Cockpit recording of doomed Lion Air jet depicts pilots' frantic search for fix before crash: sources

The pilots of a doomed Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 scoured a handbook as they struggled to understand why the jet was lurching downwards, but ran out of time before it hit the water, three people with knowledge of the cockpit voice recorder contents said.

Same plane had similar problems evening before crash, but were solved by off-duty pilot: Bloomberg

The Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 that crashed in October reportedly experienced similar flight control problems the previous evening, but an off-duty pilot on board resolved them according to Bloomberg. (Willy Kurniawan, File/Reuters)

The pilots of a doomed Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 scoured a handbook as they struggled to understand why the jet was lurching downwards, but ran out of time before it hit the water, three people with knowledge of the cockpit voice recorder contents said.

The investigation into the crash, which killed all 189 people aboard in October, has taken on new relevance as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators grounded the model last week after a second deadly accident in Ethiopia.

Investigators examining the Indonesian crash are considering how a computer ordered the plane to dive in response to data from a faulty sensor and whether the pilots had enough training to respond appropriately to the emergency, among other factors.

It is the first time the voice recorder contents from the Lion Air flight have been made public. The three sources discussed them on condition of anonymity.

Reuters did not have access to the recording or transcript.

The Weekly looks at issues pilots have reported about Boeing's plane automation system:

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Pilots have reported issues with Boeing's plane automation system, with one pilot complaining the flight manual is "almost criminally insufficient." Automation is introduced to save money and minimize human effort, but the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes is re-framing the discussion. The Weekly finds hundreds of incident reports showing the trouble pilots are having with automation on their planes.

A Lion Air spokesperson said all data and information had been given to investigators and declined to comment further.

Since the Lion Air crash, Boeing has been pursuing a software upgrade to change how much authority is given to the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, a new anti-stall system developed for the 737 Max 8.

The cause of the Lion Air crash has not been determined, but the preliminary report mentioned the Boeing system, a faulty, recently replaced sensor and the airline's maintenance and training.

The report also did not include data from the cockpit voice recorder, which was not recovered from the ocean floor until January.

French air accident investigation agency BEA said on Tuesday the flight data recorder in the Ethiopian crash that killed 157 people showed "clear similarities" to the Lion Air disaster.

Ride-along pilot solves issues on penultimate flight

The chairman of Indonesia's transportation safety agency confirmed on Thursday that a third pilot was in the cockpit during the aircraft's next-to-last flight as the flight crew struggled to keep the plane aloft.

However, Soerjanto Tjahjono, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Committee, disputed reports citing recordings of cockpit discussions during that flight.

The third pilot, qualified to fly Max 8s, was deadheading aboard the Oct. 28 flight from Bali's Denpasar airport to Jakarta when the jet encountered the same problems that appear to have caused it to crash a day later.

The three pilots managed to resolve the issues and safely reached Jakarta. According to two of Reuters's sources, the captain at Lion Air's full-service sister carrier, Batik Air, solved the similar flight control problems; his presence on that flight, first reported by Bloomberg, was not disclosed in the preliminary report.

Tjahjono said the NTSC interviewed the pilot but legally cannot publish its findings.

'Flight control problem' just 2 minutes into flight

The captain was at the controls of Lion Air flight JT610 when the nearly new jet took off from Jakarta, and the first officer was handling the radio, according to a preliminary report issued in November.

Just two minutes into the flight, the first officer reported a "flight control problem" to air traffic control and said the pilots intended to maintain an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 metres), the November report said.

The first officer did not specify the problem, but one source said airspeed was mentioned on the cockpit voice recording, and a second source said an indicator showed a problem on the captain's display but not the first officer's.

The captain asked the first officer to check the quick reference handbook, which contains checklists for abnormal events, the first source said.

For the next nine minutes, the jet warned pilots it was in a stall and pushed the nose down in response, the report showed. A stall is when the airflow over a plane's wings is too weak to generate lift and keep it flying.

The captain fought to climb, but the computer, still incorrectly sensing a stall, continued to push the nose down using the plane's trim system. Normally, trim adjusts an aircraft's control surfaces to ensure it flies straight and level.

"They didn't seem to know the trim was moving down," the third source said. "They thought only about airspeed and altitude. That was the only thing they talked about."

Documented procedure exists, Boeing says

Boeing declined to comment on Wednesday because the investigation was ongoing.

The manufacturer has said there is a documented procedure to handle the situation. A different crew on the same plane the evening before encountered the same problem but solved it after running through three checklists, according to the November report.

But they did not pass on all of the information about the problems they encountered to the next crew, the report said.

The pilots of JT610 remained calm for most of the flight, the three sources said. Near the end, the captain asked the first officer to fly while he checked the manual for a solution.

A family member of victims of the Lion Air flight holds a bouquet of flowers on board an Indonesian navy ship during a visit to the crash site. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

About one minute before the plane disappeared from radar, the captain asked air traffic control to clear other traffic below 3,000 feet (914 metres) and requested an altitude of "five thou," or 5,000 feet, which was approved, the preliminary report said.

As the 31-year-old captain tried in vain to find the right procedure in the handbook, the 41-year-old first officer was unable to control the plane, two of the sources said.

The flight data recorder shows the final control column inputs from the first officer were weaker than the ones made earlier by the captain.

"It is like a test where there are 100 questions and when the time is up you have only answered 75," the third source said. "So you panic. It is a time-out condition."

The Indian-born captain was silent at the end, all three sources said, while the first officer from Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, said "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," a common phrase in Arabic that can be used to express excitement, shock, praise or distress.

The plane then hit the water, killing all 189 people on board.

Soerjanto Tjahjono, head of Indonesian investigation agency KNKT, said last week the report could be released in July or August as authorities attempted to speed up the inquiry in the wake of the Ethiopian crash.

On Wednesday, he declined to comment on the cockpit voice recorder contents, saying they had not been made public.