Hunt for cockpit tapes after Indonesia jet crash

JAKARTA (AFP) – Divers scoured the seabed near Indonesia’s capital yesterday for the cockpit recordings of a crashed passenger plane, after investigators said it would be days before they could read the flight data recorder that had already been salvaged.

The two “black boxes” could supply critical clues as to why the Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500 plunged about 3,000 metres in less than a minute before slamming into the Java Sea soon after take-off last Saturday, taking with it 62 people.

Divers just off the coast of Jakarta had hauled the data recorder to the surface on Tuesday, with the hunt now focused on finding a voice recorder on the wreckage-littered seabed.

The discovery came as a team from the United States (US) National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) prepared to join the investigation in the capital, along with staff from Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and jet engine producer GE Aviation.

“The search continues today and we’re hoping for a good result,” search-and-rescue agency’s operations director Rasman MS told reporters yesterday.

Agency chief Soerjanto Tjahjono said a day earlier that investigators hoped to download data from the retrieved black box in a matter of days, so “we can reveal the mystery behind this accident”.

Black box data includes the speed, altitude and direction of the plane as well as flight crew conversations, and helps explain nearly 90 per cent of all crashes, according to aviation experts.

National Transportation Safety Committee members place a box containing the flight data recorder of Sriwijaya Air flight SJ-182 retrieved from the Java Sea into a container at Tanjung Priok Port. PHOTO: AP

So far authorities have been unable to explain why the 26-year-old plane crashed just four minutes after setting off from Jakarta, bound for Pontianak city on Borneo island, a 90-minute flight away.

More than 3,000 people are taking part in the recovery effort, assisted by dozens of boats and helicopters flying over small islands off the capital’s coast.

A remotely operated vehicle has been deployed to assist the divers, but strong currents and monsoon rains can make the task harder.

“It’s not easy to find victims and parts of the fuselage because the debris and human remains are usually in small pieces so they can easily drift away,” said Agus Haryono with the search-and-rescue agency’s crash team.

The grisly task of hunting for mangled body parts can also take a psychological toll.

Newer divers “feel uncomfortable or even get scared, especially when they’re retrieving remains at night,” Haryono said.

“But, as time goes by, they get stronger mentally to face these situations.”

Three more victims have been identified by matching fingerprints on file to body parts retrieved from the murky depths, authorities said yesterday, including a 50-year-old female passenger and a 38-year-old off-duty pilot.

There were 10 children among the passengers on the half-full plane, which had experienced pilots at the controls.

Scores of body bags filled with human remains were being taken to a police morgue where forensic investigators hoped to identify victims by matching fingerprints or DNA with relatives.

Authorities said the crew did not declare an emergency or report technical problems with the plane before its dive, and that the 737 was probably intact when it hit the water – citing a relatively small area where the wreckage was scattered.

The crash probe was likely to take months, but a preliminary report was expected in 30 days.

Aviation analysts said flight-tracking data showed the plane sharply deviated from its intended course before it went into a steep dive, with bad weather, pilot error or mechanical failure among the potential factors.

The accident has spawned some misinformation online, including a pair of pictures claiming to show a baby who survived the weekend crash. The images actually show an infant rescued from a fatal 2018 boat disaster.

Sriwijaya Air, which flies to destinations in Indonesia and across Southeast Asia, has had safety incidents including runway overruns.

But it has not had a fatal crash since starting operations in 2003.

Its CEO has said the jet, which was previously flown by US-based Continental Airlines and United Airlines, was in fit condition.

Indonesia’s fast-growing aviation sector has long been plagued by safety concerns, and its airlines were once banned from US and European airspace.

In October 2018, 189 people were killed when a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX jet crashed near Jakarta.

That accident – and another in Ethiopia – led to the grounding of the 737 MAX worldwide over a faulty anti-stall system.

The 737 that went down on Saturday was first produced decades ago and was not a MAX variant.