Ships searching for the wreck of an AirAsia passenger jet that crashed with 162 people on board have pinpointed two “big objects” on the sea floor, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said on Saturday.
The Airbus (AIR.PA) A320-200 plunged into the Java Sea on Sunday while en route from Indonesia’s second-biggest city Surabaya to Singapore. No survivors have been found.
“We have detected two objects underwater (at) 30 meters depth,” said search and rescue agency chief Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo. “At this moment we are operating the ROV to take pictures of the objects.”
A multi-national task force of ships, planes and helicopters have been scouring the northern Java Sea and coastline of southern Borneo to recover the bodies of victims and locate the wreck of Flight QZ8501 and its black box flight recorders.
The latest break in the massive search and recovery operation comes after Indonesian authorities questioned whether the pilot had followed correct weather report procedures, and suspended Indonesia AirAsia’s Surabaya to Singapore flights for apparently infringing the terms of its license for the route.
The two objects were found just before midnight on Friday, Soelistyo told a news conference in Jakarta, and the search and rescue agency was attempting to get images using remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV).
The first object measured 9.4 meters by 4.8 meters by 0.4 meters (30 feet by 15 feet by 1.3 feet), while the second is 7.2 meters by 0.5 meters (24 feet by 1.6 feet), he said.
Soelistyo said operating ROVs was problematic due to the large waves in the area that have hampered operations for much of the week, but that divers were preparing to search for the objects.
Much of the effort has focused on finding victims of the crash. Officials said 21 bodies were pulled from the sea on Friday, including two still strapped in their seats, bringing the total number of victims recovered to 30.
Small pieces of the aircraft and other debris have also been found, but there has been no sign of the crucial voice and flight data recorders – the so-called black boxes that investigators hope will unravel the sequence of events in the cockpit during the doomed jet’s final minutes.
“After the black box is found, we are able to issue a preliminary report in one month,” said Toos Sanitioso, an investigator with the National Committee for Transportation Safety on Friday. “We cannot yet speculate what caused the crash.”
Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said the search area had been widened on Saturday as debris may have drifted more than 200 nautical miles, adding helicopters would concentrate on searching the coastline of southern Borneo.
The cause of the crash, the first suffered by the AirAsia (AIRA.KL) group since the budget operator began flying in 2002, is unexplained.
The plane was flying at 32,000 ft (9,753 meters) and the pilot had asked to climb to 38,000 ft to avoid bad weather just before contact was lost about 40 minutes into the two-hour flight to Singapore.
When air traffic controllers granted permission to fly at 34,000 ft a few minutes later there was no response from the plane.
A source close to the investigation said radar data appeared to show the aircraft made an “unbelievably” steep climb before it crashed, possibly pushing it beyond the A320’s limits.
Indonesia’s transport ministry said late on Friday it had temporarily suspended Indonesia AirAsia’s Surabaya-Singapore flight because it had apparently operated the service beyond the scope of its license, which permitted flights on four days of the week but not Sundays, when the crash occurred.
“As of Jan. 2, 2015, the license of Surabaya-Singapore (return) route to Indonesia AirAsia is temporarily frozen until after there is a result of evaluation and investigation,” said spokesman Julius Adravida Barata.
Hadi Mustofa Djuraid, a transport ministry official, told reporters on Friday that authorities were also investigating the possibility that the pilot did not ask for a weather report from the meteorological agency at the time of take-off.
Indonesia AirAsia said in a statement that weather reports were printed in hard copy at the operations control center at all its flight hubs, including Surabaya, and taken by the pilot to the aircraft before each flight.
An AirAsia spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the pilot had followed the procedure described in the statement. She also declined to comment on whether the Sunday flight was beyond the terms of its license, but said the airline was cooperating fully with the authorities.
The Indonesian captain, a former air force fighter pilot, had 6,100 flying hours on the A320 and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, according to Indonesia AirAsia, 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based AirAsia.
Three airline disasters involving Malaysian-affiliated planes in under a year have spooked travelers.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline’s Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.