AirAsia flight QZ8501, and the 162 people on-board, was lost on December 28, 2014 while flying through high-altitude thunderstorms. Because of a delay in finding the plane and continuing bad weather in the area, the black box, which contains data that will give investigators more detail on why the plane went down, has not yet been recovered. Even without the black box’s data, experts believe that the terrible weather in the area was a likely cause of the crash.
“From our data it looks like the last location of the plane had very bad weather and it was the biggest factor in behind the crash. These icy conditions can stall the engines of the plane and freeze and damage the plane’s machinery,” says Edvin Aldrian, the head of Research at an Indonesian weather agency. Beyond the icing of engines, there are other theories on how weather-related issue may have brought down the plane.
Early speculation was that the plane was struck by lighting; while it may have been struck by lightning, experts say it’s unlikely it would have brought the plane down, because modern planes are fairly well-equipped to deal with direct lightning strikes. High levels of turbulence can also result in stalling due to a loss of airflow over the wings. There are also some who believe the plane (an Airbus A320) may have been pushed into a vertical climb past the limit for safe operation (to escape the weather) which resulted in a stall.
While the actual mechanism of how the weather (or an unrelated issue) brought the plane down is still to be determined, aviation safety organizations are already implementing some interventions to increase the safety of air travel in the area based on some specific areas of concern. (These areas of concern can be viewed visually in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, by clicking on “Download PDF” above.)
AirAsia pilots relied on “self-briefings” regarding the weather. Pilots in other locations have expressed concern about the adequacy of weather information pilots obtain using this method. Direct pilot briefings with dispatchers based on detailed weather reporting are recommended to ensure that pilots have the information they need to safely traverse areas of poor weather (or stay out of them altogether).
Heavy air traffic in the area delayed approval to climb out of storm. At 6:12 local time the flight crew requested to climb to higher altitude to attempt to escape the storm. Air traffic control did not attempt to respond to the plane until 6:17, at which point it could no longer be contacted. Air traffic in the area was heavy, possibly because:
The plane did not have permission to fly the route it was on. AirAsia was licensed to fly the route it was taking at the time of the crash four days a week, but not the day of the crash. The takeoff airport used incorrect information in allowing the plane to take off in the first place (and the airline certainly used incorrect information in trying to fly the route as well). The selection of the route has been determined not to be a factor in the crash, but it certainly may have resulted in the overcrowding that led to the delayed response from air traffic control. It also resulted in the airline’s flights on that route being suspended.
It took almost three days to find the plane. The delay is renewing calls for universal tracking of aircraft or real-time streaming of flight data that were initially raised after the loss of Malaysia Airline flight MH370, which is still missing ten months after losing radar contact. (See our previous blog on the difficulties finding it.) Not only would this reduce the suffering of families while waiting to hear their loved ones’ fates, it would reduce resources required to find lost aircraft and, in cases where survival is possible, increase the chance of survival of those on the plane.