New Year’s Day 2007. Adam Air flight 574 (KI-574) took off on what should have been a routine internal flight from Indonesian’s second largest city, Surabaya. The plane was destined for Manado, some two hours away on the northern tip of Sulawesi island. It never made it. About an hour into the flight, the plane disappeared from radar near the western Sulawesi city of Polewali. 102 people were on board, all presumed dead. The aircraft is still missing, despite extraordinary early reports the wreckage had been found and some aboard had survived. A seven day search has so far found no debris. Now KI-574 is turning into one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.
The aircraft was a Boeing 737-400. The 737 is the world’s most popular jet aircraft. It is so widely used that at any given time, there are over 1,250 airborne worldwide. Somewhere in the world one takes off or lands every five seconds. The 737-400 has been in service since the mid 1980s. The Adam Air plane was built in 1990. It was last serviced in December 2005 and had 45,000 flying hours. Flight KI-574 had a crew of six and 96 passengers including 11 children. All were Indonesian nationals except a family of three Americans. The flight departed Surabaya in the East of Java at 12:55pm local time.
The weather was stormy. The Indonesian air traffic authority, PT Angkasa Pura I, gave a weather warnings to the pilot, Refri Widodo. Though KI-574 flew at over 9,000 metres it was still immersed in clouds. When approaching the island of Sulawesi, Widodo radioed in a worrying warning: "The plane has been hit by crosswinds from the starboard side." Winds of up to 140 kph buffeted the plane. The plane changed direction eastward to avoid the winds. Ten minutes later Widodo contacted air traffic control again to confirm his position on the radar. The controller confirmed it and the pilot responded “ok”.
It was the last word heard from the flight. Moments later the controller's screen went blank. Things weren't ok. The plane had disappeared off the radar with no distress call. KI-574 had carried enough fuel for four hours flight. After five hours of nothing, everyone feared the worst. An air traffic controller told Indonesian TV the plane hit "very bad" weather and may have run out of fuel because, if still airborne, it would be "over its limit”.
That night, the Indonesian air force announced they found the wreckage. They released a detailed statement that said the plane had crashed into a mountainous region of Sulawesi. An air force plane assigned to the search spotted the debris. First Air Marshal Eddy Suyanto told a local radio “The plane is in ruins. We are sending teams to the location. The plane was found around 20 kilometres from Polewali (town) in the mountains. The weather is clear”. Witnesses were quoted as saying there were bodies everywhere. More remarkable still were further reports that 12 people had survived the impact.
Hopes rose among affected families that their loved ones might be among the 12 survivors. But their hopes were cruelly dashed. It took almost 24 hours for rescuers to get to the remote location, as they were hampered by bad weather and rough jungle terrain. When they got there, they saw nothing. Suyanto was forced to issuing an embarrassing retraction, "The location has not been found. We apologise that the news that we conveyed was not true”. Relatives of the missing were stunned. Toni Toliu, whose sister and her two children were aboard, expressed their dismay, “We are confused whom we should trust."
With no wreckage, the story of the dozen supposed survivors crashed too. The Government was forced to admit that that was an error too. A regional army commander said "News from the village head reporting 12 survivors was also not true, the village head said that he never made that report.” The new claims did little to quell passenger family anger at the astonishing turnabout. The search mission then switched to the seas of the coast of Sulawesi.
Indonesia has now deployed nearly 4,000 troops, four military planes and four helicopters in the hunt for the missing airliner. And yet after a week, they have uncovered no sign of any wreckage. The US oceanographic survey ship USNS Mary Sears has now joined the search operation. It is kitted out with sonar capability and the ability to detect metal under the sea. Meanwhile, relatives have confronted the Indonesian vice president to vent their anger. They are not getting many answers. Officials remain mystified as to what might have happened. Setyo Rahardjo, head of the transport safety commission, told Reuters “If it had exploded, where is the debris? These are the questions that need answers."
Questions too are turning to the safety record of the airline. One of about a dozen budget airlines in the world's fourth most populous nation, Adam Air is a privately owned low cost carrier which operates 19 Boeing 737s. Established in 2002, it serves dozens of domestic routes and also flies to Singapore. Its founder, businessman Agung Laksono, is also vice-chair of Indonesia’s biggest political party Golkar. He is also speaker of Indonesia's house of representatives. He has used his political muscle to stop investigations into the operation of the airline.
Last year an Adam Air Boeing 737-300 was forced to make an emergency landing at a small airport on the island of Sumbawa after it wandered 1,200km off course. Short on fuel and with its pilot not sure of his location for nearly four hours, it was forced to make an emergency landing on a 1,600 metre long runway, well short of the 2,200 metre specification set by the aircraft's manufacturer. The pilot claimed the plane's communications and navigation systems had completely failed but the airline deliberately repaired and moved the plane before it could be examined by the National Transport Safety Committee and there was no further investigation.
The parliamentary transportation commission has criticised Laksono for retaining his position as chairman of Adam Air's board of commissioners, but so far this conflict of interest has not been an issue. The strange story of KI-574 may yet change all that.