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Jetliner searchers discover debris

Link to AirAsia plane yet to be determined

Trisnadi Marjan And Robin Mcdowell Associated Press

SURABAYA, Indonesia – Several pieces of debris seen floating in the sea off Borneo Island might be linked to the missing AirAsia jetliner, an Indonesia National Search and Rescue spokesman said today.

Yusuf Latif said an Indonesian military aircraft saw white, red and black objects, including what appears to be a life jacket, off the coast, about 105 miles south of Pangkalan Bun.

He said the agency has dispatched at least one helicopter to pick up at least 10 pieces of debris to be evaluated. The items will be taken to the search and rescue coordination post on Belitung island.

“This is the most significant finding, but we cannot confirm anything until the investigation is completed,” he said.

The plane with 162 people on board disappeared Sunday on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore after encountering storm clouds. A massive international search effort has been launched since Flight 8501 disappeared from radar over the Java Sea near Belitung island.

The United States announced it was sending the destroyer USS Sampson, joining at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters in the search for the jet, said Henry Bambang Soelistyo, Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency chief.

A Chinese frigate was also on the way, while Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to detect pings from the plane’s all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders. Malaysia, Australia and Thailand also are involved in the search, and area fishermen were helping.

The plane vanished Sunday halfway into what should have been a two-hour hop from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. The Airbus A320-200 is believed to have crashed into Indonesia’s Java Sea, a busy shipping lane where water on average is only 150 feet deep.

Monday, searchers made various sightings they thought might be related to the plane, but all had been dismissed by today.

Soelistyo said an Indonesian navy ship reached the spot where a military craft reported two oil patches in the Java Sea east of the island of Belitung. It was not jet fuel, or even oil, but coral.

The AirAsia pilots had been worried about the weather Sunday and had sought permission to climb above threatening clouds, but were denied because of heavy air traffic. Minutes later, the jet was gone from the radar without issuing a distress signal.

Pilots rely on sophisticated weather-radar systems that include a dashboard display of storms and clouds, as well as reports from other crews, to steer around dangerous weather, and it’s unlikely that alone would cause the plane to crash.

“A lot more information is available to pilots in the cockpit about weather” than ever, said Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But the technology has limits and sometimes information about storms “can be a little bit stale.”

The suspected crash caps an astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular. Malaysia-based AirAsia’s loss comes on top of the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.

Few believe the Flight 8501 search will be as perplexing as the ongoing one for Flight 370, which remains a mystery. Authorities suspect that plane was diverted deliberately by someone on board and ultimately lost in a remote area of the Indian Ocean that’s thousands of feet deep. Flight 8501 vanished over a heavily traveled sea that is relatively shallow, with no sign of foul play.

The captain, Iryanto, who like many Indonesians uses a single name, had more than 20,000 flying hours, AirAsia said.

People who knew Iryanto recalled that he was an experienced military pilot, flying F-16 fighters before shifting to commercial aviation. His French co-pilot, Remi Plesel, had been in Indonesia three years and loved to fly, his sister, Renee, told France’s RTL radio.

“He told me that things were going well, that he’d had a good Christmas. He was happy. The rains were starting,” she said. “The weather was bad.”

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