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Indonesian passenger plane crashes into the sea

AFP archive

An Indonesian aircraft with 189 people on board crashed into the sea and sank on Monday soon after taking off from the capital, Jakarta. All passengers and crew are feared dead, according to the country’s rescue agency.

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Indonesia's search and rescue agency confirmed the crash of Lion Air flight JT610, adding that it lost contact with ground officials 13 minutes after takeoff, and a tug boat leaving the capital's port saw it fall.

"We don't know yet whether there are any survivors," agency head Muhmmad Syaugi told a news conference, adding that no distress signal had been received from the aircraft's emergency transmitter.

"We are there already, our vessels, our helicopter is hovering above the waters, to assist," Syaugi said. "We are trying to dive down to find the wreck."

Indonesia’s search and rescue agency official estimated there would be no survivors from the crash."We need to find the main wreckage," Bambang Suryo Aji, operational director of the agency, told reporters. "I predict there are no survivors, based on body parts found so far."

Reporting from Jakarta, FRANCE 24’s Jack Hewson said, footage released by the national disaster management agency showed an oil slick over the water, presumably from leaked jet fuel. “There’s also lots of debris – clothing, cell phones, ID cards, documentation from the passengers,” said Hewson.

“The plane hit the water at very high speed,” explained Hewson. “What we know of what happened to the plane is that in the early stages of its flight, it rose to 15,000 metres and then lost altitude before rising briefly again. It then appeared to just fall out of the sky about 13 minutes into its flight after leaving Jakarta.”

At least 23 government officials were on board the plane, which an air navigation spokesman said had sought to turn back just before losing contact.

Lion Air plane was 'brand new'

‘Technical problem’ on previous flight

The privately owned airline said in a statement that the aircraft, which had only been in operation since August, was airworthy, with its pilot and co-pilot together having accumulated 11,000 hours of flying time.

The airline company’s chief executive, Edward Sirait, said the plane had a technical problem on a previous flight, but it had been resolved according to procedure.

"This plane previously flew from Denpasar to Cengkareng (Jakarta). There was a report of a technical issue which had been resolved according to procedure," Sirait told reporters, declining to specify the nature of the technical issue.

He said Lion has operated 11 aircraft of the same model, the Boeing 737 Max 8, and the other planes did not have the same technical problem. Sirait said there was no plan to ground the rest of its Boeing 737 Max 8 fleet.

Efforts to recover black boxes

The head of Indonesia's transport safety committee, Soerjanto Tjahjono, said he could not confirm the cause of the crash, which would have to wait until the recovery of the plane's black boxes, as the cockpit voice recorder and data flight recorder are known.

"The plane is so modern, it transmits data from the plane, and that we will review too. But the most important is the blackbox," said Tjahjono.

Safety experts say nearly all accidents are caused by a combination of factors and only rarely have a single identifiable cause.

The weather at the time of the crash was clear, Tjahjono said.

Investigators will focus on the cockpit voice and data recorders and building up a picture of the brand-new plane's technical status, the condition and training of the crew as well as weather and air traffic recordings.

The effort to find the wreckage and retrieve the black boxes represents a major challenge for investigators in Indonesia, where an AirAsia Airbus jet crashed in the Java Sea in December 2015.

Under international rules, the US National Transportation Safety Board will automatically assist with the inquiry into Monday's crash, backed up by technical advisers from Boeing and US-French engine maker CFM International, co-owned by General Electric and Safran.

Fast-growing market

The flight took off from Jakarta around 6.20am and was due to have landed in Pangkal Pinang, capital of the Bangka-Belitung tin mining region, at 7.20am, the Flightradar 24 website showed.

Data from FlightRadar24 shows the first sign of something amiss was around two minutes into the flight, when the plane had reached 2,000 feet (610 m).

Then it descended more than 500 feet (152 m) and veered to the left before climbing again to 5,000 feet (1,524 m), where it stayed during most of the rest of the flight.

It began gaining speed in the final moments and reached 345 knots (397 mph) before data was lost when it was at 3,650 feet (1,113 m).

Its last recorded position was about 15 km (9 miles) north of the Indonesian coast, according to a Google Maps reference of the last coordinates from Flightradar24.

The accident is the first to be reported involving the widely sold Boeing 737 MAX, an updated, more fuel-efficient version of the manufacturer's workhorse single-aisle jet.

Indonesia is one of the world's fastest-growing aviation markets, but its safety record is patchy.

"The industry has grown very quickly and keeping pace with that growth is challenging in keeping the safety culture intact," said Greg Waldron, the Asia managing editor of industry publication FlightGlobal, which keeps an accident database.

Founded in 1999, Lion Air's only fatal accident was in 2004, when an MD-82 crashed upon landing at Solo City, killing 25 of the 163 on board, the Flight Safety Foundation's Aviation Safety Network says.

In April, the airline announced a firm order to buy 50 Boeing 737 MAX 10 narrowbody jets with a list price of $6.24 billion (€5.5bn). It is one of the US planemaker's largest customers globally.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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