Lion Air plane not airworthy before fatal crash, investigators say

Parts of an engine of the Lion Air Flight JT610 recovered from the sea during search operations in the Java Sea on Nov 3. Flight recorder data showed that the plane's nose was forced down by an automated anti-stall system meant to protect the plane

"The plane was no longer airworthy and it should not have kept flying", Nurcahyo Utomo, an investigator at KNKT, told the media, as Channel News Asia reports.

However according to an investigation by Indonesia's national transport committee (KNKT) the flight suffered the same technical issues the day before it crashed, and was not fit to fly.

Sensors that measure speed were flushed and checked, and an electrical plug was cleaned before the fatal flight. In fact, before the penultimate flight, engineers had replaced one of the angle-of-attack sensors.

But officials cited multiple factors centered on faulty sensors and an automatic safety system that repeatedly forced the plane's nose down despite the pilots' efforts to correct the problem. Pilots on that route, however, were able to turn off the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), and guide the plane to safety.

It also said the plane's "stick shaker" - the steering-wheel like handles in front of the pilots that vibrates to warn of a system malfunction - was "activated and continued for most of the fight".

The investigation is continuing with help from USA regulators and Boeing. The manufacturer played up the possibility of pilot error.

In a statement, Boeing drew attention in detail to a list of airline maintenance actions set out in the report but stopped short of blaming ground workers or pilots for the accident. They also ran safety checklists.

The crew that experienced similar problems on the previous day's flight did use the trim cutout switches, the NTSC said.

However, after three attempts by the aircraft to automatically put its nose down, he discontinued the system and took manual control, landing the plane safely in Jakarta.

Boeing said in a statement after the crash that the new model is as safe as any airplane in the sky.

Indonesian authorities have recommended that budget airline Lion Air improve its safety culture, in a preliminary report into last month's deadly crash.

Parts of an engine of the Lion Air Flight JT610 recovered from the sea during search operations in the Java Sea on Nov 3. Flight recorder data showed that the plane's nose was forced down by an automated anti-stall system meant to protect the plane
Mr Nurcahyo Utomo

Based on the slew of problems with the aircraft beforehand, they suggested the jet should not have been in service.

The pilots of Lion Air Flight 610 were engaged in a futile tug-of-war with the plane's automatic systems in the minutes before it plunged into the ocean, killing all 189 people on board.

Lion Air must take steps "to improve the safety culture and to enable the pilot to make [a] proper decision to continue the flight", said the safety agency.

The Commission's chief said investigators are trying to understand why engineers had judged the plane to be airworthy.

"They will be looking for more precise reporting of problems (by pilots), and certainly a better maintenance response", she said. After recovering from a sudden drop in altitude, the pilots struggled to maintain level flight after passing 3,000 feet, before the aircraft went into a deep dive just over 10 minutes after take-off.

"What they were focused on was keeping the airplane in the air", said Clint R. Balog, a pilot and aeronautics expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Every accident is a combination of events, so there is disappointment all around here".

Boeing has a great deal at stake in defending its plane.

The airline, which also operates Batik Air and Wings Air, has a dubious safety record, though, and has had more accidents than other airlines in the country.

United States aviation groups, including the Federal Aviation Authority, say Boeing didn't tell them about new sensors in the automated anti-stall system that were added to their 737 MAX aircraft.

Boeing says the procedure for dealing with a so-called runaway stabilizer, under which anti-stall systems push the nose down even when the plane is not entering a stall or losing lift, had not changed between earlier version of the 737 and the newly delivered 737 MAX.

Koenig reported from Dallas.

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