Search teams believe they pinpointed the location of the black box of a Lion Air jetliner that crashed off the West Java coast earlier this week with 189 people on board, Indonesian authorities said Wednesday.
Searchers detected pings believed to be from the flight recorders of the Boeing 737 Max 8, which plunged into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff from Jakarta’s main international airport on Monday morning, officials said. But strong currents hampered efforts to deploy a remotely operated sub to get close to the black box, they said.
Also on Wednesday, a navy ship equipped with sonar technology located an object on the seabed measuring 22 meters (72.1 feet) long and which could be the plane’s fuselage, according to authorities heading up search efforts involving hundreds of personnel. The large object was 32 meters (104.9 feet) underwater, officials said.
“I’m sure it will be found soon and the big part of the aircraft will also be found not far from the area,” Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, the commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, told a news conference in Jakarta.
Separately, Lion Air chief CEO Edward Sirait told BenarNews that the airline had suspended the carrier’s director of technical operations, Muhammad Asif, on orders from Indonesia’s transport ministry. He gave no further details.
On Tuesday, Siriat confirmed a news report that the same plane had developed technical problems with altitude and speed readings during a flight that immediately preceded Monday’s crash, but, he told BenarNews, “the problems were resolved that night.”
The black box, which consists of flight data and voice cockpit recorders, could help investigators shed light on what caused the new plane to crash after the pilot had radioed in a request to return to Soekarna-Hatta International Airport, according to officials. The aircraft had been in service since August and was built in 2018.
Hadi said the recovery at sea of a mass of items belonging to passengers and crew, including clothes, indicated the fuselage was nearby and many bodies could be trapped inside the plane’s main section.
“We will lift the fuselage using a crane, which can lift up to 100 tons,” he said.
All 181 passengers and eight crew members aboard the doomed plane, flight JT 610, were presumably killed by the force of the crash, officials said. By late Wednesday, at least 53 bags containing dismembered body parts had been pulled from the sea, National Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi said.
Anthur Tampi, the director of the national police’s health department, said the body of only person had been identified, although police took DNA samples from more than 170 relatives of the crash victims. The one who was identified based on fingerprints was Jannatun Cintya Dewi, a 24-year-old employee of Indonesia’s energy ministry, according to Reuters.
Only two of the 189 people aboard the flight, which was bound from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang off Sumatra, were foreigners, an Italian passenger and Bhavye Suneja, the plane’s Indian captain. Suneja had logged at least 6,000 hours in the cockpit, LionAir said.
‘Relieved of his duties’
Earlier on Wednesday, Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi told reporters that Asif, Lion Air’s technical director, had been ordered suspended, pending an investigation into the crash.
“To facilitate the investigation, the technical director has been relieved of his duties so that the investigation can proceed well,” Budi said.
He said the country’s aviation authorities would intensify inspections on Indonesia-based airlines to ensure they complied with government safety standards.
“In the coming days, we will conduct ramp checks. Lion Air will be subjected to more ramp checks, about 40 percent of its fleet, randomly,” Budi said, adding that other Indonesian carriers could expect random checks to 10 to 15 percent of their fleets.
In addition, experts from U.S. aircraft maker Boeing were expected to arrive in Jakarta late Wednesday to assist with the investigation, said Soerjanto Tjahjono, head of the National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT).
“It is their obligation as the manufacturer of the aircraft to help KNKT in our investigation,” he said.
Meanwhile, the captain of a tug boat told a local TV news station that he saw the Lion Air plane plummet into the sea and disintegrate on impact.
“The aircraft crashed with a loud explosion,” Rahmat Slamet told TVOne. “I didn’t see the body of the plane on the water but saw the tail as it was sinking.”
Rahmat said he was about a mile from the crash site and ordered his crew to put on life vests and rescue victims. He said he also radioed authorities at Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok port about the emergency.
“As we approached the location, debris such as seats, life vests, tubes and things belonging to passengers came to the surface,” he said.
Questions about air safety
The accident has raised questions about Indonesia’s aviation safety, after the European Union lifted a ban on the country’s airlines. It was imposed in 2007 following a string of deadly air incidents.
Monday’s crash was the second deadly accident in 14 years involving a plane from budget carrier Lion Air.
In 2004, an MD-82 from its fleet overshot the runway of the airport in Solo, Central Java. It crashed into a cemetery, killing 25 people.
In 2013, a Lion Air Boeing 737 carrying more than 100 people crashed into the sea while trying to land on Bali island, nearly splitting the fuselage into two. There were no fatalities.
Indonesia has experienced a boom in low cost-carriers following the deregulation of its aviation industry in the early 2000s.
Last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization ranked Indonesia’s aviation safety as above global average, with a compliance rate of 81.15 percent.
The crash was the first reported one involving a Max 8 since the upgrade of Boeing’s workhorse 737 entered commercial service starting in May 2017.
Boeing said the 737 Max family was the fastest-selling plane in the company's history, and that it had received 4,700 orders for these models from more than 100 customers across the globe.