Indonesia air crash: Human remains found, black boxes located; plane was 'airworthy'

The Boeing 737-500 flown by Sriwijaya Air is believed to have dropped more than 10,000 feet in less than a minute before vanishing from the radar

Indonesia air crash: Human remains found, black boxes located; plane was 'airworthy'
Divers of Basarnas searching for the crashed Sriwijaya Air plane. Image courtesy: Twitter/@SAR_NASIONAL

Indonesian authorities said on Sunday (January 10) that human remains and aircraft wreckage were recovered from the Java Sea, which by and large confirmed that Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182 carrying 62 people that went missing on Saturday (January 9) had crashed.

Later in the day, Indonesia National Transport Safety Committee chief Soerjanto Tjahjono said that the locations of the two black boxes of the plane have been identified, according to a Reuters report. Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto hoped the boxes can be retrieved soon. 

The crash site was identified by the Indonesian National Armed Forces and Navy divers on Sunday morning, CNN reported. A military vessel found the signal from the crashed aircraft and parts of the plane were recovered from 23 m (75 feet) under the sea, Indonesia's transport ministry said, citing Tjahjanto.

According to Tjahjanto, the signal detected by the Rigel navy ship, which is equipped with a remote-controlled vehicle, matches the coordinates from the last contact made by the pilots of the ill-fated plane before it went off the radar, AP reported. Tjahjanto was confident that the recovered debris belonged to the crashed plane. However, the ministry did not specify if the signal was emanating from the plane's black box.  

Basarnas divers and the Rigel navy ship searching for the crashed Sriwijaya Air plane. Image courtesy: Twitter/@SAR_NASIONAL

About 30 ships, five helicopters and two aeroplanes were deployed in a joint search and rescue operation by the Indonesian Navy, police, Coast Guard and transportation ministry. The operation is focusing on an area between the Laki and Lancang islands, known as the Thousands Islands chain, about 20 miles (32.18 km) northwest of the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

The Navy had deployed 10 ships in the surrounding waters off Laki Island. The search and rescue, however, was hampered overnight by bad weather and poor visibility, according to the country's national search and rescue agency Basarnas.  

Also read: Indonesian plane with 62 people falls 10,000 feet in a minute, feared crashed

According to the police, two body bags -- one containing human remains and another with the belongings of the passengers -- were received. Pieces of debris found by divers are the same colour as the Sriwijaya Air jet. A plane registration number, wheels from the landing gear and life vests have also been found, Tjahjanto said.

A nearly 27-year-old Boeing 737-500 flown by Sriwijaya Air -- Indonesia's third-largest airline -- disappeared from the radar a few minutes after takeoff on Saturday. The plane, which was flying from Jakarta to Pontianak in Borneo island, dropped more than 10,000 feet in less than a minute, according to flight-tracking service Flightradar24. The plane was carrying 50 passengers, including seven children and three infants, and 12 crew members.   

The plane had lost contact at 2.40 pm local time 11 nautical miles (around 20 km) north of Jakarta's Soekarno--Hatta International Airport amid heavy rain, CNN reported.

Residents of Thousands Islands had informed about hearing "two explosions", according to CNN Indonesia. Fishermen said that they found debris, including aircraft fuselage, in the area. Indonesian media showed photos of the suspected wreckage of the plane, while a security officer informed CNN Indonesia about discovering "some cables, a piece of jeans and pieces of metal on the water".   

According to a fisherman, there was a very loud explosion, which seemed like a bomb or a giant thunder. This was followed by a large wave about two metres high in the sea. Another witness agreed that it seemed like a bomb on water, adding that shards of a kind of plywood almost hit their ship. It was raining and dark and they did not see the plane crash per se, but smelled fuel and spotted debris. 

The cause of the crash is yet to be known. National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) has begun its probe into the accident. A command post has been set up at the Kramat Jati Police Hospital in Jakarta to identify the crash victims and search for family members, Jakarta Police spokesperson Yusri Yunus told CNN. 

Also read: Aviation deaths increase in 2020 even as fatal incidents, flights fall

Images from the airport showed relatives of the passengers in tears, as they waited anxiously for what had happened to their loved ones. 

"We will do our best to find and save the victims, and together, let's pray that they can be found," Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his "sincere condolences" following the crash, TASS reported. 

"Deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the unfortunate plane crash in Indonesia. India stands with Indonesia in this hour of grief," Prime Minister Narendra  Modi tweeted. 

Adding to the woes of the passengers, the Flight SJ182 was already delayed. It disappeared from the radar after the pilot contacted air traffic control (ATC) for climbing to an altitude of 29,000 feet, according to Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi. 

Sriwijaya Air President Director Jefferson Irwin Jauwena, however, said that the plane was airworthy and had flown to Pontianak and Pangkal Pinang city on the same day. He added that the aircraft was previously used by airlines in the US as well. 

However, according to experts, planes such as the leased Boeing 737-500 used by Sriwijaya Air are being phased out in favour of newer, more fuel-efficient models, Reuters said. Civil jets typically have an economic lifespan of 25 years, which means that after that they become too expensive to operate as compared to younger aircraft, which are built to last longer.  

The Sriwijaya Air crash adds to Indonesia's disappointing record in terms of transportation accidents. Indonesia, which is the world's largest archipelago nation, houses more than 260 million people. Transportation accidents on land, air and sea have continued to happen as a result of overcrowding on ferries, age-old infrastructure and poorly-enforced safety standards, according to an AP report. 

This comes after the Lion Air crash in October 2018, which saw a Boeing 737 Max crashing into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people onboard. It was the deadliest involving Boeing 737 planes and the second deadliest in Indonesia after the Garuda Indonesia crash in 1997 that killed 234 people. In December 2014, an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore crashed into the sea, killing 162 people. The Sriwijaya crash makes it eight air crashes in Indonesia in the new millennium, with a death toll of 960.  

The US had banned Indonesia carriers in 2007. It reversed the decision in 2016, saying that compliance with international aviation standards had improved. In 2017, the European Union (EU) banned all 51 Indonesian carriers after a Garuda Indonesia plane overshot the runway in Yogyakarta, killing 21 out of the 140 people onboard. The EU ban was lifted in 2018. 

According to Reuters, the Boeing 737-500 is much older than the problem-plagued B737 Max and is two generations of development before the Max.

The Boeing 737-500 operated by Sriwijaya Air was nearly 27-years-old, but was said to be in good condition. Image courtesy: Twitter/@flightradar24/Panji Anggoro

However, the Sriwijaya Boeing 737-500 that crashed did not have the controversial Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that led to the B737 Max accidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines within a space of a few months in 2018-19. The Boeing 737 is the world's most widely-sold family of aircraft and has seen several makeovers since entering service in 1968. 

The Jakarta-based Sriwijaya Air, founded in 2003, largely operates withing Indonesia and has had a strong safety record. There were no onboard casualties in four incidents recorded on the Aviation Safety Network database, though a person was killed when a plane left the runway in 2008, the Reuters report said.   

Boeing had manufactured 389 of the B737-500 aircraft but had subsequently stopped producing them. As many as 100 such planes remain in service with smaller airlines around the world in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Russia and Ukraine, according to tracking website Planespotters.net, The New York Times reported. 

Among the crashes involving the B737 series planes last year, was a Boeing 737-800 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines that was shot down by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport in January, killing all 176 people onboard died; an Air India Express B737-800 skidding off the edge of a tabletop runway at the Calicut International Airport and falling into a deep valley in August, killing around 20 people; and Pegasus Airlines B737-800 skidding off the runway at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in February, killing three people.

According to a recent report by the Dutch aviation consulting firm To70, the number of people killed in large commercial aeroplane crashes rose in 2020 to 299 worldwide, even as the number of crashes fell by more than 50%.