Indonesia Rescuers Pull Human Remains From Plane Crash Site
Officers of Satpol PP patrol with bicycles during a partial lockdown due to the coronavirus in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photographer: Rony Zakaria/Bloomberg)

Indonesia Rescuers Pull Human Remains From Plane Crash Site

Search teams at the site of the Sriwijaya Air crash in Indonesia have sent body bags and items of clothing to police for identification as they expand the search for the aircraft’s black boxes.

The Boeing Co. 737-500 passenger jet carrying 62 people plunged more than 10,000 feet shortly after takeoff at 2:36 p.m. local time Saturday. Investigators said it came down quickly and broke apart after hitting the Java Sea, but haven’t determined a cause for the 26-year-old plane’s crash.

The plane was a decades-old model, not the newer Boeing 737 Max version just emerging from a worldwide grounding. The aircraft’s engines were made by CFM International, a joint venture of Safran SA and General Electric Co.

Investigators plan to expand the search area on Tuesday, after detecting so-called pingers used to locate the plane’s flight recorders. The black boxes, which capture sound in the cockpit and monitor the plane’ flight data, are crucial to understanding why the plane went down.

Some 45 bags of human remains have been handed over, authorities said Monday. More bags containing plane parts have been delivered to transport safety authorities, said Bagus Puruhito, head of the National Search and Rescue Agency. The search on the surface will run around the clock, with divers resuming work at sunrise.

Indonesia Rescuers Pull Human Remains From Plane Crash Site

Social Affairs Minister Tri Rismaharini said during a televised briefing that the government is providing support, including counseling to the victims’ families.

Indonesia, one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets before the coronavirus pandemic, has one of the worst safety records. The archipelago of more than 17,000 islands has experienced 104 accidents and 2,353 related fatalities, data from Aviation Safety Network show. Its planes were barred by the European Union in 2007 over safety concerns and the full ban wasn’t lifted until 2018.

Boeing dropped 3% to $203.56 at 9:43 a.m. in New York, while GE fell 1% to $11.23. Safran was little changed at 115.85 euros in Paris.

The cause isn’t likely to be a design flaw, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group. Production of the 737-500 model used by Sriwijaya Air “ended over 20 years ago, so something would have been discovered by now,” he said.

Weather has been a contributing factor in several crashes in Indonesia and may have played a part in this accident. On Saturday, heavy rain in Jakarta, which is still in monsoon season, delayed the takeoff for the 90-minute SJ182 flight to Pontianak on the island of Borneo. The airport’s official weather report about 10 minutes before the crash said there was light rain with a cloud ceiling starting at 1,800 feet above the ground.

Four minutes after takeoff, controllers noticed the flight was not on its assigned track and radioed the crew. Within seconds, the aircraft disappeared from radar. Flightradar24’s tracking data showed the plane leveling off at an altitude of about 10,000 to 11,000, before a rapid descent to the water in just 14 seconds. That meant it was dropping at more than 40,000 feet a minute.

The flight track suggests the jet was intact as it dove toward the water, said John Cox, president of Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot who flew 737s. The plane was transmitting its position down to the water, which means its electrical system appeared to be functioning throughout, he said.

Indonesia Rescuers Pull Human Remains From Plane Crash Site

One of the most common causes for planes descend rapidly -- so-called aerodynamic stalls in which the wings lose lift -- appears not to have occurred, he said. Descents involving stalls, such as the plunge of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, have occurred more slowly.

“Based on what we know so far, it is very difficult to get the airplane to come down that fast,” Cox said, referring to the Sriwijaya Air crash. “If the data is accurate, it is going to be a pretty extreme event.”

The 737-500 is among the safest planes currently flown, according to data published by Boeing. The first of two 737 Max crashes also occurred in Indonesia when Lion Air Flight 610 went down in 2018, killing 189 people.

Established in 2003, Sriwijaya Air flies 53 routes -- most of them domestic but some international including to Penang, Malaysia, and Dili, Timor Leste. It hasn’t had any previous fatal accidents. The airline’s jets have been four other incidents, the last in May 2017, when a Boeing 737-33A overshot a runway.

Preliminary flight data transmitted by the aircraft via the Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast system appeared to show “possible disorientation” by the pilots, said aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman.

“We have to wait for the final report of the investigation to know the true cause of the incident, but the preliminary data appears pointing to possible disorientation in the cockpit, to which the bad weather is a factor here,” he said.

Finding the black boxes may not be easy. As in some other high-velocity crashes, the pingers in the Sriwijaya Air flight may have broken loose from the recorders, complicating the search. The underwater beacons broadcast a unique sound when they come in contact with water to help pinpoint their location in wreckage.

Search Area

The search area was more than doubled to 222 square nautical miles on Monday, with 53 ships, 13 aircraft and 18 small vessels including jet skis deployed, local authorities said.

Without access yet to the plane’s black-box flight recorders, it’s impossible to say what may have triggered the sudden dive, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former head of accident investigations at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Flight-crew confusion, instrumentation problems, catastrophic mechanical failures or even an intentional act were among the possible scenarios, he said.

Boeing is “closely monitoring the situation,” spokeswoman Zoe Leong said in a statement. “We are working to gather more information.” Sriwijaya Air said it will work with relevant authorities in evacuation and investigation efforts.

Of the 62 people on the flight, 50 were passengers, including seven children and three infants, and there were two pilots, four cabin crew and six off-duty staff, local media reported. There were no foreign nationals on board.

Indonesia Rescuers Pull Human Remains From Plane Crash Site

The crash comes as the aviation industry reels from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought air travel to its knees. With many planes still grounded, pilots aren’t getting enough opportunities to fly.

On Sept. 15, an Indonesian flight carrying 307 passengers and 11 crew to the northern city of Medan momentarily veered off the runway after landing, sparking an investigation by the transport safety regulator. It found the pilot had flown less than three hours in the previous 90 days. The first officer hadn’t flown at all since Feb. 1.

“This concern about lack of flying hours among pilots might have materialized here,” Soejatman said. Indonesia’s domestic market is returning from the Covid hiatus, “and this might have put significant strain on the crew.”

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