Investigators will finally hear what happened in the cockpit before Lion Air’s deadly crash

Why did this happen?
Why did this happen?
Image: Reuters/Beawiharta
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Indonesia announced today (Jan. 14) that the cockpit-voice recorder of Lion Air flight JT610, which crashed into the Java Sea in October, has been found.

The country’s National Transportation Safety Committee, which is conducting the air-crash investigation, told the government of the discovery this morning, said deputy maritime minister Ridwan Djamaluddin. Divers using high-tech equipment found the recorder buried under 26 feet of sea mud. A navy team will be sent to clear the mud before retrieving it.

The recorder will provide crucial information on the man-vs-machine battle that marked the brief flight, which plunged into the ocean less than 15 minutes after taking off on Oct. 29, killing all 189 people on board.

Indonesia resumed searching for the voice recorder last week, using a navy ship, after a 10-day effort by Lion Air was unsuccessful.

The crash led to the revelation that models of the new Boeing 737 Max aircraft, inducted into budget fleets since 2017, had a flight system that could sharply push down the nose of a plane if it sensed an imminent stall.

In the wake of the crash, the US Federal Aviation Administration ordered fleets to update manuals on the procedures to override the system, while Boeing also issued a safety bulletin directing airlines to the procedures. Pilot unions say these notifications led them to realize they had not been informed and trained on the feature.

A preliminary investigation report by Indonesian air-safety officials showed the pilots fighting the automated system until the last moment. But without the voice recorder, other vital information was unavailable, such as whether the pilots on the doomed flight tried the same set of maneuvers that helped pilots on the same aircraft stabilize the plane a day earlier. Investigators are trying to piece together the interplay of pilot actions, the flight system’s automated actions, and maintenance on indicators and sensors that provided data to the system.

The delay in recovering the voice recorder underscored the weakness of Indonesia’s air-safety system, with the search hampered by lack of funds and taking part in a region of the ocean crossed by communications cables and pipelines (subscription). Families of passengers at one point called on Boeing to take over the search for the voice recorder.

The other black box, the aircraft’s data recorder, was recovered soon after the crash, and showed that an airspeed indicator on the aircraft had malfunctioned on several previous flights.