Hopes of locating wreckage of the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 were raised when debris was spotted by an aircraft on Tuesday afternoon.
An aircraft from the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) spotted the debris after 4pm AEDT near Pangkalanbun off the island of Borneo, a Basarnas spokesman, Andriandi, said. The area of interest is quite close to where the plane first lost contact.
The aircraft circled the area at about 200 feet and was to be joined by another aircraft.
Three ships were heading to the area on Tuesday afternoon but it could not be confirmed how long it would take them to get there.
Reports of the floating debris came after Indonesian authorities virtually doubled the search area on Tuesday morning to 156,000 square kilometres.
Mochamad Hernanto, spokesman for search and rescue agency Basarnas, said any new leads from the air or from shipping in the area, including local fishermen, were being followed up, but nothing had yet yielded evidence of the plane, which is presumed to have crashed into the ocean on Sunday due to bad weather.
Most recently, agencies ruled out the significance of debris off the coast of Kalimantan, which was spotted by the Australian Orion team flying out of Darwin.
An oil slick identified late on Monday was ruled out as only marine diesel after an Indonesian navy vessel went to the area.
The final communications between the pilot of flight QZ8501 and air traffic control revealed the Airbus 320-200 captain, Iriyanto, had requested permission at 6.12am local time on Sunday to turn left to avoid a storm.
The request was granted and the plane turned left seven miles. The captain then requested to be able to climb saying: “Request to higher level,” according to AirNav standards and safety director Wisnu Darjono, as quoted by the Jakarta Post.
The air traffic controller responded: “Intended to what level?”, to which Iriyanto indicated he wanted to go to 38,000 feet. However there were six planes in the area at the time and so QZ8501 was told it could only go to 34,000 feet.
“But when we informed the pilot of the approval at 6.14am, we received no reply,” Mr Wisnu said.
To address concerns of the families about a lack of hard information, the agency has established a three-way video link between the Basarnas crisis centre in Jakarta, the Juanda airport families’ room and the department of transport situation room, also in Jakarta.
“That will hopefully ease the minds of the families because they can see directly what’s going on in Basarnas, so they’ll know that everybody is working hard in the search for their loved ones,” Mr Hernanto said.
AirAsia has offered families, and some journalists, a flight over the area on Wednesday, at the request of the families.
“They believe that, while the search and rescue [agencies] are working hard to try to locate the aircraft, they believe that with their presence, with their praying of the next of kin, that will help the search and rescue team to quickly find and locate the aircraft,” an AirAsia spokesman said.
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