A brief history of Lion Air’s safety incidents

The US and the European Union once banned Lion Air aircraft from their skies. Source: ADEK BERRY / AFP.

SHORTLY after takeoff yesterday, Jakarta air traffic controllers announced they had lost contact with Lion Air Flight JT610.

The flight was en route to Pangkalpinang in Bangka Belitung from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Banten.

Within an hour, reports started trickling in that JT610, which was carrying 189 people on board had plunged into the waters seven nautical miles (12.96 kilometers) north off the coast Karawang, West Java.

Flight data from real-time flight tracker Flightradar24 showed that it made a sudden, sharp dive into the sea.

The search and rescue mission was immediately rolled out, with Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) calling for non-stop efforts, 24 hours per day.

More than a hundred National Search and Rescue Agency Republic of Indonesia (Basarnas) personnel have been deployed to retrieve debris, personal items, and human remains from the crash site.

Lion Air Flight JT610 flew on a three-month-old Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, Boeing’s new model that was launched globally only last year.

“The 737 MAX series is the fastest-selling plane in its history, and has accumulated almost 4,700 orders,” BBC reported. Other airlines that have ordered the Boeing 737 Max 8 include American Airlines, United Airlines, Norwegian, and FlyDubai.

In a press release dated July 31, 2017, Lion Air has said it was “very proud” to be the first in Indonesia to deploy the plane. In fact, the airline group had ordered as many as 218 units of the Boeing 737 Max 8 and is currently operating 11 of the Boeing planes.

The Lion Air Flight JT610 jet commenced operations under the Indonesian low-cost airline on Aug 15, 2018, and had clocked only 800 flight hours.

This raised questions of how a new plane could crash.

Before the crash, the plane had some technical problems before takeoff from Bali’s Denpasar Airport to Jakarta.

BBC obtained a technical log for the Bali-Jakarta flight which suggested that the airspeed reading on the captain’s instrument was unreliable, and the altitude readings differed on the captain’s and first officer’s instruments.

However, it was “resolved according to procedure” and cleared to fly.

During the ill-fated Jakarta-Pangkalpinang flight, the pilot is reported to have radioed air traffic control asking for permission to turn back. Air traffic control lost contact with the pilots after approving the request.

It is not immediately known why the pilot had asked to turn back.

The Lion Air Flight JT610 incident shone a light on the airline’s past incidents in its nearly 20-year history, which resulted in the US and the European Union banning Lion Air aircraft from their skies in 2007.

The ban was just lifted by the Federal Aviation Administration in August 2016.

In a few past incidents, a Lion Air aircraft either crashed at takeoff or during landing. This happened in January 2002, March 2006December 2006, and February 2014, all without fatalities.

One of its most high profile cases which involved deaths happened on Nov 30, 2004, when Lion Air Flight 538 crashed in Surakarta and killed 25 people onboard.

And in an April 2013 incident, Lion Air Flight 904 crashed into the water near in Bali while attempting to land. The aircraft’s fuselage broke into two parts, and all 108 passengers and crew were evacuated from the aircraft.

Meanwhile, divers, sonar vessels and an underwater drone are currently searching the site, and Indonesian investigators are focused on retrieving the black box, comprising the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.

Lion Air chief executive Edward Sirait said he had no plans to ground the rest of Lion Air’s Boeing 737 Max 8 fleet.