USS Sampson Finds Debris That May Be From Missing AirAsia Plane

 An MH-60R helicopter from the USS Sampson approaches an Indonesian patrol vessel while searching for debris in the Java Sea on Dec. 31, 2014, during Indonesian-led search and recovery operations for the downed AirAsia Flight 8501. U.S. Navy photo
An MH-60R helicopter from the USS Sampson approaches an Indonesian patrol vessel while searching for debris in the Java Sea on Dec. 31, 2014, during Indonesian-led search and recovery operations for the downed AirAsia Flight 8501. U.S. Navy photo

TOKYO -- The Navy destroyer USS Sampson is among several search teams to report finding debris that may be from AirAsia Flight 8501, Navy officials said Wednesday.

The ship's MH-60R search-and-rescue helicopters were launched to assist in the search efforts for the passenger plane that went missing Sunday, and the crews, working with multiple Indonesian assets, discovered debris hours after their arrival Tuesday.

Lt. Lauren Cole, a spokesperson for 7th Fleet based out of Yokosuka, Japan, said the debris will be examined by Indonesian officials to determine if it is plane wreckage. The search area is among the most-trafficked shipping lanes in the world.

The Airbus A320-200, with 162 people onboard, vanished halfway through a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia, and Singapore.

"Sampson is searching a predetermined area assigned by the Indonesian Rescue Coordination Center," Cole said. "We are very much in a supporting role of this well-coordinated multinational search effort, headed by the Indonesian government. We are working closely with the government of Indonesia to identify additional surface or airborne capabilities that best assist their search efforts."

Until Indonesian officials determine the origins of the reported debris, the 330 sailors aboard Sampson will continue to conduct "continuous 24-hour search operations using their two MH-60R search and rescue helicopters, advanced radar and sonar, binoculars and optical sight system" while awaiting direction "from the Indonesian authorities to determine the continued recovery plan," Cole said.

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth should be ready to join the effort by Thursday if needed, officials said. Both ships are equipped with search and rescue helicopters.

The Sampson is based in San Diego and was in the midst of an independent deployment to the Western Pacific when it was tasked to aid in the search effort. The Fort Worth, also based in San Diego, arrived in Singapore on Monday as part of a 16-month rotational deployment.

Indonesia search-and-rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said at least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters were involved in the effort.

Debris from the AirAsia plane and some bodies have been spotted off the Indonesian coast six miles from the aircraft's last known location over the Java Sea, according to news reports. Search teams also spotted what they said might be a larger submerged piece of the fuselage.

Navy officials at the Pentagon did not know if the Sampson or Fort Worth will be tasked to help recover bodies, or whether the Fort Worth will be requested to help.

"It's a very fluid situation and evolving situation, especially with today's developments with the search-and-recovery effort. So whether it actually leaves and actually supports in the coming hours or days, that remains to be seen," a Navy official told Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss deployment planning. "It might get to a point by that time ... that additional ships or resources from the United States are not needed."

The disappearance of the AirAsia jet 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 passengers and crew. The Navy dispatched two P-8A Poseidon aircraft, a P-3 Orion and an underwater drone to assist in the search for MH370, which has not been found.

-- Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Harper contributed to this report.

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