Passengers on what became the penultimate flight of the Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 that crashed off Indonesia have described technical problems and a “roller coaster” ride that caused some to panic and vomit.
The three-month old jet plunged into the Java Sea early Monday just 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta on a short internal flight. All 189 on board are presumed dead.
The pilot of Flight JT610 had requested clearance to return to the airport moments after takeoff, although it is unclear why.
It emerged that the doomed aircraft encountered problems on its previous flight — a Sunday evening trip from Denpasar, Bali, to Jakarta, as Flight JT43 — when pilots struggled with unreliable airspeed indications.
Alon Soetanto told TVOne that the plane dropped suddenly several times in the first few minutes.
"About three to eight minutes after it took off, I felt like the plane was losing power and unable to rise. That happened several times," he said. "We felt like in a roller coaster. Some passengers began to panic and vomit."
His account is consistent with data from flight-tracking sites that show erratic speed, altitude and direction in the minutes after the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet took off. A similar pattern is also seen in data pinged from Monday's fatal flight.
Indonesia National Transport Safety Committee (NTSC) deputy chief Haryo Satmiko confirmed to reporters on Tuesday that unreliable airspeed readings were reported during Sunday's flight.
In 2009, Air France flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean after icing that blocked the pitot tubes caused unreliable airspeed data and the confused pilots entered a high-altitude stall and ignored cockpit alarms. All 228 people on board died.
However, Lion Air president Edward Sirait said Sunday's technical problems were resolved in accordance with Boeing procedures and the plane was cleared to fly again on Monday.
The NTSB said it will send five investigators to Indonesia.
Another passenger on Sunday evening’s flight, Indonesian TV anchor and sportscaster Conchita Caroline, said the plane returned to the gate at Denpasar with a technical problem before takeoff.
She said passengers sat in the cabin without air conditioning for at least 30 minutes listening to an "unusual" engine roar, while some children vomited from the heat, until staff faced with rising anger let them disembark. After a further 30 minutes of waiting, they were told to board again while an engine was checked.
Caroline said she questioned a staff member but was met with a defensive response. "He just showed me the flight permit that he had signed and he said the problem had been settled," she said. "He treated me like a passenger full of disturbing dramas even though what I was asking represented friends and confused tourists who didn't understand Indonesian."
Divers on Tuesday continued their search for victims while the airline flew dozens of grieving relatives to Jakarta.
"This is a very difficult time for our family," said Leo Sihombing, outside a crisis center at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport.
"We know that it is very unlikely that my cousin is still alive, but no one can provide any certainty or explanation," he said as other family members wept and hugged each other.
"What we hope now is rescuers can find his body, so we can bury him properly, and authorities can reveal what caused the plane crash," Sihombing said.
Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency said that 10 intact bodies as well as body parts have been recovered. Aircraft debris and personal belongings from ID cards to clothing and bags found scattered in seas northeast of Jakarta are being spread out on tarps onshore.
The agency's chief, Muhammad Syaugi, expressed confidence in locating the hull of the aircraft and its flight recorders due to the relatively shallow 115 foot depth of the waters where it crashed. In total, 812 personnel are involved in the recovery effort.
The disaster is the first crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 — an updated version of the twin-engined workhorse — and has reignited concerns about safety in Indonesia's fast-growing aviation industry, which was recently removed from European Union and U.S. blacklists.
Lion Air, a budget carrier, is one Indonesia's youngest and biggest airlines, flying to dozens of domestic and international destinations. Earlier this year it confirmed a deal to buy 50 new Boeing narrow-body aircraft worth an estimated $6.2 billion. It has been expanding aggressively in Southeast Asia, a fast-growing region of more than 600 million people.
The 737 MAX 8 is flown widely in the U.S. by carriers including Southwest Airlines, which has at least 23 of the aircraft in its fleet.
"We are in touch with Boeing and will closely monitor the situation and any findings from this tragic event," a spokesman for Southwest Airlines. "Currently, our MAX fleet remains fully operational with no adjustments to our schedule."