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.