The crash of a Lion Air flight off Jakarta last week that left all 189 passengers aboard presumed dead has been not only tragic, but also perplexing. The plane went down into the ocean just 13 minutes after taking off in clear weather, and while the investigation is still early in the early phases, it’s not clear what went wrong. The pilots were reportedly experienced, and the plane itself, a 737 MAX 8, was brand-new.
But as Popular Mechanics points out, some attention has focused on the aircraft itself. “On October 27, less than 24 hours before its fatal crash, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 experienced a glitch that spooked the flight crew. Early reports suggested the Saturday mishap was a minor one that didn’t affect the safety of the flight … But new details have emerged showing the flight was closer to an actual emergency, with the pilots requesting a return to Denpasar shortly after takeoff.”
“A maintenance log for the Saturday trip reportedly showed erratic altitude and speed readings. Passengers aboard that flight have since come forward with their own eyewitness accounts suggesting the flight was anything but normal, with a sharp drop in altitude causing mayhem inside the cabin.”
The issue was reported as resolved following that flight, and the plane cleared for use. But these reports resemble what early data investigators have regarding the flight that crashed. Some radar data shows that the flight “struggled from the moment it left Jakarta airport, climbing and falling erratically before plunging” into the ocean. Making things murkier, information from the flight data recorder, or “black box,” is missing, CNN reports.
A Rush for Answers in the Lion Air Crash
While accidents do happen, they don’t often happen with brand new aircraft. The plane had flown only 800 hours since it was delivered this August. And the aircraft was a new design: the 737 MAX 8. “The fact that this is the first major accident involving the 737 MAX 8—one of the newest and most successful models launched in Boeing’s history—is also the focus of attention,” according to Popular Mechanics.
“The MAX 8 line has been in service since 2017 … And while it’s not unusual for a new plane type to experience glitches early on, the 737 MAX is regarded as reliable.” Boeing has over 4,500 open orders in for the MAX variant of its 737 aircraft.
“It’s not unusual for a plane that experiences a tech failure or glitch to reenter service swiftly after repairs,” reports Popular Mechanics. “But the fact that similar scenarios occurred on both flights raises a huge question about the quality of the airline’s maintenance operation.”
It’s also worth noting that Indonesia has a poor air safety record. Popular Mechanics notes that both the European Union and the U.S. put nearly all of Indonesia’s airlines on a black list in 2007. Lion Air has a questionable record as well, with one near-midair-collision incident last year and another fatal crash back in 2004.