Niniek Karmini and Andi Jatmiko, Jakarta – Indonesian divers have retrieved from the sea bed the flight data recorder of a Sriwijaya Air plane that crashed into the Java Sea with 62 people on board at the weekend, officials said.
Divers had also found a separate radio beacon, raising hopes that the cockpit voice recorder it was connected to could soon be found and reveal what caused the plane to lose control.
"We are sure that, because the beacon that was attached to the cockpit voice recorder was also found around the area, so with high confidence, the cockpit voice recorder will soon be found," military chief Hadi Tjahjanto said at a news conference.
With few immediate clues on what happened after takeoff, investigators will rely heavily on the flight recorders to determine what went wrong.
The recovery is expected to help investigators determine what caused the Boeing 737-500 plane to nosedive into the ocean in heavy rain shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Saturday.
TV stations showed divers on an inflatable vessel with a large white container containing the device heading to a Jakarta port. It will be handed over to the National Transportation Safety Committee, which is overseeing the crash investigation.
A navy ship earlier picked up intense pings being emitted from the two recorders. They were buried in seabed mud under tons of sharp objects in the wreckage, the Indonesian navy's Chief Admiral Yudo Margono said.
He said at least 160 divers were deployed on Tuesday in the search for the devices.
More than 3600 rescue personnel, 13 helicopters, 54 large ships and 20 small boats were searching the area just north of Jakarta where Flight 182 crashed. Parts of the plane and human remains have already been found in the water at a depth of 23 metres.
So far, the searchers have sent 74 body bags containing human remains to police identification experts who on Monday said they had identified their first victim, 29-year-old flight attendant Okky Bisma.
His wife, Aldha Refa, who is also a flight attendant for Sriwijaya Air, shared her grief in a series of posts on social media.
"My husband is a loving, devout and super kind man," she wrote on Instagram. "Heaven is your place, dear... be peaceful there."
Anguished family members have been providing samples for DNA tests and police said results were expected within four to eight days.
National Police spokesman Rusdi Hartono said about 53 samples for DNA testing had been collected but more were needed, especially from parents and children of victims.
Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee said the US National Transportation Safety Board would help to investigate the crash.
The NTSC chairman, Soerjanto Tjahjono, ruled out a possible midair breakup after seeing the condition of the wreckage found by searchers. He said the jet was intact until it struck the water, concentrating the debris field, rather than spreading it out over a large area as would be seen with a midair event.
He said the NTSC's initial findings showed the plane's engine was running when it hit the water, based on jet parts retrieved from the sea.
"The damage on the fan blade showed that the engine was still working on impact. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the plane's system was still working at 250 feet altitude," Soerjanto said.
Indonesia's transport ministry said earlier on Tuesday the jet, which was grounded during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, had passed an airworthiness inspection on December 14 and had returned to service shortly after.
The disaster has reignited concerns about safety in Indonesia's aviation industry, which grew fast after the economy was opened following the fall of dictator Suharto in the late 1990s. The United States had banned Indonesian carriers from operating in the country in 2007, lifting the action in 2016, citing improvements in compliance with international aviation standards. The European Union lifted a similar ban in 2018.
In the past year, Indonesian aviation was affected significantly by the coronavirus pandemic that caused travel restrictions and a slump in demand among travellers.
Sriwijaya Air has had only minor safety incidents in the past, though a farmer was killed in 2008 when a plane went off the runway while landing due to a hydraulic issue.
In 2018, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet operated by Lion Air crashed, killing 189 people. An automated flight-control system played a role in that crash, but the Sriwijaya Air jet did not have that system on board.
– AP with Reuters