At doomed flight’s helm, pi­lots may have been over­whelmed


>> JAKARTA: The fi­nal mo­ments of Lion Air Flight 610 as it hur­tled soon af­ter dawn from a calm In­done­sian sky into the wa­ters of the Java Sea would have been ter­ri­fy­ing but swift.

The sin­gle-aisle Boe­ing air­craft, as­sem­bled in Wash­ing­ton state and de­liv­ered to Lion Air less than three months ago, ap­pears to have plum­meted nose-first into the wa­ter, its ad­vanced jet en­gines rac­ing the plane to­ward the waves at as much as 640 km/h in less than a minute. The air­craft slammed into the sea with such force that some metal fit­tings aboard were re­duced to pow­der, and the air­craft’s flight data recorder tore loose from its ar­mored box, pro­pelled into the muddy seabed.

As US and In­done­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tors puz­zle through clues of what went wrong, they are fo­cus­ing not on a sin­gle lapse but on a cas­cade of trou­bling is­sues that ended with the deaths of all 189 peo­ple on board.

That is nearly al­ways the case in plane crashes, in which dis­as­ter can rarely be pinned on one fac­tor. While in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not yet con­cluded what caused Flight 610 to plunge into the sea, they know that in the days be­fore the crash the plane had ex­pe­ri­enced re­peated prob­lems in some of the same sys­tems that could have led the air­craft to go into a nose dive.

Ques­tions about those prob­lems and how they were han­dled con­sti­tute a sober­ing re­minder of the trust we dis­play each time we strap on seat belts and take to the skies in a metal tube.

On Oct 29, on a morn­ing with lit­tle wind, what ap­pears to have been a per­fect storm of prob­lems — rang­ing from re­peated data er­rors em­a­nat­ing from air­craft in­stru­ments to an air­line with a dis­tress­ing safety record — may have left the plane’s young pi­lot with an in­sur­mount­able chal­lenge.

On Wed­nes­day, the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion warned that er­ro­neous data pro­cessed in the new, best-sell­ing Max 8 jet could cause the plane to abruptly nose­dive. In­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­am­in­ing Flight 610 are try­ing to de­ter­mine if that is what hap­pened. Boe­ing last week is­sued a global bul­letin ad­vis­ing pi­lots to fol­low its op­er­a­tions man­ual in such cases. But to do so, ex­perts said, would have re­quired Flight 610’s cap­tain, Bhavye Suneja, a 31-year-old In­dian ci­ti­zen, and his co-pi­lot, Harvino, a 41-yearold In­done­sian, to have made de­ci­sions in sec­onds at a mo­ment of near-cer­tain panic.

They would have had to recog­nise that a prob­lem with the read­ings on the cock­pit dis­play was caus­ing the sud­den de­scent. Then, ac­cord­ing to the FAA, they would have had to grab phys­i­cal con­trol of the plane.

That would not have been a sim­ple mat­ter of push­ing a but­ton. In­stead, pi­lots said, Mr Suneja could have braced his feet on the dash­board and yanked the yoke, or con­trol wheel, back with all his strength. Or he could have un­der­taken a four-step process to shut off power to elec­tric mo­tors in the air­craft’s tail that were wrongly caus­ing the plane’s nose to pitch down­ward.

All this would have needed to have hap­pened within sec­onds — or the air­craft would be at se­ri­ous risk of en­ter­ing a death dive. “To ex­pect some­one at a mo­ment of high pres­sure to do ev­ery­thing ex­actly right is re­ally tough,” said Alvin Lie, an In­done­sian avi­a­tion ex­pert and the coun­try’s om­buds­man. “That’s why you don’t want to ever put a pi­lot in that sit­u­a­tion if there’s any­thing you can do to stop it.”

Lion Air’s story be­gan nearly 20 years ago, when an In­done­sian travel agent and his brother es­tab­lished it as a car­rier that would of­fer cheap flights be­tween the is­lands scat­tered across the coun­try’s densely pop­u­lated ar­chi­pel­ago.

Even as the po­lit­i­cally con­nected com­pany, which owns sev­eral air­lines, fu­eled its ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion with bor­row­ing from banks and gov­ern­ment credit agen­cies, it also racked up at least 15 ma­jor safety lapses. Pi­lots com­plained that they were over­worked and un­der­paid, and some who chal­lenged the com­pany on con­tract is­sues are now in jail.

More trou­bling, pi­lots said that the cul­ture at the air­line ne­glected safety. One pi­lot who re­fused to fly a pair of planes that he con­sid­ered un­safe was even­tu­ally side­lined by Lion Air and set­tled his case in court years later.

A for­mer in­ves­ti­ga­tor for In­done­sia’s Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Com­mit­tee said that Lion Air re­peat­edly ig­nored or­ders to ground planes for safety is­sues. Pi­lots and for­mer safety reg­u­la­tors said that Lion Air flight and main­te­nance crews reg­u­larly filled out two log books, one real and one fake, to hide malfea­sance.

Many avi­a­tion ex­perts are scep­ti­cal of the com­pany. “Lion’s cor­po­rate cul­ture is against safety,” said Mr Lie, the om­buds­man. “If they can fly the plane, they will, rather than ground it and fig­ure out what the prob­lem is.”

Dur­ing the two days be­fore Flight 610 be­gan its fi­nal jour­ney, there were re­peated in­di­ca­tions that pi­lots were be­ing fed faulty data — per­haps from in­stru­ments mea­sur­ing the speed and a key an­gle of the plane — that would have com­pro­mised their abil­ity to fly safely.

En­gi­neers tried to ad­dress the is­sue in at least three air­ports, In­done­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Af­ter the plane’s penul­ti­mate flight, for in­stance, tech­ni­cians recorded in a main­te­nance log that they had fixed the pitot tubes, ex­ter­nal probes on the air­plane that mea­sure rel­a­tive air­speed. Ear­lier that day, on the re­sort is­land of Bali, en­gi­neers swapped out a sen­sor that mea­sures the an­gle at which on­com­ing wind crosses the plane.

Called the an­gle of at­tack sen­sor, this in­stru­ment tells the pi­lot if the nose of the plane is too high, which could cause the air­craft to stall. In the Max 8, if the data in­di­cates the nose is too high, the air­craft’s sys­tems will au­to­mat­i­cally pull the nose down. If the sen­sor data is wrong, the sys­tem could cause the plane to dive.

It is not yet cer­tain if the air­speed sen­sors and an­gle of at­tack sen­sors mal­func­tioned on the fi­nal flight, or if the com­put­ers that process the in­for­ma­tion com­ing from the cen­sors mal­func­tioned.

Ex­perts say they are sur­prised that a plane with known prob­lems was cleared for take­off again and again. Some say they are aghast, won­der­ing why Lion Air was so cava­lier.

LOOK­ING FOR CLUES: An In­done­sian Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Com­mis­sion of­fi­cial ex­am­ines a tur­bine en­gine from the Lion Air flight JT610 in Jakarta, In­done­sia.

PIEC­ING IT TO­GETHER: A crane moves a pair of wheels re­cov­ered from the Lion Air jet that crashed into the Java Sea for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Jakarta.

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