* AirAsia investigation in early stages
* Source familiar with probe says black boxes key
* Initial findings point to steep climb before crash
* Pilots say aircraft could have stalled
By Siva Govindasamy
SURABAYA, Indonesia, Dec 31 Radar data being
examined by investigators appeared to show that AirAsia Flight
QZ8501 made an "unbelievably" steep climb before it crashed,
possibly pushing it beyond the Airbus A320's limits, said a
source familiar with the probe's initial findings.
The data was transmitted before the aircraft disappeared
from the screens of air traffic controllers in Jakarta on
Sunday, added the source, who declined to be identified.
"So far, the numbers taken by the radar are unbelievably
high. This rate of climb is very high, too high. It appears to
be beyond the performance envelope of the aircraft," he said.
The source added that the data on which those assumptions
had been made were incomplete. Colleagues and friends of the
Indonesian captain on board have described him as an experienced
and professional pilot.
The preliminary findings sharpen the focus on the role bad
weather and the crew's reaction to storms and clouds in the area
had to play in the plane's crash into the Java Sea which killed
all 162 people on board.
Finding the six-year-old plane's cockpit voice recorder
(CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR), more commonly known as
black boxes, was vital to complement the radar data already
"With the CVR and FDR, we can establish what went on in the
cockpit and what was going on with the aircraft. We can conclude
if the radar information is accurate," added the source.
CLIMBING TOO SLOWLY?
At 6.12 a.m. on Sunday, 36 minutes after taking off from
Surabaya's Juanda Airport on a flight to Singapore, the pilot
asked for permission to climb to 38,000ft from 32,000ft and
deviate to the left to avoid bad weather.
Two minutes later, Jakarta responded by asking QZ8501 to go
left seven miles and climb to 34,000ft. There was no response
from the cockpit. The aircraft was still detected by the ATC's
radar before disappearing at 6.18 a.m.
An image that was reportedly leaked from AirNav Indonesia,
which manages the country's air space, and shared on several
websites, appeared to show QZ8501 at an altitude of 36,300ft and
climbing at a speed of 353 knots.
The source declined to confirm if that image was accurate.
Officials from AirNav Indonesia declined to comment.
Two veteran pilots told Reuters that, if accurate, the image
and information released so far pointed to the fact that the
aircraft may have climbed suddenly and then lost speed.
This can result in the aircraft stalling in mid-air before
plunging to the sea, they said.
One pilot explained that an A320 would cruise at a speed of
around Mach 0.78 while at an altitude of 32,000ft. That
translates into roughly 516 knots.
"If you encounter turbulence, you go slower at what we call
the turbulence penetration speed to get through it. If you climb
to avoid turbulence, you slow down to have a better climb rate.
That could be around Mach 0.76," he said. "But if you climb
suddenly and start to lose speed, you will stall."
The source close to the probe said other aircraft in the
area at the time of the crash were flying at higher altitudes.
Aircraft tracking website flightradar24.com said that they were
at between 34,000 and 39,000 feet.
"We know that there was severe local weather and big clouds.
But they (the other planes) were higher and did not appear to
encounter any major problems. We want to look into that too,"
added the source.
Industry sources told Reuters that there could be parallels
between this incident and the crash of Air France flight AF447
The investigation into that Airbus A330 showed that the
co-pilot lost speed readings due to icing on the airframe.
His panic reaction meant that he kept trying to climb
despite repeated stall warnings, and the crew failed to
recognize the situation, eventually sending the aircraft
plunging into the Atlantic.
Incidents like these show that the margin for error at
higher altitudes is smaller than at takeoff or lower down, say
They add that the A320's systems usually prevent pilots from
doing anything outside usual safe flight parameters. But these
protections can be disabled in some circumstances, handing
control to the pilots and leaving it to manual flying skills.
(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell in SYDNEY and Tim Hepher
in PARIS; Editing by Mike Collett-White)