Updated at 5:09 p.m. ET on 2018-10-30
An Indonesian jetliner had logged “unreliable” altitude and airspeed readings on its previous flight, the night before crashing into the sea with 189 people aboard, the airline’s CEO said Tuesday as he confirmed a report by an aviation safety website.
Lion Air Flight 610, a new Boeing 737 Max 8, took off from Jakarta on Monday morning and was heading to the mining region of Pangkal Pinang when its pilot sent an emergency call to the control tower two minutes after takeoff. He asked for permission to return to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, but the twin-engine plane went down 11 minutes later, officials said.
Lion Air CEO Edward Sirait confirmed to BenarNews that the plane had experienced some issues on its previous flight, as reported by aviation-safety.net.
“Yes, that was on the previous flight, but the problems were resolved that night,” he said.
“Let’s wait for the result of the investigation by KNKT,” he said when asked whether the plane might have experienced similar issues on the ill-fated flight, using the Indonesian abbreviation of the National Transportation Safety Committee.
On the night before the crash, while the same plane was flying from Bali to Jakarta, that flight showed “erratic values in altitude and airspeed immediately after take-off,” according to aviation-safety.net.
“Airspeed unreliable and alt disagree shown after take off,” read a technical log for that flight, obtained by the website, referring to abnormal variations in speed and altitude.
Aviation-safety.net said the Lion Air flight that crashed also showed erratic altitude data varying between 4,500 and 5,350 feet.
“The values then rapidly decline until contact is lost at 06:32 hours,” it said.
Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said the reason for the crash was “still a big question.”
The plane’s emergency beacon did not emit a distress signal, even though it was certified to work until August next year, the agency said in a statement Sunday.
Conchita Caroline, a television presenter who was a passenger on that plane when it took off from Bali on Sunday night, recounted the experience in a lengthy Facebook post.
“It took a long time to take off, the engine died several times and the air conditioning was dead,” Caroline said, adding that the cabin crew did not provide a clear explanation.
She said the passengers complained about insufficient air and stifling heat, but some were only allowed to get off the plane after they protested. The 737 took off after a delay of more than an hour, she said, but added that she heard an unusual sound from the engine.
“Thank God we landed safely,” she said. “It was a big relief.”
Arthur Tampi, chief of the national police’s medical department, said the hospital had received 24 bags containing only body parts.
“None of the corpses are intact,” he told a news conference Tuesday.
Police have begun taking DNA samples from relatives of the victims, he said.
“It is unlikely that we'll find all the bodies, but death certificates will be issued for all the victims,” he said.
National Search and Rescue head Muhammad Syaugi said searchers were working around the clock.
“We are doing what we can. The weather is good. It’s only a matter of time,” he said, adding that the search operation would last for seven days.
Divers, as well as ships with side-scan sonar and multi-beam echo-sounders, have been deployed to pinpoint the location of the fuselage, where many bodies might still be trapped, he said.
Searchers are also looking for the aircraft black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder – which could shed light on the cause of the accident.
Minister orders inspection of 737 MAX 8 fleet
Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said he had ordered Lion Air and national airline Garuda Indonesia to inspect their Boeing 737 MAX 8 fleet, but stopped short of grounding the aircraft.
“The result of the inspection will be submitted to the National Transport Safety Committee to help determine the cause of the accident,” Budi told Metro TV on Tuesday.
Lion operates 11 Boeing 737 MAX 8s while Garuda has only one, the ministry said.
"We have inspected Garuda last night while Lion is still in progress," transportation ministry official Capt. Avirianto told CNN, adding that the ministry hopes to inspect at least three of Lion Air's planes Tuesday night and the other eight soon.
It was not clear whether the Garuda plane passed the inspection.
Soerjanto Tjahjono, head of the National Transport Safety Committee (NTSC), told reporters the Boeing 737 MAX 8 was delivered to Lion Air in mid-August.
The first version of the Boeing 737 made its first flight in April 1967 and more than 10,000 have been produced. The 737 MAX 8 is its latest modern variant.
Putting a spotlight on aviation safety
The Lion Air crash has again put a spotlight on Indonesia’s record for aviation safety.
“There will be questions about fleet maintenance and aviation safety in general. Indonesia has made great progress in aviation safety since 2007, and this has been recognized by FAA and ICAO,” aviation observer Dudi Sudibyo told BenarNews.
“Airlines and the government should learn from this tragedy and try to improve further,” he said.
Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic country, has experienced a boom in low cost-carriers following the liberalization of the aviation industry in the early 2000s.
In 2013, a Lion Air Boeing 737 carrying more than 100 people crashed into the sea while trying to land on Bali, nearly splitting the fuselage into two, though there were no fatalities.
The next year, an Air Asia Indonesia plane plunged into the Java Sea during bad weather, killing all 155 passengers and seven crew on board.
In June, the European Union lifted a ban of Indonesian airlines from its list of carriers, which was imposed in 2007 following a string of deadly air incidents.
Several of the Indonesian airlines, including flag carrier Garuda, were taken off the ban list in 2009 after steps were taken to improve safety.
Relatives await news
Meanwhile, family members of those on board flight 610 and scores of other distraught relatives gathered on Tuesday at the police hospital in Jakarta. Many told reporters they were desperate for information.
Eny Yola could not stop crying as she awaited news about her 26-year-old son, Rionanda Pratama, a medical doctor, at the central police hospital in east Jakarta.
“He was in Jakarta to take part in a seminar at Harapan Kita Hospital,” she told BenarNews.
“When he was inside the plane before departure he called asking his father to pick him up at the airport at 7:30,” she said, sobbing. “We waited until 9, but he didn’t show up and then we saw the news at the airport.”
Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.