JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian investigators on Thursday confirmed the presence in the cockpit of an off-duty pilot reported to have saved a troubled Lion Air flight the day before the same plane crashed on Oct. 29.
Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that this third pilot, who happened to have hitched a ride on the flight, figured out what was going wrong on the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft as the other pilots struggled to control the diving plane.
The third pilot, according to Bloomberg News, disabled the aircraft’s flight-control system and landed the plane safely in Jakarta. The same plane then crashed the next day, killing all 189 aboard.
“The third pilot, who has not been identified, was qualified to fly Max 8s and was deadheading aboard the Oct. 28 flight from Bali’s Denpasar airport to Jakarta,” said Soerjanto Tjahjono, the head of Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, referring to the practice of company employees traveling free of charge. “The aircraft encountered the same problems that appear to have caused it to crash a day later.”
Soerjanto and other Indonesian authorities have not confirmed that the third pilot prevented a crash on Oct. 28.
Soerjanto, however, pushed back on reports that detailed the contents of the doomed flight’s cockpit voice recorder, one of the two “black boxes” recovered after the crash. He said the reports “were not in line with the actual content,” which belongs “solely to the KNKT,” referring to the National Transportation Safety Committee by its local-language abbreviation.
It was a day of pushback against media reports, with Ethiopian Airlines — which also lost a Max 8 aircraft on March 10 — disputing reports that the pilot hadn’t received the right training.
The Indonesian news conference was called Thursday afternoon local time after Reuters reported that the Lion Air 610’s pilots were scrambling to diagnose why the jet’s nose kept lurching forward, flipping through the manual as the aircraft’s altitude and airspeed varied dramatically. Reuters and later the New York Times, citing investigators who had heard the audio and transcript, said that in the final seconds of the audio, the co-pilot said “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great,” and a prayer.
“The KNKT believes that the reports in the media are based on someone’s opinions, or several parties’ opinion,” Soerjanto said.
Nurcahyo Utomo, another investigator with the KNKT, said Indonesian laws bar investigators from publicizing the contents of the cockpit voice recorder. “Our [cockpit voice recorder content] has not leaked,” he said.
After the Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed all 157 on board, investigators began noticing similarities between the two cases. The March disaster has led to the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max 8 planes worldwide and ratcheted up pressure on Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration to provide answers as to what went wrong.
Authorities investigating the Indonesia crash say erroneous sensor data triggered an automated anti-stall feature, known as the MCAS, in the new Max planes that pushed its nose down, ultimately causing the plane to crash into the Java Sea. In the case of the day-earlier Lion Air flight, the guest pilot was able to disable the system in time.
In addition to the Oct. 28 incident, the plane had multiple failures starting Oct. 26, including the four flights before the one that crashed into the Java Sea, according to the preliminary report on the Lion Air crash. The plane’s maintenance log showed that pilots reported defects with incorrect display of speeds and altitude and that airline mechanics worked to resolve the problems.
Before the near-disaster on Oct. 28, the “angle of attack” sensor, which detects whether the wings have enough lift to keep flying, was replaced, the report said. It had been tested and the captain was reassured that the previously logged maintenance problem had been resolved.
Boeing then issued a November bulletin about the problem that was to be distributed to pilots along with additional training in turning off the system.
The Ethiopian Airlines crash appeared to share similarities with the Lion Air case, including an erratic up-and-down flight path and the pilot reporting “flight control” problems shortly before crashing, authorities had said.
Investigators in France — who are involved because they downloaded the data from the black boxes for the Ethiopians, who didn’t have the expertise — and Ethiopia then said information from the Ethiopian flight data recorder showed “clear similarities” with the Lion Air flight.
On Thursday, Ethiopia’s Transport Ministry issued a statement saying the analysis of the data was underway with a team that included the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the French and European aviation safety agencies.
Reuters and the New York Times also reported that the pilot in the doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight, Yared Getachew, had not received training in the Max 8 flight simulator.
Ethiopian Airlines responded by expressing “its disappointment on the following wrong reporting of the @nytimes” in a tweet, noting that all pilots were trained in the use of the new Max 8 planes before they were introduced and were later updated about the Boeing warning in November about possible stabilizer issues.
“We urge all concerned to refrain from making such uninformed, incorrect, irresponsible and misleading statements during the period of the accident investigation,” it said, adding that the flight simulator “is not designed to simulate the MCAS system problems.”
Schemm reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Shibani Mahtani in Dunedin, New Zealand, and Luz Lazo in Washington contributed to this report.