Investigators backflip on Lion Air airworthiness

Investigators of the October 29 crash of a Lion Air flight into the Java Sea say the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was deemed airworthy when it made its final takeoff from Jakarta.

The officials summoned reporters today to clarify comments made at a news conference the day before, where some media reported the investigators had said the plane was not airworthy when it took off.

The issue of airworthiness is crucial because of concerns over technical issues with the new Boeing 737 MAX that crashed and questions over the airline’s safety procedures.

All 189 people aboard the flight between Jakarta and a regional airport died in the disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Commission investigators were reporting this week on data from the aircraft’s black boxes.

They say the cockpit voice recorder, which is still missing and being searched for, is needed to understand what exactly caused the jet to plunge in the Java Sea just 11 minutes after takeoff.

“The NTSC and the Head of Aviation Communication never stated that Lion Air, Boeing 737-8 MAX aircraft registered PK-LQP, was not airworthy,” said investigator Nurcahyo Utomo.

National Transportation Safety Committee investigator Nurcahyo Utomo holds a model of a passenger plane during a press conference on the committee’s preliminary findings. Picture: APSource:AP

According to The Australian, Lion Air has threatened to sue Utomo for saying the aircraft was not airworthy.

Lion Air president Edward Sirait said the company was seeking clarification of those comments and reserved the right to take legal action.

“In Denpasar, that plane was released and deemed fit to fly according to procedures done by our technicians,” Mr Sirait said late on Wednesday.

“This plane was airworthy. We will take actions, including the possibility of a legal action, towards this statement if indeed the NTSC issued this statement.”

On Wednesday, Utomo said the plane had experienced technical problems on four of the six flights before it crashed.

On its final flight, pilots struggled to prevent an automatic safety feature from forcing the nose of the aircraft down due to problems with its sensors.

Utomo said that based on maintenance records, flight engineers had made repairs and run tests.

“Based on the test results, the aircraft was declared airworthy, also when the plane departed from Jakarta, the aircraft was in airworthy condition,” he said.

Another investigator, Ony Suryo Wibowo, said there were special procedures to be followed when there are problems with an aircraft.

Indonesian people examining debris of the ill-fated Lion Air flight JT 610 in Jakarta. Picture: AFPSource:AFP

“But in principle, when the engineer has stated it’s airworthy, then it’s airworthy,” he said.

Wibowo said the pilot would make the final choice about whether or not to cancel or abort a flight, and the investigators were trying to understand how the pilot made his decision.

“When the plane is on the ground, the responsibility for airworthiness is on the engineer, and when the plane is in the air, the airworthiness is entirely in the pilot’s hands,” he said.

A final report is not likely to be filed until next year.

The Boeing 737 MAX vanished from radar about 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, slamming into the Java Sea moments after pilots had asked to return to the capital.

Investigators said Lion Air kept putting the plane back into service despite repeatedly failing to fix a problem with the airspeed indicator, including on its second-last flight from Bali to Jakarta.

“The plane was no longer airworthy and it should not have kept flying,” Utomo reportedly said.

Lion Air’s contested the preliminary result and said it was going to seek a written clarification from the NTSC.

“We think this statement is not true,” President Director Edward Sirait said.

“The plane from Denpasar (Bali) was released and it was said (to be) airworthy according to documents and what the technicians have done.”

“The plane was airworthy,” he added.

Families and colleagues of victims of Lion Air flight JT 610 cry on deck of Indonesian Navy ship KRI Banjarmasin during visit and pray at the site of the crash. Picture: GettySource:Getty Images

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

“But we don’t know yet whether it’s a Boeing or airline issue,” said aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman.

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.

The report confirmed that initial finding, saying the plane’s data recorder detected an issue with the AoA.

It also said the plane’s “stick shaker” — which vibrates the aircraft’s steering wheel-like control yoke to warn of a system malfunction — was “activated and continued for most of the fight”.

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.

Colleagues of victims of Lion Air flight JT 610 throw flowers on deck of Indonesian Navy ship KRI Banjarmasin during visit and pray at the site of the crash. Picture: GettySource:Getty Images

The doomed plane’s flight data recorder showed that pilots had repeatedly tried to correct its nose from pointing down, possibly after erroneous data from AoA sensors was fed into a system that automatically adjusts some of its movements.

Black box data showed the plane also had an airspeed indicator issue on multiple earlier flights, said investigators, who have yet to locate the cockpit voice recorder on the sea floor.

Lion must take steps “to improve the safety culture” and bolster the quality of its flight logs, the transport agency said.

“Airlines need to take paperwork seriously,” Soejatman said.

“That didn’t cause the crash, but it can cause other problems in the environment they’re working in.”

Family members grieve after police handed over the remains of their relatives who died in the Lion Air flight JT 610 crash. Picture: GettySource:Getty Images

Despite a dubious safety record and an avalanche of complaints over shoddy service, the budget carrier’s parent Lion Air Group has captured half the domestic market in less than 20 years of operation to become Southeast Asia’s biggest airline.

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 it has still recorded 40 fatal accidents over the past 15 years.

The report stopped short of making any recommendations to Boeing but the US plane maker has come under fire for possible glitches on the 737 MAX — which entered service just last year.

The APA, a US airline pilots’ union, said carriers and pilots had not been informed by Boeing of certain changes in the aircraft control system installed on the new MAX variants of the 737.

“I am really surprised if Boeing has not shared all the flight performance parameters with pilots, unions, and training organisations,” University of Leeds aviation expert Stephen Wright told AFP, adding that “a deliberate omission would have serious legal ramifications”.

Workers stand next to an engine of a Boeing 737-MAX, at Boeing Co.’s 737 assembly facility in Renton, Washington state. Picture: APSource:AP

In response to Wednesday’s report, Boeing said: “(The company) is taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the US National Transportation Safety Board as technical advisers to support the NTSC as the investigation continues.”

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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