The Fate of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182: A Reminder of Aviation Safety
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The Fate of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182: A Reminder of Aviation Safety

In early January 2021, yet another deadly airline accident captured the headlines — it was reported that Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 dropped by 10,000 sq. ft. in under a minute shortly after takeoff and then dropped off the radar, ultimately crashing in the Java Sea near Laki Island, killing all 62 onboard.

The crash of the Boeing 737-500 with registration PK-CLC (MSN 27323) was the latest accident in a long history of fatal plane accidents involving an Indonesian airline. Indonesia is still struggling to fully recover from its longstanding reputation for subpar aviation safety. Meanwhile, Boeing has been under the microscope in recent years for numerous deadly accidents, in Indonesia and elsewhere, involving its aircraft.

While the investigation is still ongoing and officials cannot yet say with certainty what caused the accident, we do know now that the 26-year-old Sriwijaya Air jet had an imbalance in its engine thrust, which helps explain the plane’s sharp turn to the side and subsequent nosedive.

While authorities continue their investigation of the Sriwijaya Air plane crash in Indonesia, this accident serves as a sobering reminder that serious aviation safety issues prevail, calling for greater scrutiny at all levels within the industry, from regulatory agencies to aircraft manufacturers to pilots and beyond.

As an attorney and bioengineer who has litigated and assisted with hundreds of aviation cases worldwide, including lawsuits against The Boeing Company, I can attest that there is still much work that needs to be done to keep passengers and flight professionals safe. It’s essential that we hold all at-fault parties accountable to achieve justice for victims, learn from past mistakes, and create safer airways in the future.

The Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 crash is another opportunity to identify and correct poor safety practices within the industry.

On January 9, 2021, Flight 182 was scheduled to depart from Pangkal Pinang Depati Amir Airport in Jakarta, but it was delayed by over an hour due to bad weather. After weather conditions improved, the plane took off en route to Pontianak.

The investigation has revealed that Flight 182 was climbing at 13,000 ft. (4,000 m.) when it started to turn uncontrollably and enter into a nosedive. An air traffic controller (ATC) noticed this and asked the pilots what was happening onboard, but they received no response. The aircraft then experienced a rapid drop in altitude during the climb phase from 10,900 ft (3,300 m) to 7,650 ft (2,330 m). Four minutes after takeoff, Flightradar24 reported that the aircraft dropped by 10,000 ft. (3,000 m.) in less than a minute. During the fall, the plane rapidly changed speeds, decreasing and then increasing in a matter of seconds.

The autothrottle system, also known as an auto thrust system, is a complex system that allows the pilot to choose a desired speed or flight characteristic without having to simultaneously control the thrust (or fuel intake). One problem that sometimes occurs is one engine will produce more thrust than the other engine, which can cause the airplane to turn on its side, roll, or cause it to take a deep dive. This type of flight behavior is consistent with what we see in the Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 crash and others that involved Boeing planes.

After the Flight 182 crash, investigators stated that the left engine throttle lever moved back as intended while the right lever was seemingly stuck in place, throwing off the plane’s balance. Maintenance logs showed that there were two problems with the plane’s autothrottle system, but those issues were resolved four days before the flight.

There are many reasons why the autothrottle system could malfunction, including the failure of other systems that the autothrottle system relies on. For example, if there is a malfunctioning airspeed indicator, then that will cause the throttle to adjust to the faulty airspeed instead of the true airspeed. The failure of just one of these many components can lead to a malfunction of the autothrottle system. Indeed, it could have been that the left engine was performing as designed and something caused the right engine throttle to decrease. 

While we now have further insight into how the plane went down and a little more clarity into why it went down (a malfunctioning throttle), there is still more information that needs to be uncovered to fully understand the cause of this horrendous plane accident. There could have also been additional component or system failures, as well as human error. If the cockpit’s voice recorder (CVR) is ever recovered, this could add significantly to the crash analysis.

The Indonesian airline industry has a mixed history when it comes to aviation safety. Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 marks the third major Indonesian airline crash in the past six years. And prior to the crash, there were 697 aviation accident-related deaths within the past decade, which has led to Indonesia ranking as the deadliest aviation market in the world.

In 2007, a Garuda Indonesia plane crash killed 21 people when the Boeing 737-400 overshot the runway and burst into flames. Following this incident as well as a series of other accidents and reports of insufficient aircraft maintenance over the years, the European Union (EU) blacklisted all of Indonesia’s airlines, which lasted until 2018. The United States implemented a similar ban when it lowered Indonesia’s aviation safety rating from Category 1 to Category 2 from 2007 to 2016.

One of the more recent Indonesia plane crashes to capture headlines was Lion Air Flight 610, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 that crashed into the Java Sea in 2018, leading to a casualty count of 189. 

There were also many other serious crashes. In 2014, 162 people died on AirAsia Flight 8501, an Airbus A320, when it crashed into the Java Sea. Additionally, in 2013, two Lion Air Boeing 737 planes crashed, with one plane hitting a cow during landing at an airport and the other crashing into the sea near Bali.

So, why has Indonesia struggled to such lengths with its aviation safety? There are many possible explanations, including the region’s geography (the country consists of a chain of islands that requires a greater level of air travel), economics (the area has a heavy reliance on low-cost air carriers), and lax regulation within the aviation’s industry in the past. While regulatory and safety practices have improved more recently, the Sriwijaya Air crash plane crash demonstrates that there is still room for further improvement.

Yes, it’s important to look beyond regional factors and also consider where external factors may have been at play.

While not all Indonesian aviation accidents involved Boeing planes, defects and other avoidable errors involving these aircraft do appear to be a recurring theme in the devastation that has rocked this region.

One of the most egregious examples of negligence was from the Lion Air Flight 610 crash. In a rush to design and certify a plane that would rival Airbus’ new A320 neo line of planes, Boeing pressured the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to approve in record time the design and certification process of its 737 MAX 8 planes, which were 737 planes that were slightly bigger, with larger engines that produced much more thrust.

Because this additional thrust caused the MAX 8 to have a tendency to “nose up” during takeoff, Boeing installed a flight-critical system that would “correct” by abruptly lowering the nose. Because Boeing made representations that additional simulator training would not be necessary if its customers bought a MAX 8, it purposely concealed the system, leaving pilots and operators in the dark and completely surprised and powerless when the system activated. 

Both Lion Air Flight 610 and (five months later) Ethiopia Air Flight 302 crashed when the secret system was activated shortly after takeoff, stunning the flight crews and killing all on board. I had the honor of representing families of victims on the Ethiopian Air flight, and the conduct of Boeing and its far reach at the FAA was fully explored and called out, as this plane was nowhere close to ready for flight when it was certified by the FAA. 

On January 8, 2021, one day prior to the disappearance of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182, Boeing conceded to pay a fine of more than $2.5 billion in order to settle criminal charges brought against the company for its liability in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents.

Aviation safety centers around the premise of redundancy. That means that flight-critical parts and systems should have, at least, a secondary layer of protection in case the part fails in some way.

The airliners involved in the Indonesian mishaps over the years are sophisticated, and it takes a lot to make them crash, as there are many secondary fail-safe measures in place should a part fail or malfunction. Planes are designed to fix the mistakes made by human pilots (who are prone to making mistakes) and, similarly, pilots are trained to “take over” the plane and fly it should a flight-critical system fail. 

In order for the Indonesian airlines to regain the trust of the traveling public, there must be a commitment to go above and beyond in training its pilots and maintaining its planes. Up until now, even if there was a mechanical failure or defect, the seeming inability and unpreparedness of the flight crews in the region to deal with the incident at hand was the major reason that those mishaps occurred.

Flight crews need to be prepared to deal with any scenario thrown at them, without even batting an eye. This requires much more training of the flight crews in the region. The additional investment will pay off in spades. 

 

Ilyas Akbari is a senior partner and bioengineer at Wilshire Law Firm. As the director of the firm’s aviation litigation team, Ilyas fights to protect those who have lost loved ones or suffered catastrophic injuries in avoidable aviation accidents. Ilyas has assisted clients in more than 200 aviation cases since 2005, which include some of the deadliest airplane and helicopter crashes worldwide. He has handled and assisted with litigation against every major aircraft manufacturer (including The Boeing Company), airline, and aviation insurance company. Ilyas serves as Plaintiff Vice-Chair to the Aviation and Space Law General Committee of the American Bar Association, and he is the Editor of the ABA Aviation and Space Law Committee Newsletter for 2020-2021. Ilyas is a member of the Aviation Trial Lawyers Association: Top 10. He is also a Fellow in the Litigation Counsel of America, and he has been recognized by Best Lawyers in America® in the Plaintiffs Product Liability Litigation category since 2016. Southern California Super Lawyers®has listed Ilyas as a top-rated Aviation & Aerospace attorney since 2007. Due to his extensive knowledge and experience as an aviation litigator and bioengineer, Ilyas is often asked to assist with the most challenging aircraft accident cases, and he is invited to speak at conferences and conventions all across the globe.

 

Suggested citation: Ilyas Akbari, The Fate of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182: A Reminder of Aviation Safety, JURIST – Professional Commentary, February 24, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/02/ilyas-akbari-sriwijaya-182-aviation-safety/.


This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org.


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