A Jet Crash That Defies Resolution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a good day to fly. The weather was clear, and the SilkAir jet was nearly new. The Boeing 737-300 took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, with 104 people aboard and headed for Singapore.

The aircraft had reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet over the island of Sumatra when it plummeted to earth without warning. The plane was traveling close to the speed of sound when it crashed into the muddy Musi River near the town of Palembang on Dec. 19, 1997. No one survived.

The plane hit with such force that the largest piece of wreckage found was a scrap of fuselage 10 feet long. Rescuers recovered only fragments of bodies. Investigators located the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, but both had stopped working before the plane began to plunge.

Examination of the wreckage showed that there was no midair explosion, no cabin depressurization and no sign of mechanical failure. There was no distress call from the cockpit and no apparent attempt by the crew to pull the plane out of its dive. Strangely, the controls were set to point the jet's nose down and the throttle was on full speed.

Investigators found that the pilot, Capt. Tsu Way Ming, 41, had been disciplined by SilkAir six months earlier for turning off a cockpit voice recorder. The Singaporean, a skilled pilot, had lost more than $1.2 million in high-risk securities trading and had bought a $600,000 life insurance policy that took effect the day of the crash.

After three years of investigation, the Indonesian government announced the official findings: There was not enough evidence to determine the cause of the crash. But in an extremely unusual dissent, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said that the crash was most likely caused by intentional pilot action and that the evidence pointed to Tsu.

Some victims' families contend that Singapore and Indonesia have tried to cover up the cause of the disaster to protect the airline's reputation. SilkAir is a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, one of the city-state's most prominent businesses and one in which the Singaporean government owns the controlling interest.

Thomas Oey, an American who lost his mother and brother in the tragedy, believes that a timely determination of pilot suicide might have prevented the October 1999 crash of an EgyptAir flight, which some believe was caused by intentional pilot action. That disaster killed 217 people. Unlike the EgyptAir crash, which occurred off the Massachusetts coast, the Silk-Air crash was little reported in the U.S.

Even without an official determination of the cause, most of the families have reached settlements with the airlines. Oey is one of a handful of relatives suing SilkAir in Singapore in an attempt to prove that the pilot intentionally or recklessly crashed the plane. "People have the right to know the truth," he said.

SilkAir denies that one of its employees crashed the plane deliberately and argues that the cause of the disaster has not been determined. The judge in the case could rule as early as this month whether the pilot engaged in "willful misconduct."

Whatever the Singaporean court decides, New Zealander Derek Ward believes that the evidence is clear. His son, Duncan, was the flight's first officer. "Tsu intentionally flew the plane directly into the ground," Ward said. "I call that mass murder. What else can it be called?"

Pilot Had Cheated Death for Years

Tsu was among SilkAir's most talented fliers--a former top fighter pilot in the Singaporean air force and a member of its performing aerobatic team, the Black Knights. After the crash, the Singaporean press dubbed him the "Cowboy Pilot."

He had been cheating death for years.

On Dec. 19, 1979--exactly 18 years before the SilkAir disaster--he was scheduled to fly with his squadron on an air force training mission but was grounded by a mechanical problem. The other four pilots crashed into a cloud-covered mountain, and all died.

In 1981, he crashed with a student pilot during takeoff. Tsu survived, but his student did not. During a training mission five years later, Tsu's A-4 Skyhawk developed mechanical problems. He and his student ejected safely. Investigators concluded that Tsu was not at fault in either crash.

Tsu left the air force in 1992 as a major and went to work for SilkAir, a regional carrier that flies from Singapore to about 20 cities in Asia. He turned down the chance to fly for parent company Singapore Airlines because he could rise to a command post faster with the smaller organization.

He soon was seen as management material and put on the fast track. Tsu was promoted to captain in 1996 and given the additional post of instructor pilot seven months before the crash.

A father of three, he was said to be a devoted family man. He was quiet, sometimes distant, colleagues said, but spoke his mind and was a leader among the airline's Singaporean pilots. He gained a reputation for doing things his own way and not always following procedure.

Tsu's professional problems began in March 1997 with a flight to Manado on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

The plane was too high as it approached the airport, and Tsu tried to lose elevation quickly by making sharp S-turns--a maneuver appropriate for a fighter jet but not a Boeing 737.

"In the cockpit that day, it felt like a violent roll, back and forth," co-pilot Lawrence Dittmer testified in July in the court case. "All I remember was quick rolls, left and right, left and right, very disturbing. [If] the passengers were anything like me, they would have been scared. I was scared."

The S-turns didn't bring the plane low enough, and the captain was forced to make a second landing attempt. Tsu said he would file a report as required for a botched landing but never did.

Word of the episode eventually reached SilkAir's managers, and they began an inquiry. In late June 1997, Tsu and Dittmer were teamed up for the first time since the Manado incident.

In the cockpit, the two pilots began talking about the earlier flight. Dittmer assured Tsu that he was not the source of rumors that they had nearly crashed.

As they talked, their plane began taxiing to the runway in preparation for takeoff. Tsu reached behind his seat and switched off the cockpit voice recorder, which operates on a two-hour loop and thus would have taped over their conversation before they landed. He wanted to preserve their discussion as evidence, he said.

Dittmer refused to fly without the recorder and offered to repeat his comments later, but Tsu decided to return to the gate and remove the tape. The plane received permission to taxi back and was on its way when Tsu relented and turned the recorder back on.

"This was again something which I had never seen in my life before," Dittmer told the court.

After the incident, SilkAir disciplined Tsu by taking away his newly won promotion to instructor.

When it came to his finances, Tsu wasn't faring any better.

His stock market trading account was suspended twice for nonpayment, once in August and again on Dec. 4, two weeks before the crash.

Investigators say he had traded more than 10 million shares and lost more than $1.2 million between 1993 and 1997. Singaporean police concluded that he was not bankrupt because gains from the sale of real estate exceeded his stock losses.

His income, however, was not enough to cover his monthly household expenses, police found.

When Tsu took out the $600,000 life insurance policy, the company said it would activate it on receipt of his payment. He sent a check Dec. 16, and the policy took effect three days later--Dec. 19, 1997.

Ill-Fated Flight Bound for Singapore

When SilkAir Flight MI 185 took off for Singapore, Tsu was in the pilot's seat and first officer Ward, 23, was the co-pilot.

Ward was dating a SilkAir flight attendant and living his dream as an airline pilot. Associates described the New Zealander as friendly, honest and "full of life."

The aircraft was carrying passengers from 14 countries, including 46 from Singapore, 23 from Indonesia and five from the United States.

The oldest was 77; the youngest, 2. There was a group of five Aiwa engineers and three Indonesian children traveling without their parents. Also on board were former Singaporean model Bonny Hicks and her fiance, American architect Richard Dalrymple.

The other Americans were attorney Kathryn Worth, 36, of Fremont, Calif.; Suzan Picariello, 49, of New York, the senior vice president of American Express travel services for Southeast Asia; Berenice Oey, 71, a Philadelphia native; and her son Jonathan, 39, a Harvard University graduate and director of a computer business in Singapore.

The flight took off at 3:37 in the afternoon, and at first, all was normal. A flight attendant brought food to the pilots and left the cockpit, according to the voice recorder's final minutes.

Shortly afterward, Tsu said he was going into the main cabin and told Ward to finish eating.

"Some water?" Tsu asked. There was a metallic clank, which was later identified as the sound of Tsu's seat belt buckle hitting the floor.

"No, thanks," Ward said.

The voice recorder went dead. It was 4:05.

At 4:10 p.m., an air controller in Jakarta checked in with the plane and directed it to continue flying at 35,000 feet. Ward responded to the call and gave no indication of any problem on board.

At 4:11, the flight data recorder, which logs the operation of the plane's essential equipment, stopped working. The switch for the data recorder is behind the captain's seat, next to the voice recorder switch.

At 4:12, Indonesian radar tracking showed the plane had begun descending rapidly. It dropped from 35,000 feet to 19,500 feet in about 30 seconds before disappearing from the radar screen.

Less than a minute later, it hit the Musi River and smashed into countless pieces.

When rescuers arrived at the remote crash site, they knew immediately that no one could have survived.

The plane came down at such a steep angle that coconut trees lining the riverbanks were untouched. Parts of the aircraft were embedded 15 feet beneath the river bottom. The plane's tail section broke up seconds before impact and landed about two miles away.

Searchers collected just 330 pounds of body parts from the passengers and crew--roughly equal to the weight of two adults. The remains of only six passengers could be identified.

Because the plane crashed in Indonesia, responsibility for the investigation fell to the newly formed Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee. It was the agency's first major crash probe. Joining in the inquiry were representatives from Singapore, Australia and the United States. The FBI assisted the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, as it does in many crash investigations.

Investigators recovered 73% of the 9-month-old airplane, much of it by dredging the river bottom and filtering the mud through sieves. They reconstructed the tail section and, with help from the FBI, examined every inch of electrical wiring recovered.

They found no indication of an explosion, short circuit, equipment malfunction, depressurization or weather-related problem, according to the investigative reports. There was no indication that a mechanical failure or short circuit caused the plane's recorders to shut down six minutes apart.

During the time the voice recorder was working, no unauthorized person entered the cockpit. A background check showed that none of the passengers knew how to fly a commercial airplane.

Investigators found the flight controls were set contrary to what one would expect if the pilot had been trying to come out of a dive. The engines were running at high speed, and the speed brakes were stowed. The horizontal stabilizer--a flap in the plane's tail that determines whether the nose points up or down--was set at 2.5, the maximum nose-down setting.

In December 2000, the Indonesian safety agency announced its long-awaited findings.

"The investigation has yielded no evidence to explain the cause of the accident," the agency's report said. "The NTSC is unable to find the reasons for the departure of the aircraft from its cruising level of [35,000 feet] and the reasons for the stoppage of the flight recorders."

The agency, headed by leading Indonesian aviation expert Oetarjo Diran, rejected the theory that Tsu intentionally crashed the plane, because Singaporean police found no suicide note. Diran, who studied at Purdue University in the 1960s, is a professor of aeronautical engineering at the Institute of Technology in Bandung.

Harsh U.S. Criticism of Indonesia's Findings

Before Diran released his findings to the public, then-acting Chairman Jim Hall of the U.S. transportation agency sent a detailed critique urging him to come to very different conclusions.

Hall said the crash "can be explained by intentional pilot action." The airplane's descent, he said, was "consistent with sustained manual nose-down flight control inputs" most likely made by the captain.

Recovery of the plane from its dive "was possible but not attempted," Hall said. "The evidence suggests that the cockpit voice recorder was intentionally disconnected."

Such harsh U.S. criticism of a foreign crash report was unprecedented. But rather than alter his findings, Diran attached the U.S. comments to the Indonesian report.

"Let the people see we have different opinions," Diran said in a recent interview. "One may have the same data and different conclusions."

The U.S. view was based in part on tests done in a Boeing simulator to re-create the steep trajectory recorded by radar.

Just pointing the jet's nose down with the horizontal stabilizer would not be enough to bring the plane down so sharply because of the aircraft's inherent tendency to right itself, investigators found.

Causing such a precipitous dive would require additional commands, such as rolling the plane on its back and setting the throttle on full while continuing to maintain the nose-down setting.

"There is simply no other means, other than by deliberate manual input, for the aircraft to go from 35,000 feet to the bottom of the Musi River in the time frame," said an Australian expert who took part in the investigation.

Some critics have accused Diran of trying to cover up for Singapore, which has many financial ties to Indonesia. Others suggest that he refused to reach a conclusion of suicide because of his Muslim beliefs. But the professor dismisses such claims.

"I don't think being a Muslim will make me not objective," he said. "All they can say is that I am stupid, not that I am intentionally covering up."

Diran said his fundamental difference with Hall was the level of proof required. The U.S. agency sought to determine the crash's probable cause. Diran wanted more. "We have no absolute or substantial proof it was a suicide," he said.

Tsu's insurance company, he noted, accepted the police conclusion and paid the pilot's family the full value of the $600,000 policy.

The professor said Tsu was "just a normal man" who loved his family and had occasional trouble with his bosses. Diran said he could not believe that a person with Tsu's advantages would kill himself and the passengers entrusted to him.

"Is he really going to murder 100 people because he lost face or lost a couple million dollars?" Diran asked. "It's incomprehensible to me that he would do that with the background he has."

Changing Travel Plans Saved Lecturer's Life

Thomas Oey was scheduled to be on Flight MI 185 with his mother and brother but changed his plans a few days before departure.

The soft-spoken lecturer at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Singapore believes that God spared him for a higher purpose. Since the crash, he has quietly made it his mission to uncover the cause in the hope of preventing similar tragedies.

The American-born Oey, who has lived in Singapore most of his life, contends that authorities here have tried to hide the cause of the crash to protect SilkAir and Singapore Airlines.

Oey maintains that Singapore's autocratic government closed ranks behind its airline industry to minimize damage to its reputation. Singapore Airlines has long been highly regarded, but last year, one of its Boeing 747s crashed in Taiwan, killing 82 people, when the pilot tried to take off from the wrong runway.

Oey is among the relatives of six SilkAir victims who turned down cash settlements of up to $200,000 each. He wants the court to rule on the cause of the crash, even though he is likely to receive less than that even if he wins. Under Singaporean law, any award would be based solely on what the victims might have earned had they lived. There is no provision for punitive damages or payment for pain and suffering. The case will be decided by a judge without a jury.

"Compensation is not the important matter," Oey said. "The important matter is saving lives."

He believes a prompt finding that the SilkAir crash was caused by pilot suicide could have led to video cameras in cockpits and better psychological screening of pilots, perhaps preventing the 1999 EgyptAir disaster.

"There's still a lot of anger," Oey said, "not so much at what happened but at not admitting what happened."

Like Oey, Derek Ward has devoted himself to uncovering and publicizing what he believes was the true cause of the crash: Tsu's death wish. An electrical engineer, he has studied the disaster in minute detail and gathered every scrap of information available.

Unlike Oey, he decided not to fight SilkAir in a Singaporean court, believing that he would never get a fair ruling. He accepted SilkAir's settlement and said he has used the money to further his effort to expose what he calls the airline's wrongdoing.

"This crash and the subsequent dishonesty has destroyed my wife's happiness," he said. "Is $200,000 fair? I don't know how to value the life of a son for whom I felt the greatest love and respect--as a person, I respect him more than I respect myself."

Attorney Michael Khoo argued on behalf of the families in court in July that intentional pilot action brought down the SilkAir plane and that the company had "turned a blind eye" to Tsu's previous safety violations.

SilkAir, Singapore Airlines and SilkAir's attorney, Lok Vi Ming, declined to be interviewed about the crash. In court, Lok acknowledged that intentional pilot action caused the plane to descend but argued that the pilots may have been reacting to an emergency that is not yet understood.

"In a desperate search for answers," Lok said in his opening argument, it is too easy to blame the crash on "a supposedly depressed and financially troubled pilot."

Through the testimony of experts, the families' legal team tried to re-create the flight's final minutes.

No one will ever know what happened in the cockpit after the voice recorder went dead. Tsu might have left the cabin, as he said he was going to do, and come back a few minutes later. Or he might never have left at all.

One theory is that after Ward talked with air traffic control, Tsu took command of the plane, sent his co-pilot out of the cockpit on a ruse and locked the door.

But even if Ward was in his seat when the plane began to dive, there was little he could have done if Tsu was determined to crash the aircraft, said Australian aviation safety specialist Maurie Baston, an expert witness for the families.

It would have taken Tsu eight to 10 seconds of continuous thumb pressure on a hand-held button to change the horizontal stabilizer to the maximum nose-down setting. While he was pressing the button, Ward could not have overridden the command, said Baston, a former military aerobatic pilot. And even if Ward immediately realized what Tsu was doing, he said, he couldn't have reached Tsu's control from his seat.

Flight plans, dishes and manuals would have flown around the cockpit as warning alarms sounded and the plane flipped over or began to spiral. The two pilots might have battled for the controls, but without command of the horizontal stabilizer, Ward would have been powerless to pull out of the dive.

In the cabin, the terrified passengers would have remained conscious. They would have known they were about to die as the plane plunged earthward.

Mohan Ranganathan was a SilkAir captain who knew Tsu and Ward. A veteran 737 pilot, he said he warned his bosses before the crash that Tsu was an unsafe pilot. They refused to listen, he said. Ranganathan quit the airline soon after the disaster.

"Tsu Way Ming was very dangerous," he said. "A person of Duncan Ward's experience could never have flown the final profile. It was definitely by a trained aerobatic pilot. Tsu is the only person who could have done it."

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