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Searchers look for AirAsia plane in Java Sea

MUMBAI, India — The search for a missing Indonesia AirAsia passenger jet with 162 people aboard resumed Monday as the sun rose in Indonesia, an official told reporters.

“God willing, we can find it soon,” 1st Adm. Sigit Setiayana, the naval aviation center commander at the Surabaya air force base, told the Associated Press.

Setiayana said 12 navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and a number of warships were taking part in the search.

The commercial jet lost contact with air-traffic controllers Sunday after encountering rough weather during a two-hour flight to Singapore, officials said.

Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean ships and aircraft were focusing the search for Flight 8501 in the Java Sea off the island of East Belitung, roughly halfway between Singapore and the aircraft’s point of origin, the Indonesian city of Surabaya, Indonesian news media reported.

Of the people aboard, 155 were passengers. The plane was also carrying two pilots, four cabin crew members and an engineer, the airline said.

Indonesian officials stopped the search due to darkness about 12 hours after the flight went missing. The search was to resume at dawn Monday but reportedly was being hampered by bad weather.

“We’re mobilizing all personnel to find the plane,” Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. “Our focus is to find it as soon as possible.”

AirAsia, a low-cost carrier that operates mainly short-haul flights across Southeast Asia, is based in Malaysia, making this the third major air incident this year involving that country. A Malaysia Airlines aircraft disappeared on its way Beijing and a another airliner belonging to the same carrier was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine.

The airline — whose Indonesian affiliate has the country’s best safety record — said the aircraft took off from Surabaya at 5:35 a.m. local time and was on its scheduled flight path but had requested to deviate “due to en route weather.”

The Indonesian transport ministry said the last communication from the Airbus A320-200 jetliner came at 6:12 a.m., when the pilot asked permission to climb to an altitude of 38,000 feet to avoid clouds. Six minutes later, the flight disappeared from radar, according to a timeline the ministry posted on Twitter.

Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, said in Jakarta there was no distress signal from the cockpit, according to The Associated Press.

“We don’t dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact,” AP quoted Murjatmodjo as saying.

To assist Indonesian search-and-rescue teams, Malaysia’s transport minister said he had sent three ships and one aircraft, while Singapore sent a C-130 cargo plane to join the effort.

Southeast Asia, including parts of Indonesia, has been struck by unusually heavy monsoon rains this month that have caused severe flooding and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Satellite images from Sunday morning showed heavy storms north of Surabaya, although aviation experts say it would be unusual for a lightning strike or severe turbulence to damage a modern commercial aircraft.

There was a discrepancy involving the time Flight 8501 went missing. Indonesian authorities said the plane lost contact with the ground at 6:17 a.m. Sunday, but AirAsia said on its Facebook page said it occurred later, at 7:24 a.m.

Airbus, the aircraft’s French manufacturer, said in a statement that the twin-engine, single-aisle jet had accumulated approximately 23,000 flight hours in 13,600 flights. The aircraft was delivered to AirAsia from the Airbus production line in October 2008, the company said.

The A320-200 is the only model the airline operates. AirAsia said in a statement that the flight captain had 6,100 flying hours and the first officer had 2,275 flying hours. The 6-year-old plane had last undergone scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16.

Relatives of the passengers – nearly all Indonesian nationals – gathered at a crisis center set up by AirAsia at Juanda international airport in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.

Airline and government officials met with the families in Surabaya and also at a similar center at Changi International Airport in Singapore, officials said.

The passengers also included three people from South Korea and one each from Malaysia, Singapore and Britain, the airline said. (At first, AirAsia said a French citizen was aboard but later retracted that.)

AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes said he and other senior airline officials were traveling to Surabaya, where most of the passengers were from.

Experts said there was a better chance of search teams locating this aircraft than the still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in March with 239 people aboard while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.

The search for that plane continues off the coast of Australia in deeper and more wide-open waters.

In the second accident this year involving Malaysia Airlines, Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists were to blame.