The USS Fort Worth has joined search and recovery efforts in the Java Sea for the downed AirAsia Flight 8501.
The Fort Worth combat ship has sonar that can image below the water’s surface and could play a critical role in helping to locate the airliner’s flight data recorders, a defense department official said. The flight data recorders could contain important information on what transpired before and during the crash.
Navy personnel said the sonar is sensitive enough to identify objects as small as a golfball in underwater environments.
“It will enable them to have a better picture of what the underwater landscape looks like,” said the official, who would only identify herself as an assistant to Lt. Timothy Hawkins, a public information officer with the Navy.
The USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship designed to operate in shallow congested waters, docked in Singapore on Dec. 29 and joined the search for the downed Airbus A320-216 on Saturday. The USS Sampson, a guided missile destroyer, in also assisting in the search.
An eight-member team from the Fort Worth’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit equipped with three Marine Sonic Tow Fish tethered sonar systems (side scan sonar systems) is being used during the search, according to an emailed statement from Lt. Lauren Cole, U.S. 7th Fleet spokeswoman. High frequency side scan sonars are designed to map the ocean floor and provide highly accurate imagery for further analysis, Cole said.
Navy divers on board the Fort Worth, began operations with the Tow Fish system at first light on Sunday, Cole said. The equipment was used again Monday and Tuesday, Cole said. Fort Worth’s two 11-meter rigid-hulled inflatable boats are also being used to enhance surface search efforts, Cole said. These small boats are what Navy divers are on when they are operating the side scan sonar, Cole said.
The USS Sampson has recovered 15 bodies and has taken the utmost care in treating the victims with respect to all religious customs and sensitivities, Cole said. The Sampson also recovered airline seats Jan. 4 and are in the process of transferring the debris to Indonesian authorities, Cole said.
The two MH-60R helicopters on board Sampson are working closely with Fort Worth’s MH-60R helicopter and all three helicopters are conducting both day and night operations, Cole said. Helicopters are critical tools in search of operations as they help expand visual search efforts, Cole said.
“U.S. Navy assets will remain on station as long as they can provide useful assistance to the Indonesian-led search efforts,” Cole said.
Aircraft debris was recovered by Indonesian navy ships and the Sampson’s helicopters on Dec. 30. Of the 162 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus, 37 bodies have been recovered.
Recent search efforts have been hampered by bad weather.
AirAsia Flight 8501 went missing Dec. 28 after taking off from Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya.
The pilots had been worried about the weather and had sought permission to climb above threatening clouds — but the request was denied because of heavy air traffic.
No distress signal was issued and minutes later, the jet was gone from radar. Six bodies were originally spotted about 6 miles from the site of Flight 8501’s last communication with air traffic control.
Officials with the Indonesian Transportation Ministry said Monday that the flight was allowed to take off even though it did not have all of the clearance from regulators to fly that day. Djoko Murjatmodjo, acting director general of air transportation, said key individuals who allowed to plane to fly without permits would be suspended while the investigation is pending.
On Sunday, the Sampson’s commander, Navy Cmdr. Steven M. Foley, discussed current search efforts with ABC’s This Week news program host Martha Raddatz, according to a U.S. Department of Defense news release.
“The weather has been a little rough with scattered thunderstorms,” Foley said. “The seas have been about two to four feet, increasing to about four to six feet when the rain swells come in. And we’ve been operating in three specified areas that the Indonesian authorities have assigned to us.
“And you have to remember,” Foley added, “this is their search effort and we’re here to assist.”
This report includes material from The Associated Press.
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752