BANGKOK — As the coronavirus pandemic cleared Indonesia’s skies of airline traffic, Capt. Afwan, an experienced Boeing 737 pilot for Sriwijaya Air, waited.
A former Indonesian Air Force pilot who was widely admired and had more than 30 years of flying experience, he filled his time with Sriwijaya flight simulator sessions meant to ensure that pilots completed the minimum flying hours to keep their licenses.
On Saturday, Sriwijaya Air Flight 182, with Afwan in charge, crashed into the Java Sea a few minutes after takeoff in heavy rain. The Boeing 737-500 series passenger jet carried 62 people, including six active crew.
By Sunday afternoon, divers had retrieved items from the plane in waters northwest of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta: chunks of fuselage, airplane wheels and waterlogged children’s clothes. Ten children and babies had been aboard the flight, en route from Jakarta to the city of Pontianak on the island of Borneo, a roughly 90-minute journey.
Indonesian authorities did not seem to expect survivors, a grim start to the year in a sprawling archipelago nation where barely a year goes by without a major airplane accident. As Indonesia’s aviation sector has expanded quickly, safety and operational standards have not kept pace, industry insiders said.
The cause of the crash, after the plane lost more than 10,000 feet in altitude within a minute, is not yet known.
Indonesian investigators say they have confirmed where the plane’s data recorders are in the watery crash site, an area known as the Thousand Islands, and they hope to recover the so-called black boxes soon. It may take months for investigators to piece together what terrible alchemy of weather, airplane maintenance and flight crew decision-making may have contributed to the fatal episode.
Nurcahyo Utomo, an investigator for Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, said that the relatively tight debris radius as seen in video footage suggested preliminarily that the plane may have broken apart when it hit the water, rather than exploding in midair.
The model that Afwan flew, the 737-500 series, is considered a time-tested workhorse without glaring systemic flaws. Still, the jet that crashed Saturday was 26 years old, an age that requires regular maintenance to keep the aircraft in prime flying form, aviation analysts said. And monsoon downpours had delayed the flight Saturday.