AirAsia Flight QZ8501: 'Not easy hearing pilots' last words' says safety chief

Safety chief leads 30-member team analysing doomed plane's black boxes

It is a small area about the size of a master bedroom in a Housing Board flat, but this is the part of the National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) laboratory where the black boxes of Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 will be analysed by 30 investigators.

They include aerospace engineers, forensic analysts, metallurgy experts, psychologists and professors in related studies.

"We have put the best and senior investigators to work on the AirAsia crash... joined by foreign supporting staff," NTSC chief Tatang Kurniadi, 69, told The Straits Times.

The agency was formed in 1999 by presidential decree as part of the Ministry of Transport but in 2012 it became an independent agency.

Between 2007 and 2014, it investigated 201 aviation incidents, including major crashes.

The NTSC, which reports directly to the Indonesian president, is tasked to probe all major marine, aviation, railway and traffic disasters.

As divers continue to battle weather conditions 25 days after the crash to retrieve the fuselage and 109 missing bodies, the focus has shifted to the investigation.

By next month, the team will issue a preliminary report on the cause of the crash of the Airbus 320. It has already ruled out terrorism and is focusing on human factors and plane damage.

Mr Tatang, a former air force pilot, said: "The rate of aviation accidents in Indonesia has been dropping, and before this AirAsia crash we were about to register zero major crashes (for 2014)."

With accredited representatives from the six countries where the victims were from and French plane-maker Airbus involved in analysing the report, his unit is feeling the glare of international scrutiny.

But Mr Tatang, who has 21 years of experience as a safety officer in the air force and in investigating air crashes, said the NTSC will remain professional.

"The investigation team will be separate from the other working staff... so we won't know much."

But leaks can come from other places. When an air accident happens, flight data can also come from other sources like air traffic controllers. It is while the NTSC is trying to secure that data that it could get leaked.

"But once it comes under my end, it is my guarantee that it is secret," he said, adding, "I believe black boxes' data will be more accurate than other data."

Once the final report is ready by around the 10th month, foreign parties will have up to 60 days to comment before it is published within a year of the accident, in line with international standards.

Another 40-man team comprising people of influence, led by former transport minister Jusman Syafii Djamal, will monitor whether recommendations from the report are implemented.

The most complicated crash that Mr Tatang has handled in recent years was the Sukhoi Superjet crash during a demonstration flight in May 2012. The Russian-made plane crashed into Mount Salak, near Bogor in West Java, killing all 45 on board.

It was high-profile not only because the media showed the wreckage strewn over the mountain, but also because it had put the government in an awkward spot as it had orders with the Russian plane-maker.

This time, he has to make sure the large-scale international operation does not hamper recovery nor affect the condition of the evidence.

In the first 15 days after the crash, before the black boxes were found, Mr Tatang had only two hours of sleep daily as he shuttled between the capital Jakarta and Pangkalan Bun, the central Kalimantan town closest to the crash site.

He admits that it is not easy to hear the last words of pilots when they realise they are about to crash, but sometimes he has to hold back his emotions.

"As a human, I have a feeling of sadness... but I have a duty to carry out, and I try not to show how affected I feel," he said.

While he is aware of how the crashes have made air travellers anxious, he said Indonesia's safety record has greatly improved, with the rate of accidents last year only a quarter of what it was in 2007.

"I want Indonesian transportation to be safer than before, so that all those who will use our transportation here will feel safer," he said, on why he has been doing this job at an age when most would have retired.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg