There’s a plot twist in the events surrounding the Lion Air JT610 crash. It now appears that aircraft makers Boeing may have had a role to play in the death of the 189 people who died in the crash that happened on 29 October 2018. How? Well, the Allied Pilots Association are alleging that the Boeing withheld important technical information.
A news report by the Wall Street Journal explains that Boeing apparently did not share information about the potential hazards of a new flight-control feature of the Boeing 737 MAX, which, according to the association, was critical information for pilots to operate the aircraft safely.
In rejecting Boeing’s assertion that a safety bulletin issued last week was meant to reinforce procedures already in the aircraft, Captain Dennis Tajer of the association stressed that Boeing did not provide all the information pilots rely on when flying an aircraft. “The bulletin is not re-affirming, it’s enlightening and adding new info,” he said.
The aircraft manual apparently did not tell pilots about how the machine would react when it detects a stall. In actuality, the new flight control system, upon detecting a stall, automatically triggers a response which includes lowering the airplane’s nose to prevent or exit the stall. The association says that this critical information was never communicated to them.
Following the discovery of Boeing holding back this information, the association further questioned what other important information could be withheld by the aircraft manufacturers. If this information is potentially a matter of life and death, why on earth would it be kept from the people who are in control of flying such complicated items of machinery?
Despite the claims by the association however, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced that it will not be conducting a separate probe other than the ongoing Lion Air accident investigation.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, safety experts said the Automated Stall-Prevention (ASP) system on the Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 models were intended to help cockpit crews avoid raising the nose of the plane to a dangerously high level. If such an occurrence takes place, the ASP system will push down the nose of the aircraft – unexpectedly. Sometimes, the push can be so strong that the flight crews involved are unable to pull it back up. With such an unpredictable sounding system, questions must be asked about how rigorously the system was tested and why it’s being applied in live situations if its results cannot be predicted and dealt with safely.
The Wall Street Journal also reported that it was only after the crash that Boeing told Lion Air that such a situation could “result in a steep dive or crash, even if pilots are manually flying the jetliner and do not expect flight-control computers to kick in.”
It is understandable why some people are nervous flyers. Aircraft disasters have a peculiar way of striking a chord with people, despite reassurances that it is one of the safest ways to travel, statistically speaking. It doesn’t help that scary headlines make the rounds every time an incident happens.
Among such is the news of the Lion Air JT610 crash, which departed from Jakarta Airport at 6.20am on 29 October 2018. The aircraft carrying 189 passengers and crew members was scheduled to land at Pangkal Pinang in Sumatra at 7.20am but lost contact with air traffic control 13 minutes after departure.
Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency Basarnas confirmed that the plane crashed at Karawang Bay of West Java province and added that a few tugboats saw the plane plunging into the sea. No survivors have been found thus far. Barsarnas have confirmed that six bodies have been recovered from the scene.
What’s alarming is that the same aircraft is reported to have had technical issues during its last flight. Airline president Edward Sirait said the technical problem had been resolved but added that it would be listed as an issue to be investigated following the Monday crash. Clearly, if the plane is in the sea, something was not resolved.
What is even more worrying is that the aircraft had only been in operation since 15 August, with questions now arising about holes in record keeping and technical knowledge being a possible cause of the accident. Why did an aircraft that had only been in use for just over two months crash? It simply should never have happened.
Lion Air – a troubled history
While search and rescue operations are underway, it must be noted that this was not the first time Lion Air was involved in an incident of this nature. Established in 1999, the low-cost air carrier has been heavily criticised for poor management, especially in areas of safety.
According to several news reports in the past, Lion Air has had many such unfortunate incidents in the past. Its troubles began on 14 January 2002, when an aircraft carrying 103 passengers and crew was unable to take off properly. The pilot merely assumed the temperature before takeoff, which led to the aircraft not being able to take off properly and eventually crashing hard onto the runway. The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) confirmed the cause was wrong takeoff configuration.
In between then and now, the low-cost carrier has had 10 incidents since, one of which on 30 November 2004, led to 25 deaths. Many speculated that the aircraft, an old McDonnell Douglas DC9-82 (MD-82) (which was acquired by the airlines in the late 90s) had been flying since 1984 and that it was not equipped to deal with the water levels (which exceeded three millimetres) which had collected on the runway due to bad weather. The aircraft had then hydroplaned and crashed into a metal fence. The impact killed the 25 of the 163 passengers and crew on board.
Though there have not been other fatalities, other incidents have led to serious injuries. Accidents have included aircrafts leaking fuel on the runway (2017), completely skidding off the runway (2016) and landing on the sea (2013).
Making matters worse, Lion Air has also had a history of pilots using drugs while on duty. Two of the incidents happened in 2012 – one in February where a 44-year-old was found with syabu (methamphetamine) in a hotel room in Surabaya and another in November where three pilots were caught with crystal-methamphetamine in a karaoke bar in Makassar. Following this, the Indonesian Transport Ministry said that it had sanctioned the budget airline.
Being the second largest low-cost carrier in Southeast Asia, comparisons to budget carrier AirAsia are inevitable. According to the ASN, AirAsia Indonesia has only had one incident since it was launched in 2005, when an airliner crashed into the Java Sea on 28 December 2014 killing 162 passengers and crew members. It was deemed to have been primarily caused by technical faults and poor decisions made by the pilot.
Both AirAsia and Lion Air have been banned by the European Union, but it was also noted by the ASN that Lion Air was banned for a period of nine years as compared to AirAsia Indonesia which was banned for three years. The difference is significant.
Now following the recent crash, Australia is contemplating banning Lion Air and has advised its government officials and contractors to not fly on the airline. As investigations develop, we are left to wonder if this incident stands as just another black mark in a laundry list of Lion Air accidents or will it be a catalyst for change?
Source: Reuters,The Star, Popular Science, CNN International