JAKARTA: A Lion Air flight with 189 people on board crashed into the sea off Indonesia's island of Java, shortly after taking off from Jakarta on Monday morning (Oct 29).
Indonesia's search and rescue agency confirmed the crash of flight JT610, adding that it lost contact with ground officials 13 minutes after takeoff. A tugboat leaving the capital's port had seen the craft falling, the agency said.
"We don't know yet whether there are any survivors," agency head Muhammad Syaugi told a news conference, adding that no distress signal had been received from the aircraft's emergency transmitter. "We hope, we pray, but we cannot confirm."
A total of 181 passengers – including two infants and one child – were on board the flight, the agency said. Two pilots and six crew members were also on board.
The finance ministry said about 20 of its employees were on the plane.
The flight took off around 6.20am (7.20am Singapore time) and was due to have landed an hour later in Pangkal Pinang, on the island of Bangka.
Syaugi said that items such as handphones and life vests were found in waters about 30 metres to 35 metres deep near where the plane, identified by air tracking service Flightradar24 as a Boeing 737 MAX 8, lost contact.
"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."
Ambulances were lined up at Karawang, on the coast east of Jakarta and police were preparing rubber dinghies, a Reuters reporter said.
In a statement, the privately owned airline said the aircraft was made this year and had only been in operation since August. It was airworthy, with its pilot and co-pilot together having accumulated 11,000 hours of flying time, the airline added.
The plane had a technical problem on a previous flight, but it had been resolved according to procedure, according to the chief executive of Lion Air Group Edward Sirait.
"This plane previously flew from Denpasar (Bali) 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.
"We don't dare to say what the facts are, or are not, yet," he told Reuters earlier. "We are also confused about the why, since it was a new plane."
FOCUS ON RECOVERING BLACK BOXES
Debris thought to be from the plane, including aircraft seats, was found near an offshore refining facility in the Java Sea, an official of state energy firm Pertamina said.
The head of Indonesia's transport safety committee 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.
"We are preparing to depart to the location," said Soerjanto Tjahjono. "The plane is so modern, it transmits data from the plane, and that we will review too. But the most important is the black box."
The weather at the time of the crash was clear, Tjahjono said.
Data from FlightRadar24 shows that the first sign of something amiss was around two minutes into the flight, when the plane had just reached 2,000ft (610m).
Then it descended more than 500ft and veered to the left before climbing again to 5,000ft, where it stayed during most of the rest of the flight.
It began gaining speed in the final moments and reached 345 knots before data was lost when it was at 3,650ft.
Its last recorded position was about 15km north of the Indonesian coast, according to a Google Maps reference of the last coordinates from Flightradar24.
FIRST ACCIDENT INVOLVING BOEING 737 MAX
Investigators will focus on recovering 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.
The accident is the first to be reported that involves the widely sold Boeing 737 MAX, an updated, more fuel-efficient version of the manufacturer's workhorse single-aisle jet. The first Boeing 737 MAX jets were introduced into service in 2017.
Boeing said in a statement posted on its website that it is deeply saddened by the incident and it is ready to provide technical assistance to the investigation.
Lion Air's chief executive said the airline has operated 11 aircraft of the same model, adding that there are no plans to ground the rest of its Boeing 737 Max 8 fleet.
Indonesia relies heavily on air transport to connect its thousands of islands but has a poor aviation safety record and has suffered several fatal crashes in recent years.
If all on board prove to have died, the Lion Air crash will rank as Indonesia's second-worst air disaster, after a Garuda Indonesia A300 crash in Medan that killed 214 people in 1997, he added.
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, said the Flight Safety Foundation's Aviation Safety Network.