The Most Glaring Red Flag in the Investigation of Lion Air Flight JH 160

The plane’s glitch on a flight the previous day may be more worrisome than we were led to believe.

Investigators have ID’d several troubling factors about the Lion Air Flight JT 160 crash, including the fact that it was a brand-new plane making a short, routine flight. But a week after the accident, the biggest red flag seems to be the inflight scare that happened on the same plane a day before it went missing.

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—after all, the pilots stayed on course to land at Jakarta safely. 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.

“It’s looking like it could be a botched repair”

It’s not unusual for a plane that experiences a tech failure or glitch to reenter service swiftly after repairs. 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 looking like it could be a botched repair,” said one aviation safety expert, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak about the investigation.

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 pilot canceled his request to turn back not long after he made his initial request. “The captain said that the problem was resolved and he decided to continue the trip to Jakarta,” says Herson (who goes by a first name only), the head of the Bali-Nusa Tenggara Airport authority. That pilot wasn’t among the crew killed in the Sunday crash of Lion Air 160, so investigators will no doubt be interested in debriefing him, as well as other crew members and passengers aboard the earlier flight.

The probe is being led by the Indonesian government, though a U.S. team consisting of experts from the National Transportation Safety Board has now joined, since the crash involved an American-made jet. An Indonesian team is also traveling to Boeing’s headquarters in the U.S. to speak to designers of the brand-new 737 MAX, a variant of the popular single-aisle workhorse that entered commercial service in 2017.

Lion Air Flight Crashes Into Sea Off Jakarta

The technical director of Lion Air has been suspended, and the Indonesian transport ministry has said it will conduct an audit of the airline’s maintenance and repair unit. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s government, still smarting from having its entire airline industry put on a black list by Western nations due to shoddy safety oversight, is also inspecting all of the 737 MAX jets operated in the country.

In the meantime, the underwater search for the aircraft has been hampered by rough sea conditions. All 189 passengers aboard JT 160 are presumed to be dead, and divers and other salvage experts are now focused bringing up their remains from depths of about 100 feet below the surface of the Java Sea, off Jakarta. The debris field is large: The plane virtually disintegrated upon impact with the water, according to investigators. So far they’ve retrieved the flight data recorder, one of the two vital black boxes, but it was apparently seriously damaged and it is unclear how much information it will yield.

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