Indonesia Sriwijaya air crash search suspended due to bad weather

Indonesian Navy personnel move a plastic container carrying a black box of the crashed Sriwijaya Air plane on Jan 12, 2021.
Indonesian Navy personnel move a plastic container carrying a black box of the crashed Sriwijaya Air plane on Jan 12, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - The search for one of the black boxes from the Sriwijaya Air passenger jet that crashed in the Java Sea last Saturday (Jan 9) has been suspended due to bad weather, Indonesian officials said.

Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 plunged into the sea with 62 people on board shortly after taking off from Jakarta at 2.36pm. Rescue workers have been bringing human remains and plane parts ashore for identification. The jet's flight-data recorder was retrieved on Tuesday, but the other black box that captures pilot communications and sounds from the cockpit has not been recovered.

"The weather is still not conducive, so operations that are focused on underwater haven't been carried out for the safety of the divers," director of the National Search and Rescue Agency Bambang Suryo Aji, said during a televised briefing. The locator beacons on both boxes were dislodged by the force of impact.

The retrieved flight-data recorder is "in relatively good shape", Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee Chairman Soerjanto Tjahjono said.

The box is being dried out and the contents should be downloaded within five days, he said.

The plane was a Boeing 737-500. It had been in storage due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced airlines around the world to park away aircraft due to a lack of flying demand.

In Indonesia, which has about 850,000 Covid-19 cases and just had its deadliest day of the outbreak, available seat capacity on domestic airline routes is 32 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, according to OAG Aviation Worldwide.

Data from FlightRadar24 show the jet was first flown again commercially on Dec 20, on the same route it was taking last Saturday, its fifth trip of the day. Flight 182 was headed to Pontianak on the island of Borneo. Four minutes after take-off, air-traffic controllers noticed it wasn't on its assigned track and radioed the crew. Within seconds, the aircraft disappeared from radar.

The US National Transportation Safety Board is sending a lead investigator and three technical experts to assist the Indonesian government's probe into the crash. They will be joined by representatives of Boeing, General Electric (GE) and the US Federal Aviation Administration, the NTSB said in a statement.

GE is part of the CFM International consortium that made the plane's engines. Air-accident investigations are run by the country where the crash occurred, but investigators from the nation where the plane and its components were built can participate.

Black boxes help reveal what happened in air crashes as they capture sound in the cockpit and monitor flight data. The aircraft in this instance was a nearly 27-year-old 737-500, not the much newer Boeing 737 Max. The Max was grounded globally after two crashes, including a Lion Air flight in October 2018 that also plummeted into the Java Sea.

While black boxes that have been submerged require special handling to dry out electronic components, and they may have suffered damage in the high-speed impact, there is a 99 per cent chance that investigators will be able to retrieve data from them, said Mr James Cash, who was the NTSB's specialist on the devices before retiring.

Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 plunged more than 3,000m in a matter of seconds shortly after take-off. The flight was delayed for 56 minutes, according to FlightRadar24, as heavy rain lashed the Indonesian capital.

Soekarno-Hatta International Airport's official weather report about 10 minutes before the afternoon crash said there was light rain with a cloud ceiling starting at about 550m.

Weather has been a factor in several crashes in Indonesia, one of the world's fastest-growing aviation markets. It also has one of the worst safety records. Another crash in the Java Sea occurred in December 2014: an AirAsia jet with 162 people on board. Still, both pilots of the Sriwijaya Air flight were experienced and the carrier has a solid safety record.

The Indonesian government will grant the representatives from the NTSB, FAA, GE and Boeing a waiver allowing them to enter the country during its coronavirus-related travel ban, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday. The restrictions state foreigners are barred from entering the country before Jan 28.