Here's What We've Learned in the Two Weeks Since the Lion Air Plane Crash

There are still so many unanswered questions.

Nov 15 2018, 9:35pm

Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

It's been two weeks since Lion Air Flight JT-610 crashed into the sea off the coast of West Java with 189 on board and investigators are still trying to figure out what went wrong. Search crews found the plane's black box and broken fuselage early on, but the cockpit voice recorder—the one thing that could provide air crash investigators with vital clues as to what happened here—is still missing.

So there are 103 victims who still remain unidentified or unrecovered. The National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) called off the search on November 10, explaining that its divers and search vessels were no longer recovering new bodies or identifiable items, like jewelry, in the sea or on the coast.

Efforts to identify the deceased from the remains that were recovered from the crash site are still ongoing. Search teams found enough of the passengers to already identify 64 men and 21 women who were onboard the ill-fated flight. But medical examiners are being realistic about the mounting hurdle that time presents when it comes to identifying new victims this late into the search.

"They're rotting," said Lisda Cancer, the head of the police disaster victims' identification team. "That's what happens when they're underwater for so long."

Here's everything else that's happened since the October 29 crash:

Boeing is in the hot seat

Lion Air was using a newly purchased Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane, one that's supposed to be more fuel efficient and is therefore pretty popular among low-cost carriers like Lion Air, which ordered eight of them from the US aircraft manufacturing company.

But this variant of the 737 had a new safety feature that, according to the Wall Street Journal, few pilots were informed of before the Lion Air crash. According to that report, the 737 Max 8 had a previously unknown feature to help prevent pilots from pitching the nose too high and stalling the plane. When the Max 8 detected this, it could over-ride control and point the nose back down to prevent a stall.

But when things go wrong, like when it receives inaccurate readings from a faulty sensor, then the same safety system could also send the plane into a sudden nosedive. Most pilots would have no idea how to correct this. Boeing later issued an updated explanation on the feature, but at the time of the crash, pilots in Indonesia couldn't have known how to correct the potentially fatal issue because, according to Reuters, it wasn't in the flight manual.

The flight's sudden and speedy descent likely points to an issue that arose in a matter of moments and quickly overwhelmed the two pilots. The pilots would need to have diagnosed the problem and regained control of the aircraft by either putting their feet on the instrument panel and pulling back on the yoke with all they had or completing a four-step process to over-ride the autopilot in a matter of mere seconds, according to the New York Times.

Lion Air is also under renewed scrutiny

While early reports indicate that something was off with Boeing's Max 8 aircraft, there's also suspicion that Lion Air ground crews cleared a plane to fly when it was clearly malfunctioning. This same plane had inaccurate air speed readings four other times before the crash, according to logs seen by the BBC.

Earlier that same day, according to one passenger aboard a from Bali to Jakarta, the plane seemed to suffer from engine problems.

"About three- to-eight minutes after it took off, I felt like the plane was losing power and unable to rise," Alon Soetanto, a passenger, told TVOne. "That happened several times during the flight. We felt like we were in a roller coaster. Some passengers began to panic and vomit."

The plane's final flight suffered from similar issues as well.

"We found a malfunction in an air speed indicator instrument in the last four flights, including the crash flight," Nurcahyo Utomo, a captain with the National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT), told CNN. "We ask NTSB and Boeing to work on this to prevent the same accident from happening in the future."

Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

There's a number of reasons why an airspeed sensor could malfunction, including a build-up of ice. And if Lion Air is found negligent in its handling of a known problem, it could face additional sanctions. The airline has a less-than-sterling safety record already—there have been a reported 14 incidents since 2002, including a plane that missed the runway in Bali and landed belly-down in the sea.

Indonesia's Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi already warned that Lion Air could face penalties if it is found to be responsible, in any way, for the fatal crash. The sanctions could impact everyone from the board of directors down to the cabin and grounds crew, the minister said.

The airline's director for maintenance and the engineer, the same person who cleared Flight JT-610 for takeoff, has already been suspended from his post. Investigators are also looking into maintenance logs for that plane, and others, to see if any other issues happened, but were ignored instead.

The cockpit voice recorder is still missing

So much of this investigation depends on finding the cockpit voice recorder. But the thing is, this plane hit likely the water at more than 640 kph [398mph], colliding with such force that it ripped the aircraft apart. The black box was found about 30 meters [98 feet] down after it was ripped from its protective housing more than two weeks ago. It was damaged pretty badly in the accident, but the internal memory was still in-tact.

But the cockpit voice recorder is proving to be more elusive. Indonesia search teams, with the help of the navy and the police, have brought in remote-operated vehicles to search the seabed for the recorder, which they believe might be buried.

"We’ll try sub-bottom profiling to search the objects beneath the mud," Soerjanto Tjahjono, Head of the National Transportation Safety Commission (NTSC), told "Hopefully, this device can detect where the... CVR is buried. Let’s hope we can find it soon."

The recorder, an audio log of what's being said in the cockpit during the moments leading up to a crash, is always a vital part of any air crash investigation. The search is ongoing.

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