Pilot made distress call on doomed Indonesian jet’s previous flight
Jakarta — The pilot of a Lion Air flight from Indonesia’s Bali island made a distress call on Sunday minutes after take-off due to technical problems, but they were overcome and he pushed on to Jakarta. The same jet crashed on another flight hours later, killing all 189 people on board.
Herson, chief of the airport authority for the Bali-Nusa Tenggara area, said that after the call, the pilot updated the control tower to say that the aircraft was flying normally and he would not return to the airport as requested.
“The captain himself was confident enough to fly to Jakarta from Denpasar,” said Herson, who goes by one name, referring to the resort island’s airport.
The pilot of another aircraft that was approaching Bali just after the Lion Air jet had taken off said he was ordered to circle above the airport and listened in to a radio conversation between the Lion Air pilot and air traffic controllers.
“Because of the Pan-Pan call, we were told to hold off, circling the airport in the air,” said the pilot, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“The Lion plane requested to return back to Bali five minutes after take-off, but then the pilot said the problem had been resolved and he was going to go ahead to Jakarta.”
Pilots use ‘Pan-Pan’ calls to flag urgent situations. They are a step down from ‘Mayday’, which signals severe distress.
The Denpasar-Jakarta flight landed at the Indonesian capital's airport at 10.55pm local time (5.55pm SA time) on Sunday.
The same Boeing 737 MAX jet took off at 6.20am the next morning, bound for Bangka island, off Sumatra, and plunged into the sea 13 minutes later. Just before the crash, the pilot had made a request to return to base.
A Lion Air spokesperson declined to comment when asked about the distress call on the earlier flight, citing the ongoing crash investigation.
The budget airline’s CEO, Edward Sirait, said earlier this week that a technical problem occurred on the Denpasar-Jakarta flight but it was resolved “according to procedure”.
Amid media speculation over the airworthiness of the aircraft, the transport minister suspended Lion Air’s technical director and three other officers on Wednesday to facilitate the crash investigation.
The suspended technicians “issued the recommendations for that [final] flight”, the ministry said in a media release. It did not say how many technicians were suspended.
During its earlier flight from Bali on Sunday, JT43, the aircraft flew erratically and its airspeed readings were unreliable, according to an accident investigator and a flight-tracking website.
According to data from FlightRadar24, the jet displayed unusual variations in altitude and airspeed in the first several minutes of flight —including an 875-foot drop over 27 seconds when it would normally be ascending — before stabilising and flying on to Jakarta.
However, the pilots kept the aircraft at a maximum altitude of 28,000 feet compared with 36,000 feet on the same route earlier in the week.
National Transport Safety Committee (NTSC) deputy chief Haryo Satmikosaid on Tuesday there were technical problems on the flight, including unreliable airspeed readings.
Divers retrieved a flight data recorder on Thursday from the aircraft that lay shattered on the muddy seafloor off the coast of Jakarta. The NTSC said it will examine the device to get a clearer picture of what happened on the flight from Bali on Sunday in addition to the flight that crashed on Monday.
Herson said the aircraft encountered a “speed and altimeter” problem but the captain was confident that it was airworthy and pressed on.
“He requested to return to the airport for RTB [return to base] but … they updated and flew to Jakarta. The pilot double-checked to ensure that they could fly,” he said.
Two passengers from Sunday’s flight posted on Instagram, reporting that they were concerned about problems with the air-conditioning system and cabin lighting before the aircraft left Bali nearly three hours late.
Another passenger on JT43 described, in a talk show broadcast by Indonesia’s TVOne, a turbulent flight during which the seatbelt signs were never turned off.
“When the plane took off, it climbed and then went down. It rose again, and then dropped again violently, shaking,” said Diah Mardani. “Everyone in the plane shouted ‘Allahu Akbar! [God is Greatest], Subhanallah [Glory to God]!’ We recited every prayer we knew.”