Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

(Bloomberg) -- With an inconclusive preliminary probe into Indonesia’s worst air disaster in two decades, investigators are renewing efforts to find the elusive cockpit voice recorder that could hold the key to why 189 people died when Lion Air flight JT 610 plummeted into the Java Sea.

Their task is complicated by the fact that the area around the crash site, in shallow water off the coast northeast of the capital Jakarta, is crisscrossed with a network of subsea communications cables and oil pipelines that could be damaged by salvage equipment.

Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

The National Transportation Safety Committee is scouting for a ship from overseas that can hold its position without casting anchor, according to Nurcahyo Utomo, the lead investigator. The wreckage and voice recorder of the Boeing Co. 737 Max jet are believed to be buried in mud and sweeping the seabed would need a crane that can lift more than 10 metric tons, he said.

Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

The disaster highlights how little investment the country has put into aviation safety infrastructure, staff and equipment to keep up with a boom in domestic and international flights in the past two decades. In a country with one of the worst aviation safety records, investigators are hampered by shortages of money, qualified staff and equipment.

“Indonesia’s aviation industry has grown rapidly in recent years, but the necessary infrastructure hasn’t kept pace, including the resources for NTSC,” said Shadrach Nababan, a former air crash investigator and pilot with PT Garuda Indonesia.“The burden on NTSC would not be so heavy if the industry, not just airlines but also the regulators, could embrace the right safety culture.”

Navy Divers

So far, the NTSC has relied on state-owned oil company PT Pertamina, the National Search and Rescue Agency and the armed forces for equipment and divers. Committee Chairman Soerjanto Tjahjono told lawmakers last week that the agency only has 10 investigators and wouldn’t be able to investigate two accidents simultaneously. He said the NTSC lacked aircraft storage facilities and even meeting rooms.

Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

Families of the victims have called on the government to speed up efforts to locate the remains of the jet and passengers. More than 70 percent of the aircraft has yet to be recovered and only 125 passengers have been identified from body parts found in the two weeks after the crash.

“What bothers me is that the ship to resume the search hasn’t arrived,” said Ari Priawan, whose brother, sister-in-law and their child were on board JT610. After Priawan and other family members were briefed by the NTSC on the preliminary findings, he expressed concern about the lack of information regarding the problems with the aircraft. “There was no explanation related to Boeing,” he said.

Domestic airline traffic in Indonesia more than tripled between 2005 and 2017 to 97 million passengers per year, according to the Sydney-based CAPA - Centre for Aviation. The industry is dominated by flag carrier Garuda and PT Lion Mentari Airlines, or Lion Air, the country’s first low-cost carrier that started operations in 2000.

Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

“It’s quite embarrassing for Indonesia to not have adequate resources to support safety in its aviation industry as it’s the biggest market in Southeast Asia,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics in Kuala Lumpur.

The NTSC relied on information from the plane’s flight data recorder, air traffic control records, interviews with prior crews and other logs to piece together its preliminary report. The findings laid bare lax safety and maintenance procedures at the airline, faulty systems on the plane and inconsistent pilot responses to emergencies.

“To say Lion Air needs to improve safety culture is a bit of an understatement,” Endau’s Yusof said. “There’s a near system-wide lax culture of safety in Indonesia, with the exception of Garuda which has been improving its reputation on safety in recent years.”

The doomed plane crashed on Oct. 29 about 11 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, killing all aboard. The NTSC report, shared this week, suggests the pilots battled with an automatic safety system that was forcing the nose of the plane down because of faulty readings from sensors. The cockpit voice recorder could hold the key to unraveling why and how they lost control.

Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

CVRs on commercial jets are equipped with an underwater locator beacon, known as a “pinger” that is activated when the recorder is immersed in water. The beacon can transmit from depths down to 14,000 feet (4,268 meters), according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The other black box -- the flight data recorder -- of the Lion Air jet was found at a depth of only about 30 meters.

Investigators detected what may have been pings from the voice recorder in the first few days after the crash, suggesting that the unit may have been damaged on impact. The pinger’s battery is designed to last for at least 30 days, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

A failure to locate the recorder would leave the investigation with “a monumental challenge given that the probe won’t be 100 percent complete without it,” Yusof said.

The device could provide clues as to how the flight crew responded to the problems they were encountering with faulty systems on the plane. The Lion Air jet’s angle-of-attack sensor, which measures how high or low the plane’s nose was pointed relative to the oncoming air, had malfunctioned on the previous flight as well as in the minutes before the crash, according to the NTSC report. The sensor erroneously concluded the nose was pointed too high and the aircraft was in danger of stalling, triggering safety software that attempted to put the aircraft into a dive.

Pipelines, Cables Hamper Search for Key Lion Air Recorder

On the plane’s previous flight, the pilots were able to shut off the motor that was trying to push down the nose relatively soon after taking off.

Boeing is facing multiple lawsuits by victims’ relatives who allege the crash was caused by a defective flight system and claim unspecified damages.

The Chicago-based company referred all questions regarding the crash to the NTSC and said in a statement Wednesday that the 737 Max series of jets are “as safe as any airplane that has ever flown,” adding it is helping with the investigation. Lion Air’s President Director Edward Sirait said Wednesday that the carrier has always upheld safety in its operations and the jet was air worthy.

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