The suspected cause of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 on Mount Salak, Bogor last month should be made public not covered up. Transparency is an important element of the airport managers' accountability to the public, which wants to know what factors led to the tragedy that killed 45 people. The findings could also be used to improve our ramshackle aviation systems.
There are signs that PT Angkasa Pura II wants to doctor the results of the investigation into the fatal Sukhoi crash. The destination of the joy flight was said to be Atang Sendjaja, Bogor, but according to the flight plan, the Russian-made jet was heading for the skies over Pelabuhan Ratu. This information seems to have been deliberately changed to justify what happened when the pilot's request to fly lower was approved.
The statement that the pilot left the training area without permission could also be a manipulation of the truth. The fact is that the pilot asked for permission by radioing, "Request circle to the right." The air traffic controller at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, Cengkareng, agreed to the request which strangely directed the airplane towards the side of the mountain. According to air management experts, the controller watching the radar should have answered, "Negative, due to terrain."
There appears to have been other systematic efforts to change the facts. A marathon meeting lasting several days was to prepare uniform answers when questioned by the National Air Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) and the mass media. Angkasa Pura claimed it was only an evaluation meeting, held every time there is an air crash. But from documents we have obtained, it is apparent that the state-owned company wants to place all the blame on the Sukhoi pilot.
Concealing the causes of a fatal accident is a disastrous move that must be condemned. It will affect the investigation. After all, an air crash investigation is not designed to apportion legal responsibility. An example is the mid-air collision of a Tupelov 154M belonging to Bashkirian Airlines and a Boeing 757-200 owned by DHL over Uberlingen, Germany on July 1, 2002. The Tupelov was carrying 69 people from Moscow to Barcelona, while the DHL flight, with a pilot and copilot, was flying from Bergamo, Italy, to Brussels.
A mix-up between air traffic control orders and the traffic collision avoidance system, or TCAS, was one of the causes. Instead of obeying the TCAS command to climb, the Bashkirian pilot descended, obeying the order from the air traffic controller. At the same time, the DHL flight obeyed the request from the airplane system and descended. As a result, a collision was unavoidable. Nowadays TCAS are locked, and set to work automatically the pilot cannot 'intervene.' Every time a collision threat is detected, one airplane automatically climbs and the other descends.
There is never a single cause for a plane crash. In the Sukhoi tragedy, the pilot could be partly blamed because he carried out maneuvers on a joy flight. But weakness in air traffic management also played a major part, although the entire blame cannot be laid at the foot of controllers; they work with limitations that put them under considerable pressure. In the Cengkareng air traffic control room, each controller guides 13-15 airplanes or sometimes up to 30 all at the same time.
There should be a limit for each controller. In Bangkok, each controller is responsible for a maximum of eight aircraft, in Singapore it is 10, and in Australia 12. And remember that the navigational equipment in these nations is more advanced than in Indonesia. This call for a maximum limit means Angkasa Pura will have to recruit more staff. This is important so controllers can take their turn for the obligatory annual training and refresher courses.
There must also be improvements to navigational equipment. The radar at Cengkareng often breaks down, while there is often interference with communications equipment that endangers flights. Pilots have complained about the confusion in the air. In the first half of this year, airlines have made at least 40 complaints to Angkasa Pura II. Some of them mention incidents where airplanes almost collided as a result of mistakes by air traffic controllers.
We cannot see air traffic lanes, but this does not mean improvements to these 'invisible paths' should be a low priority. The establishment of an Indonesian National Air Traffic Service Agency is a matter of urgency. Given the growth in air traffic and the vital role it plays, the government should act quickly. Otherwise, the skies over Indonesia might be the 'hell' described by many pilots.
No. 43/12, June 20, 2012