Indonesia asks U.S. to help find missing AirAsia jet

Indonesia has formally asked the U.S. for help in locating the AirAsia jet carrying 162 people that went missing Sunday, the State Department said Monday.

“Today we received a request for assistance locating the airplane, and we are reviewing that request to find out how best we can meet Indonesia’s request for assistance,” State Department spokesmanJeff Rathke told a regular news briefing.

The U.S. Defense Department said the details of the request were still being coordinated but “could include some air, surface and sub-surface detection capabilities.”

“We stand ready to assist in any way possible,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said in a statement.

Meanwhile, it was reported that the plane sought permission to climb above threatening clouds. Air traffic control couldn’t say yes immediately – there was no room. Six other airliners were crowding the airspace, forcing AirAsia Flight 8501 to remain at a lower altitude.

Minutes later, the jet carrying 162 people disappeared from radar without ever issuing a distress signal.

The plane is believed to have crashed into Indonesia’s Java Sea, but broad aerial surveys Monday turned up no firm evidence of the missing Airbus A320-200.

Searchers spotted two oily patches and floating objects in separate locations, but no one knew whether any of it was related to the plane that vanished halfway into what should have been a two-hour hop from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. Officials saw little reason to believe the flight met anything but a grim fate.

Based on the plane’s last known coordinates, the aircraft probably crashed into the water and “is at the bottom of the sea,” Indonesia search-and-rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said. Still, searchers planned to expand their efforts onto land.

The last communication from the cockpit to air traffic control was a request by one of the pilots to climb from 9,754 meters to 11,582 meters because of the rough weather. The tower was not able to immediately comply because of the other planes, said Bambang Tjahjono, director of the state-owned company in charge of air traffic control.

When planes confront storms, they generally veer left or right, said Sarjono Joni, a former pilot with a state-run Indonesian carrier.

A request to climb would most likely come if the plane were experiencing heavy turbulence, he said, and heavy traffic is not unusual for any given airspace. The twin-engine, single-aisle plane was last seen on radar four minutes after the final communication from the cockpit.

At least 15 ships, seven aircraft and four helicopters were looking for the jet, Indonesian search-and-rescue spokesman Jusuf Latif said. Most of the craft were Indonesian but Singapore, Malaysia and Australia contributed to the effort. Aircraft from Thailand were awaiting clearance to join the search. Those numbers do not include Indonesian warships taking part in the search.

Jakarta’s air force base commander, Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto, said an Australian Orion aircraft had detected “suspicious” objects near an island about 160 km off central Kalimantan. That’s about 1,120 km from where the plane lost contact, but within Monday’s greatly expanded search area.“However, we cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane,” Putranto said. “We are now moving in that direction.”

Air force spokesman Rear Marshal Hadi Tjahnanto told MetroTV that an Indonesian helicopter spotted two oil patches in the Java Sea east of Belitung island, much closer to where the plane lost contact. He said oil samples would be collected and analyzed.

The suspected crash caps an astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular. Malaysia-based AirAsia’s loss comes on top of the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 people on board.