As the coronavirus pandemic cleared Indonesian skies of planes, Captain Afwan, a senior Boeing 737 pilot for Sriwijaya Air, waited.
A much-admired former Indonesian Air Force pilot with over 30 years of flying experience, Afwan filled his time with Sriwijaya flight simulator sessions, which were aimed at ensuring that pilots completed at least the hours minimum flight requirements. to keep their licenses.
Like many in his predominantly Muslim country, Afwan prayed regularly and advised his colleagues to maintain their religious devotion as well.
On Saturday (9), Sriwijaya Air flight 182, piloted by Afwan, crashed in the Java Sea a few minutes after taking off under heavy rain. The Boeing 737-500 commercial aircraft carried 62 people, including six crew members.
As of Sunday afternoon (10), divers had already recovered several objects from the plane in the waters northwest of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta: pieces of the fuselage, the wheels of the plane and children’s clothing. . Ten children and babies were on the plane, which had left Jakarta for the town of Pontianak on the island of Borneo, a distance of about 90 minutes.
Indonesian authorities do not seem to predict that there will be any survivors. It was a dark start to the year for this great archipelago country where barely a year goes by without a major plane crash. The aviation sector has grown rapidly in the country, but operational and safety standards have not kept pace, according to sources familiar with the sector.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Sunday: “On behalf of the government and all the people of Indonesia, I want to express my deepest regret at this tragedy.”
The plane crashed after losing more than 10,000 feet of elevation in one minute. The cause of the fall is still unknown.
Indonesian investigators say they have already confirmed the location of the flight recorders of the plane, which crashed in an area of the sea known as the Thousand Islands, and that they hope to recover the black boxes in a short time period. It may take months for investigators to determine what the terrible chemistry of the weather was like, the maintenance of the aircraft, and the decisions made by the flight crew that may have contributed to the fatal episode.
Nurcayo Utomo, an investigator with Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, said the relatively small radius in which the debris is scattered, as shown in the video footage, preliminary suggests that the plane may have crashed when ‘it hit the water, and did not explode in the air.
But there is no doubt that Indonesian skies are among the most dangerous in the world, marred by a history of inadequate safety regulations, which has harmed domestic airlines for years. And the pandemic has complicated efforts to restore the reputation and finances of these companies.
Unable to fly due to the sharp drop in passenger traffic resulting from the coronavirus, the pilots said it was difficult to keep their professional skills, even though the companies they work for offer flight simulator training. According to some pilots, Sriwijaya has two flight simulators for the older 737 models.
Captain Rama Noya, president of the Indonesian Air Line Pilots Association and also a pilot from Sriwijaya, said that when he flew a plane, after spending a month on standby, he felt “like he was back again. plugged”.
This rusty feeling is not unique to Indonesian airline pilots.
“It’s a problem for all countries at the moment,” said Gerry Soejatman, an Indonesian aviation expert.
For Indonesian airlines, which already operate with minimal profit margins, the decline in passenger traffic during the pandemic has had particularly costly effects. Founded in 2003, when Indonesian aviation was booming, Sriwijaya Air was in debt even before the pandemic arrived.
A previous deal to restore her financial situation through a union with another airline group failed, although Sriwijaya never suffered an accident resulting in fatalities.
“Crew morale is low due to the pay cuts imposed by the pandemic, and with a few flying hours per month, fears about crew performance may be justified,” commented Soejatman.
Before the pandemic, Indonesian pilots, especially those who work for low-cost airlines such as Lion Air, said they were forced to fly planes they considered unsafe.
Complaints of excessive workload and insufficient wages were common, as were accusations that regulatory inspections were facilitated in the middle of the race to get the planes off the ground.
A series of fatal air crashes in Indonesia prompted European regulators to ban Indonesian airlines from their airports for years. In 1997, 234 people died when a flight from the national airline Garuda crashed near the city of Medan. Another 162 people died in 2014 when an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore crashed into the Java Sea.
And in 2018, a Lion Air 737 Max plunged into the Java Sea after crashing the anti-stall system, designed by Boeing. A few months later, another 737 Max equipped with the same anti-stall software crashed in Ethiopia, which banned the entire global fleet of Max jets from flying until the end of last year.
The Sriwijaya plane that crashed on Saturday was not a Max and was not equipped with the problematic anti-stall software.
Pilots who knew Afwan, 54 – like many Indonesians the commander is only known by name – said he was not someone who liked to take risks. His nephew, Mohammad Akbar, said Afwan had been a pilot for more than three decades.
“Captain Afwan was a very experienced pilot,” said Koko Indra Perdana, a Lion Air pilot who worked for Sriwijaya. “I believe in his talent.”
The model flown by Afwan, the 737-500 series, is considered to be a valuable aircraft tested over time and without glaring systemic failures. Still, the plane that crashed on Saturday was 26, an age that aviation analysts say requires regular maintenance to keep the plane in top shape. And take-off was delayed due to heavy monsoon rains.
According to aviation sources, Sriwijaya has only used a quarter of its fleet since the start of the pandemic. Regulators have warned that if they are not used every week, some of Boeing’s 737 models may need to be examined for possible overhead valve corrosion.
“We don’t know what condition the planes were in after months of inactivity,” Koko said.