• Bloomberg


The team searching for the AirAsia Bhd. plane that disappeared on a stormy flight to Singapore will benefit from the fact that the jet’s last known location was over shallow and well-traveled waters among Indonesia’s islands.

The hunt for the Airbus Group NV A320 single-aisle jet, which disappeared Sunday morning en route from the central Indonesian city of Surabaya, is focused on Kumai Bay off the coast of Borneo, authorities said. Twelve vessels, dozens of inflatable boats and six warships, plus military aircraft from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, are searching an area of more than 11,000 sq. nautical miles.

The ocean floor in the Java Sea is flat and muddy, and rarely deeper than 60 meters (197 feet), according to Hans Berekoven, an amateur archaeologist who surveyed the area for oil prospects in the 1990s.

The Indonesian search team suspects the plane has sunk beneath the water, F.H. Bambang Sulistyo, search and rescue agency chief, said Monday in Jakarta, with no signal detected from the emergency locater transmitter.

“It’s not going to be difficult to locate it once they know where it went down,” Berekoven said Monday by phone from Australia. “The water is warm and if you don’t have a roaring gale up top you can dive quite well.”

That contrasts with Indian Ocean waters where Australian- and Malaysian-contracted vessels are still searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March. Those seas had been scarcely charted before the search, lie away from major shipping and air routes and descend to a depth of nearly 4 miles below the surface.

“The Java Sea is a large shallow sea with an average depth of around 40 meters,” Ayesha Jalal, director of The Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said by email. “So in theory it ought to be easier to trace the remains of the plane.”

The Java Sea covers about 320,000 sq. km, bordered by the Indonesian islands of Borneo to the north, Java to the south, Sumatra to the west and Sulawesi to the east. The ocean floor is part of the Sunda Shelf, an area of shallow seas that was dry land during the last ice age.

The area is a popular destination for scuba diving. Fishermen found wreckage there of a ninth-century vessel carrying Tang Dynasty ceramics from China, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The Java Sea is also the site where, in February 1942, Allied forces suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of Japan. That opened the way for Japan to occupy the present-day Indonesia, which until then had been the Dutch East Indies.

On Sunday, AirAsia QZ8501 was flying at 32,000 feet when pilots asked permission to go even higher to avoid storm clouds, Indonesia’s actingaAir transport director, Djoko Murjatmodjo, said in Jakarta.

Air traffic controllers didn’t respond to the request before the plane disappeared off radar, Tatang Kurniadi, National Transportation Safety Committee head, said at a press conference.

The last signal from the plane was between the city of Pontianak on Borneo and the town of Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island. Sulistyo, the search agency chief, said the search had been widened to include the Karimata strait and land areas in West Kalimantan.

The first planes to reach the region didn’t find any signs of the missing aircraft, Sutono, a communication director at the Indonesian search and rescue agency, said Monday.

But experts think this case won’t take as long to solve as the disappearance of MH370.

“The bottom is a lot shallower, which makes it easier for underwater searching to find if there is debris at the bottom,” said John McGraw, a former deputy safety director at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. “It’s a mystery, but it’s a mystery that will not last for long.”