Pilot of crashed Lion Air plane sent SOS on previous flight due to technical problems

Jakarta: On Sunday, the pilot of a Lion Air flight from Indonesia’s Bali island made a distress call only minutes after take-off due to technical problems, but they were overcome and he pushed on to Jakarta. And the same air craft crashed during another flight hours later, killing all 189 people on board.

The single-aisle Boeing plane, which was on its way from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang city, is one of the world’s newest and most advanced commercial passenger jets.

Distress call minutes after take-off due to technical problems

Herson, chief of the airport authority for the Bali-Nusa Tenggara area, told Reuters that after the call, the pilot updated the control tower to say that the plane was flying normally and he would not return to the airport as requested.

“The captain himself was confident enough to fly to Jakarta from Denpasar,” said Herson, who goes by one name, speaking over the phone from Bali and referring to the resort island’s airport.

The pilot of another plane that was approaching Bali after the Lion Air jet had taken off, said he was ordered to circle above the airport and listened in to a radio conversation between the Lion Air pilot and air traffic controllers.

“Because of the Pan-Pan call, we were told to hold off, circling the airport in the air,” said the pilot, who did not wish to be named. “The Lion plane requested to return back to Bali five minutes after take-off, but then the pilot said the problem had been resolved and he was going to go ahead to Jakarta,” he added.

Pilots use ‘Pan-Pan’ calls to flag urgent situations. They are a step down from ‘Mayday’, which signals severe distress.

The Denpasar-Jakarta flight landed at the Indonesian capital’s airport at 10:55 pm local time on Sunday. The same Boeing 737 MAX jet took off at 6:20 am the next morning, bound for Bangka island, off Sumatra, and plunged into the sea 13 minutes later. Just before the crash, the pilot had made a request to return to base.

A Lion Air spokesman declined to comment when asked about the distress call on the earlier flight, citing the ongoing crash investigation.

The budget airline’s CEO, Edward Sirait, said earlier this week that a technical problem had occurred on the Denpasar-Jakarta flight but it had been resolved “according to procedure”.

Amid media speculation over the airworthiness of the aircraft, the transport minister suspended Lion Air’s technical director and three other officers on Wednesday to facilitate the crash investigation.

The suspended technicians “issued the recommendations for that (final) flight”, the ministry said in a press release. It did not say how many technicians had been suspended.

Gear and black box found

Divers have found a piece of landing gear from a crashed Lion Air jet, Indonesian authorities said on Thursday, following the discovery of a critical black box that could explain why the brand-new plane plummeted into the sea.

Search teams have been scouring the seabed for the fuselage of the Boeing-737 MAX 8, which plunged into the waters off Indonesia’s northern coast shortly after takeoff on Monday despite only being in service a few months.

Referring to the landing gear, search and rescue agency head Muhammad Syaugi said late on Thursday, “we have found part of it”, as authorities piece together what caused the crash. “Separately, we have found bigger parts of the plane than we have seen in previous days,” he added, hours after officials announced the recovery of a data recorder from the plane.

The plane’s black boxes, which airlines are required to install, offer investigators their best chance of discovering why such a new jet crashed. The devices record information about the speed, altitude and direction of the plane as well as flight crew conversations.

“The good news is we have found one of the black boxes,” Syaugi told reporters. Authorities said a flight data recorder was recovered, but they were still looking for the cockpit voice recorder.

On a Jakarta dockside, Boeing and US National Transportation Safety Board officials joined the Indonesian team in sifting through twisted metal plane parts and piles of passengers’ torn clothing, shoes, wallets and phones.

Black boxes

Despite the name, black boxes are in fact bright orange with reflective stripes. They are built to survive at vast depths and in extreme heat, and are fitted with a beacon which can emit a signal for one month.

Black boxes help explain nearly 90 percent of all crashes, according to aviation experts.

“Data from the plane — the engine, all the instruments — are recorded there,” Sudibyo said. “If there is an anomaly, some technical problem, it is recorded there too.”

Victims of the crash

There were no known survivors and only body parts have been found so far. Many others have yet to be located and analysts hope more victims could still be found with the bulk of the wreckage.

“I assume that there will be a lot of bodies still strapped into the seats,” aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo told AFP. Dozens of divers are taking part in the massive recovery effort along with helicopters and ships, but the authorities have all but ruled out finding any survivors.

Passengers’ remains are being sent to hospital for DNA identification. Forensic experts identified Jannatun Cintya Dewi as the first victim of the crash Wednesday evening. The 24-year-old civil servant’s coffin was carried by pallbearers through the streets of her East Java hometown Sidoarjo on Thursday.

Some relatives have shared heart-wrenching tales of their final contact with loved ones. A selfie taken by a newlywed husband, Deryl Fida Febrianto, and sent to his wife about 30 minutes before the jetliner crashed has gone viral online.

Deryl Fida Febrianto sent this selfie to his wife just minutes before the aircraft crashed

What caused the crash?

Aviation experts are puzzled by the accident but say it’s too early to determine what caused it.
Lion Air’s admission that the jet had an unspecified technical issue on a previous flight — as well its abrupt fatal dive — have raised questions about whether it had faults specific to the newly released model, including a speed-and-altitude system malfunction.

The accident has also resurrected concerns about Indonesia’s poor air safety record which until recently saw the country’s carriers facing years-long bans from entering European Union and US airspace.

Lion Air has been plagued by safety concerns and customer complaints over unreliable scheduling and poor service. The budget carrier has been involved in a number of incidents including a fatal 2004 crash and a collision between two Lion Air planes at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport.

(With inputs from Agencies)