fact no such thing, it merely masked the problem.This “fix” will eventually come back to bite Airbus. Mark my words.

I’m not going to get into the weeds of aircraft systems but Airbus has had issues with the pitot tube system used on all flying aircraft today. The model that some of these airbus planes were implicated in the Air France disaster in the Southern Atlantic. The pitot system supplies the input for the airspeed and altimeter indicators on all aircraft and when they malfunction the instruments that the pilots see will be inaccurate. The autopilot will automatically disengage and the plane is now being hand flown with bad instruments. Couple that with sever weather which alone can destroy almost any aircraft and you have a real bad situation. I have flown both Boeing and Airbus planes and they both have good and bad features. The pitot system is not made by Airbus but comes from a company that supplies systems to many different types of planes and companies. The problem has been around since 2009 and should have been fixed on all planes by now. The weather in that area was so severe that air traffic control asked the captain to alter course. If for some reason they flew into a very strong cell the water, hail and turbulence could have broken up the plane or stopped the engines. We will probably find out some day from the recordings on the plane’s boxes.

    iirc was a bunch of AD on some honeywell tube heaters used on boeing/airbus/emb regional jets and others.
    we replaced a lot when certifying for rvsm and doing contour checks on pitot tube and static hole skin area.
    wish I could remember details, lot may have pure age too.

    not saying related to this, just thinking out loud.

    rorschach256 in reply to inspectorudy. | December 29, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Indeed inspectorrudy. They were Thales units. Airbus had sent out a Technicla order to replace the “A” model units with redesigned “B” model units, but Air France, being a National Flag Carrier, and therefore effectively immune to Governmental oversight was lazy and never got around to changing the units out. As it turned out the “B” model suffered from the same icing flaw (apparently it had never been tested in such conditions). The Us manufactured BFGoodrich unit which was also specced for use on that aicraft did not have that flaw but not being a European manufacturer, they were ignored in preference to the Thales (UK manufactured) unit.

    FrankNatoli in reply to inspectorudy. | December 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I believe the Air France crash in the South Atlantic was attributed to all three static ports freezing over, so the crew lost ASI, altimeter and VSI. The captain was not in the cockpit when the plane went into its uncontrolled descent, and by the time he resumed command, it was too late. The CVR actually reveals the pilots saying “I can’t believe we’re going to crash” and being unable to use any control input to halt the descent.

JackRussellTerrierist | December 29, 2014 at 2:18 am

Prayers for the families.

Fly by wire, otherwise known as Die by wire.

I will not get on any commercial plane that is fly by wire. Nope. Nuh uh. No way. Nobody wants to be part of a yard sale.

Little surprising to see some A & P’s following this blog.

Howdie !

    I was stores and then mtx records, worked with great chief qc for region who taught me a lot.
    worked with a ton of good A&P people.
    good ones realized that if I caught their errors and told them I was helping them.
    bad ones thought I was being too strict.
    I never lost when challenged.
    been a few times (3 iirc) I had to have an a/c stopped and next destination and grounded until mtx did something specific for me.
    qc and mtx vice presidents backed me luckily.
    twice the results were improper fire bottle installation that had not had a specific AD done to them.
    once was it was done but paperwork had improper signoffs.
    so twice I potentially saved lives.