Lion Air plane ‘not airworthy’ and should have been grounded, say investigators

The Indonesian authorities have concluded that the Lion Air plane that crashed last month killing 189 people was not fit to fly and should have been grounded after recurring technical problems. 

The Boeing 737 MAX vanished from radar about 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, on October 29, slamming into the Java Sea at 450 miles per hour moments after the pilot had asked to return to the airport. 

Data from the jetliner, presented in preliminary findings by accident investigators on Wednesday, showed the pilots fought to prevent the crash from the moment the plane took off as the 737’s nose was repeatedly forced down, apparently by an automatic system receiving incorrect sensor readings.

The information from the flight data recorder reveals that the crews successfully battled to raise the nose over two dozen times before finally losing control. 

The National Transport Safety Committee (KNKT) did not pinpoint a definitive cause of the accident, with a final crash report not likely to be filed until next year.

However, it admonished Lion Air, the nation’s largest budget carrier, for repeatedly putting the plane back into service despite failing to fix a problem with the airspeed indicator in the days leading up to the fatal flight.  

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Its previous flight, on the eve of the crash, was from Denpasar in Bali to Jakarta. The pilots had reported the same problem but had de-activated the anti-stall system and continued to fly manually. 

“During [that] flight, the plane was experiencing a technical problem but the pilot decided to continue,” Nurcahyo Utomo, aviation head of the KNKT told reporters. The report outlines the maintenance procedures that were carried out in response.  

“In our opinion, the plane was no longer airworthy and should not have continued,” he said, according to the BBC. 

The report itself does not explicitly spell out that conclusion. Instead it urges the airline to improve its safety culture, including to increase pilots’ knowledge of emergency procedures, and to better document repair work on its planes. 

The initial findings will also heighten concerns there were problems with key systems in one of the world’s newest and most advanced commercial passenger planes.

Investigators have previously said the doomed aircraft had problems with its airspeed indicator and angle of attack (AOA) sensors, prompting Boeing to issue a special bulletin telling operators what to do when they face the same situation.

An AOA sensor provides data about the angle at which air is passing over the wings and tells pilots how much lift a plane is getting. The information can be critical in preventing an aircraft from stalling. 

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The KNKT has retrieved one of the plane’s black boxes – the flight data recorder  – but is yet to locate the cockpit voice recorder, which will give more details of how the pilots acted to tackle the problem. 

Indonesia’s aviation safety record has improved since its airlines, including national carrier Garuda, were subject to years-long bans from US and European airspace for safety violations, although the country has still recorded 40 fatal accidents over the past 15 years.

Lion Air’s parent group, which also operates Batik Air and Wings Air, has captured half the domestic market in less than 20 years of operation to become Southeast Asia’s biggest airline, but it has been dogged by a dubious safety record and an avalanche of complaints over shoddy service. 

Last week a searing investigation by the New York Times, based on interviews with dozens of Lion Air’s management personnel and flight and ground crew members, as well as investigators and aviation analysts, painted a picture of a carrier that allegedly prioritised growth over safety. 

Fifteen major safety lapses have been documented in recent years, including a crash that killed 25 people. Government safety investigators alleged that the company’s political ties have allowed it to circumvent their recommendations and play down safety fears. 

In one incident described by the Times, a government inspector had grounded a plane in the city of Makassar, eastern Indonesia, over problems with its hydraulic system. The airline went over his head to gain permission to fly from officials in Jakarta and the flight took off anyway. 

But Boeing has also come under fire for possible glitches on the 737 MAX – which entered service just last year.

Several relatives of the crash victims have already filed lawsuits against Boeing, including the family of a young doctor who was to have married his high school sweetheart this month.

Authorities have called off the grim task of identifying victims of the crash, with 125 passengers officially recognised after testing on human remains that filled some 200 body bags. 

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