Search for Missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501 Halted as Darkness Falls

The search for missing AirAsia flight QZ8501, which has vanished with 162 people on board, has been suspended for the night.

The Airbus 320-200 passenger jet took off from the Indonesian city of Surabaya for Singapore at 5.27am, but lost all contact with air control at 7.24am as it travelled along its regular flight path, according to the flight tracking website FlightRadar24.

It had earlier requested to deviate from the path “due to en route weather”, according to a statement on AirAsia’s Facebook page. It did not send out a distress signal.

The pilot requested that he turn left and rise from 34,000 to 38,000ft, Djoko Murjatmodjo, the acting director general of air transport at Indonesia’s Ministry of Transportation, told reporters. “At the moment, we don’t know where the exact location is, except that this morning at 0617 we lost contact,” he said.

The search for the plane is expected to resume at 6am local time.

On Sunday afternoon, AirAsia changed the colour of its logo on social media sites to grey, and the company’s CEO, Tony Fernandes, tweeted that he was travelling to Surabaya, home of many of the jet’s passengers. “Providing information as we get it,” he wrote.

Those on board included two pilots, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers. Among them, 156 were from Indonesia, three from South Korea, and one each from Singapore, France and Malaysia. The UK Foreign Office said there was one Briton on board. The passenger list included 16 children and one infant. Relatives of passengers and crew have gathered for news briefings in Surabaya and Singapore.

Airbus said in a statement that the aircraft was delivered to AirAsia “from the production line” in October 2008, and had accumulated approximately 23,000 flight hours during 13,600 flights. The statement said: “At this time, no further factual information is available.”

Indonesia’s army and national search and rescue agency have launched a search effort for the plane’s wreckage, focusing on an area of the Java Sea near Belitung, an island off of the east coast of Sumatra. They have dispatched three aircraft including a surveillance plane, according to an air force spokesman, Hadi Tjahjanto. Malaysia and Australia have also offered their help, and Singapore has dispatched a C130 turboprop plane for assistance.

“My only thought are with the [passengers] and my crew,” Fernandes wrote in a tweet. “We put our hope in the SAR operation and thank the Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysian governments.”

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing that China was “deeply concerned” for the safety of the jet’s passengers and crew. President Barack Obama, on holiday in Hawaii, has been briefed on the jet’s disappearance, according to White House spokesperson Eric Schultz. South Korean government officials, responding to the news that three South Korean citizens were on board the plane, have called an emergency meeting at the country’s foreign ministry in Seoul.

The UK’s Foreign Office said in a statement: “We are aware of an incident regarding AirAsia flight QZ8501. Our thoughts are with the passengers’ families as they await further news. We have been informed by the local authorities that one British national was on board. Their next of kin has been informed, and we stand ready to provide consular assistance.”

AirAsia is a budget airline with its headquarters near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Sunday’s incident marks the third sudden disappearance of a Malaysian carrier this year. On 8 March, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 vanished while carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing; although investigators suspect that it crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, they have found no wreckage, and the jet’s fate remains unclear. In July, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lost contact when it was shot down over Ukraine, ostensibly by Russian separatists, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.

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