April 13, 2013 10:53 am

Investigators probe Lion Air crash in Bali

BALI, Indonesia – Indonesian investigators on Sunday began working to determine what caused a new Lion Air passenger jet to miss a runway while landing on the resort island of Bali, crashing into the sea without causing any fatalities among the 108 on board.

The National Transportation Safety Committee is examining the wreckage of the Boeing 737-800 that snapped in half before coming to a stop in shallow water near Bali’s airport on Saturday, said Transportation Ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan.

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He said aviation authorities have already removed the plane’s flight data recorder and are now planning to tow the aircraft to a beach. Divers were searching for the cockpit voice recorder located in the tail. Some experts are questioning what could have caused the crash, including whether wind shear may have played a role.

All 101 passengers and seven crew members were safely evacuated from the budget carrier flight coming from Bandung, the capital of West Java province. Some swam from the wreckage while others were plucked from the water by rescuers in rubber boats. Dozens suffered injuries, but most had been released from local hospitals by Sunday.

“I couldn’t wait to land in Bali when the cabin suddenly turned dark. I heard a sound like an explosion and water was coming in,” recalled Irawati, a 60-year-old woman who uses one name like many Indonesians. “I heard people shouting frantically: ‘The plane crashed! Get out! Get out!’ I did not even have the energy to move my body. I was so weak and frightened, and I was asking a flight attendant for help before I passed out.”

She told The Associated Press from her hospital bed that when she regained consciousness, the pilot and co-pilot were putting a life jacket on her and helping her down a rubber ladder. She was then pulled onto a surf board by rescuers. She suffered neck injuries.

Another survivor, Andi Prasetyo, who is now staying at a hotel, said everything appeared fine and there was no warning of any problem.

“The cabin crew had already announced that we would be landing shortly, and I was so excited when I saw the ocean getting closer, but suddenly … it fell,” he said. “I can’t believe that the plane actually landed on the sea, and everything changed to dark. It was full of horrific screaming. None of us remembered about the life jackets under our seats. Everybody rushed to get out of the plane.”

Officials said there were three foreigners on board — two Singaporeans and a French national — all of whom suffered slight injuries.

Authorities initially said the plane overshot the runway before hitting the water, but Lion Air spokesman Edward Sirait later said that the plane crashed about 50 metres (164 feet) ahead of the runway. The weather was cloudy with rain at the time of the incident.

“It apparently failed to reach the runway and fell into the sea,” said Sirait.

He said the Boeing 737-800 Next Generation plane was received by the airline last month and was declared airworthy. The plane had landed in two other cities on Saturday prior to the crash.

Given the aircraft was new, Sydney-based aviation expert Tom Ballantyne said a technical or mechanical problem seems unlikely. He said it was lucky that the plane landed flat in shallow water rather than nosediving or hitting deep water where it could have quickly been submerged.

“I’m surprised. The airplane split in two upon impact,” he said, estimating it was likely travelling close to 300 mph. “It was coming into land and hit the water very hard. It’s a miracle nobody was killed.”

The pilot was experienced, logging 10,000 flying hours, Sirait said. It was unclear whether human error may have played a role in the accident. However, Indonesian aviation analyst Ruth Simatupang, a former investigator at the National Safety Transportation Committee, suspects some sort of miscalculation involving the landing.

“Something was obviously wrong with the pilot, and wind shear is a possibility that could lead to an unstable approach,” she said. Sudden changes in wind speed or direction, known as wind shear, can lift or smash aircraft into the ground during landing.

The pilots will be grounded for two weeks for tests to ensure they were healthy during the flight and for questioning by investigators. They have also undergone alcohol and drug testing, and the preliminary results were negative, Herry Bakti Gumay, a Transportation Ministry official, told a news conference Sunday. Five pilots from Lion Air have been arrested for illicit drug use in the past two years.

Rapidly expanding Lion Air is Indonesia’s top discount carrier, holding about a 45 per cent market share in the country, a sprawling archipelago of 240 million people that’s seeing a boom in both economic growth and air travel. The airline has been involved in six accidents since 2002, four of them involving Boeing 737s and one resulting in 25 deaths, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s website.

Lion Air is currently banned from flying to Europe due to broader safety lapses in the Indonesian airline industry that have long plagued the country. Last year, a Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet-100 slammed into a volcano during a demonstration flight, killing all 45 people on board.

Indonesia is one of Asia’s most rapidly expanding airline markets, but is struggling to provide qualified pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and updated airport technology to ensure safety.

Lion Air, which started flying in 2000, signed a $24 billion deal last month to buy 234 Airbus planes, the biggest order ever for the French aircraft maker. It also gave Boeing its largest-ever order when it finalized a deal for 230 planes last year. The aircraft will be delivered from 2014 to 2026 as the airline positions itself to take on AirAsia, which dominates budget travel in the region.

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Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia along with Associated Press writer Margie Mason, who contributed to this report.

© The Canadian Press, 2013

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