The Mystery of Flight 574

JAKARTA ~ Three weeks after an Adam Air plane vanished with 102 passengers and crew, investigators admit they still don’t know exactly where or why the aircraft apparently came down.

All they have found in two frustrating weeks of searching is a fragment of tailfin and a few pieces of cabin debris washed up on the shore.

With just tantalizing fragments of the Boeing 737-400 to work on, investigators hope the massive air, land and sea search of waters off the west coast of Sulawesi island will provide the breakthrough they need to solve the riddle of Flight KI 574.

Speculation on the cause range from an explosion to the aircraft hitting an air pocket.

“We cannot yet come to a conclusion,” admitted Setio Raharjo, head of the National Committee for Transport Safety, before a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters, he added: “It is also too early to conclude that a scenario where the airplane exploded in mid-air took place; there are so many possibilities.”

The plane was carrying 96 passengers, including three Americans, and six crew when it went missing halfway through a routine flight from Surabaya to Manado on January 1.

The pilot did not send a distress call but did report that the plane was being buffeted by cross-winds shortly before it disappeared from radar.

The only significant find so far, a one-meter section of tailfin, is just a tiny part of the missing plane, which measures 36.5 meters  long with a wingspan stretching nearly 29 meters.

A Singaporean reconnaissance plane helping the search spotted an oil spill in the waters off South Sulawesi, but it needed further analysis.

“It should really be ascertained whether the oil spill comes from aircraft AVTUR (aviation turbine fuel),” Raharjo said, adding that samples had still to be taken from the sea.

Tata Lanang, who sits on the safety committee, said that if it was aviation fuel, it indicated the aircraft had hit the sea intact.

“Just use logic. If the aircraft had exploded in the air, the fuel would be spread over a wide area,” Lanang said. “If it’s a single large oil slick, then it’s very likely that the fuel tank broke only after the aircraft hit the water.”

The head of the Indonesian Institute for Aviation Studies, Kamis Martono, has been widely quoted as speculating about an air pocket, a localized area of low pressure that can cause a sudden loss of altitude.

Flight crew error is the leading cause of hull-loss accidents, according to a Boeing study of worldwide commercial jet accidents from 1996 through 2005.

Crew error was ruled the primary cause in 55 percent of accidents while the aircraft was blamed in 17 percent and the weather in 13 percent.

Singapore has deployed four sets of equipment staffed by six navy operators to detect the plane’s underwater beacon locator and track down its “black box” flight recorder, which should shed light on the mystery.

Local news media reported that the Singaporean team and its equipment was bound for Pare-Pare, a port near the area where debris has been found at sea.

Joseph Tumenggung, a member of the National Committee on Transport Safety, said the black box should be able to transmit an ultrasonic signal for 30 days unless severely damaged.

The search for the black box has focused on waters over 1,000 meters deep off the coast of West Sulawesi, where sonar searches detected three large metal objects on the seabed.

The US Navy oceanographic survey ship USNS Mary Sears has confirmed one of the objects is “round-shaped metal,” but more readings are needed to determine whether they were part of the missing plane.

Meanwhile, searchers also combed the seas off Barru district, where debris from the plane has been washed up on beaches.

Adam Air said on Thursday it plans to replace its fleet of Boeing 737s with Airbus 320s from next year.

Sales director Gugi Pringwa Saputra said the additional aircraft would enable the company to open new routes.

“We will operate 40 Airbus planes in stages starting in 2008 to meet the demand of passengers for a more convenient and comfortable flight,” Saputra told AFP.

He said the company was also examining the possibility of adding flights to a number of areas in eastern Indonesia. He declined to give further details of the switch to European maker Airbus.

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