Divers and ships will search for wreckage and the data recorders of AirAsia flight QZ8501 on Wednesday after Indonesian rescuers found several bodies and debris floating in shallow waters off the coast of Borneo.
Aviation experts believe the fuselage may be easily found as the aircraft probably only broke up when it hit the water.
"The fact that the debris appears fairly contained suggests the aircraft broke up when it hit the water, rather than in the air," Neil Hansford, a former pilot and chairman of consultancy firm Strategic Aviation Solutions said.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his priority was getting bodies off the bottom of the Karimata Strait in the Java Sea, where rescuers retrieved an aircraft door and other debris on Tuesday.
"I feel a deep loss over this disaster and pray for the families to be given fortitude and strength," Widodo said in Surabaya on Tuesday after grim images of the scene in the Java Sea were broadcast on television.
Widodo said AirAsia would pay an immediate advance of money to the families, many of whom collapsed in grief when they saw the television pictures of debris.
The navy initially said 40 bodies had been recovered, although other media later quoted the head of the search and rescue agency, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, as saying only three bodies had been retrieved.
Dozens of Indonesian navy divers are expected to begin the underwater search at first light on Wednesday.
About 30 ships and 21 aircraft from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and the United States have been involved in the search.
NO DISTRESS CALL
The A320, which did not issue a distress signal, disappeared after its pilot failed to get permission to fly higher to avoid bad weather.
It was flying at 32,000 feet and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet. When air traffic controllers granted permission for a rise to 34,000 feet a few minutes later, they received no response from the aircraft.
Investigators are focusing initially on whether the crew took too long to request permission to climb, or could have ascended on their own initiative earlier, said a source close to the probe, adding that poor weather could have played a part as well.
A Qantas pilot with 25 years experience flying in the region said the discovery of the debris field relatively close to the last known radar plot of the plane pointed to an aerodynamic stall, most likely due to bad weather. One possibility is that the plane's instruments iced up in a tropical thunderstorm, giving the pilots inaccurate readings.
The lack of a distress call indicated the pilots may have been too busy struggling to control the aircraft to issue a call, the Qantas pilot said.
The Indonesian pilot, a former Air Force fighter pilot with 6,100 flying hours under his belt, was experienced and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, said the airline.
On board QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.