A massive search operation is underway in Indonesia to find the wreckage of a Sriwijaya Air plane that crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from the capital Jakarta on Saturday with 62 people on board.
Sriwijaya Air flight 182 — a Boeing 737-500 — was heading from Jakarta to the city of Pontianak, on the Indonesian island of Borneo, when it lost contact at 2:40 p.m. local time (2:40 a.m. ET), 11 nautical miles north of Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport. Four minutes into the flight, and amid heavy rains, the plane dropped 10,000 feet in less than a minute before disappearing from the radar, according to the global flight tracking service Flightradar24.
Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) said it had found several pieces of debris believed to be from the missing plane but bad weather and poor visibility had hampered the search overnight.
“Currently, our personnel are already in the field and have found several parts of the plane, and the obstacle we face today is poor visibility,” said Deputy for Operations and Preparedness Bambang Suryo Aji during a virtual press conference, according to Indonesian news agency Antara.
The focus of the search is between the islands of Laki and Lancang, known as the Thousand Islands chain, about 20 miles northwest of Jakarta. Some 28 ships, five helicopters and two airplanes are being deployed in a joint effort between the Indonesian Navy, Police, Coast Guard and Transportation Ministry. Navy official Abdul Rasyid said the Indonesian Navy has dispatched 10 ships to the surrounding waters off Laki Island and the Armed Forces chief will visit the search area Sunday morning.
Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, said Sunday that search teams have identified and verified the location of the crash site, in a press conference at the crisis command center.
Hadi said the coordinates were determined by radar tracking and the last contact with the plane before it crashed into the sea. Navy divers have been deployed to search for the wreckage.
In addition, National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) teams have begun an investigation into the cause of the crash.
“We sent two investigators with Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency to the sea to do a location survey. We need to find more information on the location, for example to determine what gear we are going to use regarding the underwater terrain we have,” Suryanto Cahyono told CNN.
Investigators have also been sent to Air Traffic Control at the airport, the Meteorology Climatology and Geophysical Agency, and to Sriwijaya Airlines to gather information.
Meanwhile, police in Jakarta have set up a command post at the Kramat Jati Police Hospital to identify the crash victims and search for family members, Indonesian news agency Antara reported on Sunday.
While wreckage of the plane — including an emergency exit slide — has been found in the sea at the site thought to be where the crash happened, authorities are yet to report the recovery of any human remains.
Witnesses describe an explosion
Three fishermen from Lancang Island told CNN they heard an explosion and experienced a sudden large wave around the time the plane went missing.
“I heard very loud explosion. I thought it was a bomb or a big thunder. We then saw the big wave, about 2 meters high, hitting our boat,” said Hendrik Mulyadi.
Hendrik’s colleague, Solihin, described the sound as “a bomb on the water.” They said it was dark and raining at the time.
The men said they didn’t see a plane crash into the sea, but smelled fuel and spotted debris. The men said they returned to shore to report what they experienced to police.
The missing plane was carrying 50 passengers — 43 adults and 7 children — as well as 12 crew members, according Indonesia’s Minister of Transportation Budi Karya Sumadi said.
The plane, registered PK CLC, was a 26-year-old Boeing 737-500, according to Flightradar24. Sriwijaya Airlines CEO Jefferson Irwin Jauwena said the plane was in good condition before it took off.
In a statement, Boeing said: “Our thoughts are with the crew, passengers, and their families. We are in contact with our airline customer and stand ready to support them during this difficult time.”
Sriwijaya Air, a low-cost airline and Indonesia’s third-largest carrier, transports more than 950,000 passengers per month from its Jakarta hub to 53 destinations within Indonesia and three regional countries, according to the company’s website.
In June 2018, it was removed from the European Union’s list of banned air carriers, 11 years after it was placed on that list.
A worrying record
This weekend’s crash is the latest to rock Indonesia’s burgeoning airline industry.
In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea in Indonesia after taking off from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board. The Boeing 737 Max 8 plane was scheduled to make a one-hour journey to Pangkal Pinang on the island of Bangka.
The improper design and certification of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, coupled with an overwhelmed flight crew battling a malfunctioning system they could not properly identify, led to the crash, according to an October 2019 report by Indonesian authorities.
In 2014, Indonesian AirAsia Flight 8501 claimed the lives of all 162 people on board after crashing into the Java Sea, while flying from Surabaya to Singapore.
And in the year before that, Lion Air was involved in two accidents. A Boeing 737 missed the runway on landing and crashed into the sea near Bali, forcing passengers to swim or wade to safety, while another Boeing 737 collided with a cow while touching down at Jalaluddin Airport in Gorontalo on the island of Sulawesi.
In 2007, the European Union banned all 51 Indonesian airlines from its airspace after a Garuda Indonesia plane with 140 people on board overshot the runway in Yogyakarta in March and burst into flames, killing 21 people on board.
Standards have since improved, with all Indonesian airlines cleared from that blacklist by June 2018.
Indonesia, an archipelago nation of more than 13,000 islands, has seen a boom in domestic aviation in recent years, with passenger traffic tripling between 2005 and 2017, according to Australian consultancy the CAPA-Center for Aviation.
The country of 270 million people rely heavily on air transport to commute between islands across the archipelago, which stretches over more than 3,000 miles, around the same distance between London and New York.