Sriwijaya Air crash: Search for cockpit voice recorder underway; aviation expert highlights importance of aircraft safety maintenance

Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency has extended the evacuation for three days

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The search operation for the Sriwijaya Air aircraft involved in a recent crash has been terminated after several considerations including technical issues after numerous meetings with victims’ families, Indonesia’s National Agency for Search and Rescue (Basarnas) announced on Thursday (21 January).

The aircraft, which went by flight number SJ 182, lost contact during the Jakarta-Pontianak flight on 9 January. It was then discovered in the waters off Laki Island, Thousand Island District.

The National Police’s Disaster Victims Identification (DVI) team has so far identified 47 passengers as of Friday (22 January). The remaining 15 have yet to be identified.

The Basarnas has discovered the plane’s flight data recorded (FDR) while the search for the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is still underway.

“If the black boxes are not badly damaged, the data can be released in 15 days. Boeing will be careful about this, and they won’t point fingers and blame anybody, especially the pilot,” Ken Qualls, a pilot with more than five decades of flying experience, told TOC on 14 January, adding that it may take a week to dry out the devices as they were under the sea.

The FDR shows everything on the airplane, such as flight path, trajectory and the engines, he added. In comparison, the CVR records the conversation inside the cockpit.

Nothing wrong with the aircraft itself: Veteran pilot 

Some speculations on the cause of the crash are circulating online, ranging from the ageing fleet to the bad weather.

Qualls preferred not to speculate on the incident unless the black box was found.

He also said that the Boeing 737 Max is the safest aircraft model — meaning the latest crash had nothing to do with the type of the aircraft.

“What people need to know is that the latest Sriwijaya incident has nothing to do with the 737 Max,” Qualls said, adding that he had flown the aeroplane many times.

He added that he hates to speculate, but multiple factors could cause the accident, from maintenance to engine failure or weather.

Qualls explained that the 737 has experienced several changes with new engines around eight or nine times.

The 737-500, he added, uses a fan engine and the plane is not meant to accommodate large numbers of passengers.

However, all types of the 737 have something in common: They have a faster landing speed compared to other kinds of aircraft.

“The 737 is prone to slipping if the runway is wet. It can be dangerous if a pilot is not aware of it,” the air safety auditor explained.

Maintenance is mandatory

Qualls highlighted a lack of flying time due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced airline companies to halt their operation as an important factor that cannot be overlooked.

Many airlines have suffered financial problems as the impact of the pandemic, forcing them to think about how to survive during the hardest period.

“They reduce spending that can’t be seen. They put their money into advertising before they put money into maintenance,” Qualls explained.

“For example, if a plane is grounded for about five months, every plane manufacturer — in this case, Boeing — has a direction on what it is supposed to do.

“Basically, the aeroplane should be run and started, the system should be operated every two weeks at the minimum,” Qualls added, stressing that components in the control system such as cables, rubbers, need to have an adequate supply of fluid to maintain their elasticity.

He described that two inspections are vital, based on flying time and calendar time. The former is based on the plane’s flying hours while the latter is based on a certain schedule set.

“A 12-month inspection is mandatory for an ageing aeroplane,” he said.

Air safety in Indonesia: What needs to be done

The last two air crashes — the Lion Air JT-610 in 2018 and the Sriwijaya 182 this month — gained international attention. Indonesia improved its reputation as one of the countries that comply with the global aviation safety regulation based on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assessment in 2016.

The government must take action to improve air safety. For example, it must go back to the Aviation Law No.1/2009, which requires airline companies to report their monthly operational activities.

However, Article 118 in the Creation Law No.11/2020 removed that obligation, an editorial piece in Tempo newspaper highlighted.

An ageing aeroplane’s operation is another headache, even though an airline can operate ageing fleet if the maintenance meets the standard. The doomed Sriwijaya SJ-182 was a 26-year old Boeing 737-500.

“Air safety is the world’s responsibility … We can tell what should be done and what to do to improve aircraft safety,” Qualls wrapped up the interview.

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