Singapore Window Logo

Silkair crash: A killer in the cockpit?

South China Morning Post. Oct 3, 1998.

''HE is one of those who believes in giving the best to the task at hand, no matter the obstacles - the gung-ho never say die attitude. It is with great sadness that we play the last bugle call to such a fine officer and gentleman. He is fondly remembered and will be greatly missed...'' Captain Kok Kalong, Terrence, Member of HQ 6th Division

Among the hundreds of messages of condolence that poured into Singaporean Web sites set up to commemorate the deaths of 104 passengers and crew in the crash of Silkair Flight MI 185, the eulogy to Captain Tsu Way Ming was one of the most eloquent.

Tsu, a top gun in the Singapore Air Force for 17 years who was held in awe by many fellow officers, had been at the controls of a Boeing 737-300, the world's most commonly used passenger aircraft, when it fell into Indonesia's Musi River a week before Christmas last year.

Even Singaporeans who knew none of the men, women and children aboard the routine flight between Jakarta and the Lion City were touched: how, they asked, could such a disaster befall the airline of which they were so proud?

There are many baffling questions from ill-fated Flight MI 185 still awaiting answers. But as an Indonesian-led crash investigation team comprising psychologists, engineers and aeronautical experts from Australia, the United States and Britain examine every conceivable mishap, every possible outcome, one strikingly chilling theory is standing out: that Tsu, 41-year-old husband of Evelyn and the father of Donald, Benjamin and Samson, deliberately launched Silkair's 10-month-old 737 into a steep spiral dive from 35,000 feet.

Reaching supersonic speeds of Mach 1.2, say aviation sources, the 737 plunged like a rocket under maximum thrust into a muddy section of the Musi River near the city of Palembang. Such was the speed and acute angle of descent that the sturdy aircraft, which had begun breaking up under the immense forces it was under, took about two minutes from its cruising altitude to impact.

''The wreckage,'' said Brent Hayward, president of the Australian Aviation Psychology Association and an accident investigator, ''was like confetti.''

If the worst fears of airline officials and investigators are confirmed (and they stress their inquiry is incomplete and thus inconclusive), Tsu will go down not just as a suicidal captain, but as a mass murderer who subjected his passengers and crew to a terrifying experience before they met their end.

''Jumping off a bridge or gassing oneself is a very different affair from killing yourself and 103 innocent people,'' said Mr Hayward. ''Most people only want to harm themselves - they don't have violent thoughts towards others. If this is found to be suicide, it's much more complex. It's a very aggressive, possibly vindictive act aimed at getting back at someone or something. It's one thing to act against a company, it's another thing to act against all the people down the back of the plane who are relying on him to get from A to B.''

One possible reason is ''a feeling of having been badly wronged. But it might be something more complex than that,'' said Mr Hayward, like a personality disorder that would be uncovered ''by comprehensively sifting someone's background and going back years to pinpoint some sort of link or trigger''.

Tsu's background was military. The Air Force had been a large part of his life since the age of 19. Eventually rising to become an aerobatic fighter pilot in Singapore's elite Black Knights, he had clocked more than 4,000 hours in military cockpits. Many of those hours were spent pulling gravity-defying manoeuvres in Skyhawks on missions through Asia. He had won high praise in an air-to-ground bombing trial, graduated top of his class in a pilot attack instructor course, and earned the respect and loyalty of his Air Force peers. But his service was not without tragedy. While flying a single-seat Skyhawk in formation with four others during a training run in the Philippines in 1979, disaster struck.

''They were getting experience at flying in mountainous regions in cloud,'' said a former Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot who knew three of the officers. By a stroke of good fortune, Tsu had been forced to pull out of the formation and return to base because of mechanical problems, shortly before the other three flew into a mountain. All were killed. The date was December 19. Eighteen years to the day later, Silkair Flight MI 185 crashed in Sumatra.

Six years ago, Tsu joined the exodus of Air Force pilots to commercial airlines, trading his military flying suit for the civilian kit of regional carrier Silkair, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines.

Operating over 100 flights a week to Asian destinations including Langkawi, Cebu, Lombok, Phuket and Kunming, the award-winning airline offered him the opportunity to get enough hours in the right-hand seat as first officer to win his command as a captain. If he played his cards right he would be able to switch to a more lucrative command with Singapore Airlines. Instead of short jaunts around the region, he hoped to eventually boost his salary while commanding Jumbos crossing the world.

By now, Professor Oetarjo Diran, head of the Indonesian investigation team, will have a deep psychological profile of not just Tsu but also his co-pilot, First Officer Duncan Ward, a 23-year-old New Zealander who had grown up watching light planes land at an airstrip in Auckland. After dozens of interviews with colleagues, family members and friends, the crash team's psychologists know more about the two pilots and their state of mind before the disaster than their closest confidantes.

As more than 80 per cent of crashes are attributed to pilot error, the roles of aviation psychologists and ''human factors'' experts in unravelling what might have gone wrong - and whether lessons can be learned to prevent a reoccurrence - are crucial. ''The psychologists and experts are not just looking at the pilots, they are examining the big picture - how the individuals react together, the ergonomics of the cockpit, the man-machine interface, the management and systemic issues,'' explained Alan Stray, deputy director of Australia's Bureau of Air Safety Investigations, which seconded three investigators to help Professor Diran's team.

However, the severity of the crash, its location in a polluted river and the economic troubles in Indonesia have all contributed to making Professor Diran'job even harder.

''From what I've seen it was one of the most difficult investigations you would ever have the misfortune of having to be involved in,'' said Mr Stray. ''They were faced with a fragmented aircraft deep in mud at the bottom of an unpleasant river.''

Understanding what might have been troubling Tsu became vitally significant within weeks of the recovery by divers and dredgers of pieces of the 737 from the black ooze of the river bed. When the ''black boxes'', the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) - which should have recorded the last conversations of Tsu and Ward as well as every effort they made at the controls to stop the 737's dive - were played back, they were blank for several minutes before the flight's end.

Investigators were baffled. They surmised that before the 737 began its descent, the FDR and CVR had either been deliberately switched off by the pilot, or shut down, perhaps due to a power failure. Even more puzzling is that they did not stop simultaneously - the FDR stopped during cruise at 35,000 feet, while the CVR stopped several minutes later, and a couple of minutes before the start of the dive. As there was a normal radio transmission after the FDR and CVR ceased recording, the chance of a power failure is extremely remote.

According to a pilot familiar with the 737-300, ''the FDR and CVR's circuit breakers can be accessed in flight by either pilot turning around and facing the circuit breaker panels on the flight deck''. It is a simple procedure. As both FDR and CVR are ''passive'' units, pulling the circuit breakers would not have led to warnings in the cockpit displays.

Equally troubling were the results of scientific examination of the engines, showing they were at almost full power on impact. In a very steep dive with the nose down, a pilot trying to save the plane would be throttling back, not forward, in a bid to use the aircraft's drag to slow down and avoid hitting the ground.

By then suspicions were mounting. After Aviation Week & Space Technology raised the suicide theory earlier this year, Professor Diran told a Singapore Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) press conference: ''We haven't ruled out anything, but it doesn't mean that there isn't suicide.''

Revealing ''a history of disagreement'' between Tsu and some of his co-pilots, he confirmed a New Zealand first officer had lodged a specific complaint over Tsu's conduct during a previous landing in Indonesia. The problem? Tsu had miscalculated an approach, went around again and then tampered with the CVR to hide what had happened.

Such conduct is akin to a police officer destroying evidence, and Tsu was subsequently disciplined and demoted from his rank as a check and training captain. After his appeal against Silkair's decision failed, his dreams of rising higher were shot to pieces. ''I don't think there'll be anybody in this world that will be overjoyed if they are removed from that position,'' Tan Wee Lee of the CAA said after the crash.

Two months ago, the investigation team issued a statement saying there was ''no indication that air traffic control, weather or maintenance was a factor in the accident''. It came a day after the Asian Wall Street Journal reported Tsu was debt-ridden, having lost a small fortune on securities investments hit by the Asian economic crisis.

According to several reports, he took out a life insurance policy worth several million US dollars just days before the crash. Usually, insurance companies will not pay out to a beneficiary family in the event of a suicide if the policy is less than a year old.

If the methodical Tsu knew of this condition, were the FDR and CVR turned off to prevent investigators from understanding what was going on in the cockpit? Professor Diran said two months ago that a human factors group was ''still in the process of acquiring information for study of the backgrounds of the flight crew members, their professional proficiency, their careers, private lives and their actions and interactions before and during the flight''. He did not return the South China Morning Post's calls this week.

Pilot murder-suicide or sabotage is not unknown, say aviation experts, though it is extraordinarily rare. In 1994, Moroccan pilot Younes Khyati committed suicide by deliberately crashing a Royal Air Maroc turboprop aircraft into the Atlas mountains near Casablanca, killing all 44 on board. Morocco's Transport Ministry said examination of the flight recorders showed the crash was due to ''the pilot's wish to end his life''. A suicidal pilot in a Japan Air Lines DC8 dived the aircraft into the sea in 1982, causing 24 deaths. There are no other documented cases involving multiple deaths. Investigators say there are, however, cases of pilots committing suicide while flying solo.

Aircraft have also crashed as a result of life insurance policies. In 1973 the explosion of a Cathay Pacific Convair 880 over the central highlands of South Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of 81 people, was blamed on a scheming Thai police officer who had taken out life insurance policies worth 5.5 million baht on his girlfriend and his nine-year-old daughter.

''If [Tsu] was at risk of committing suicide, there's that risk, but generally speaking the systems are designed to make it quite difficult for that to occur,'' said James Reason, a professor of psychology at the University of Manchester and co-author of Beyond Aviation Human Factors. ''In this case the most interesting question is how did the defences fail?''

Several pilots interviewed by the Post believe that for the suicide theory to be true, Tsu must have got co-pilot Ward out of the cockpit before the 737 started its dive. ''He could have come up with any number of reasons, such as 'the control column feels a bit strange, go down the back and have a look at the wings for me','' said one pilot. As a former fighter pilot, Tsu would have known precisely how to put the 737 into a spiral dive. By slowly pulling the nose up and banking, the aircraft could have gained altitude while keeping the forces of gravity unnoticeable. If it had been in cloud the passengers would not have noticed even as the 737 rolled almost upside down. At this point its spiral dive could start.

As the 737 turned continuously like a cork-screw in a steep trajectory the forces of gravity in the cabin would have pinned the passengers hard to their seats. A very large person walking in the aisle would suddenly weigh at least twice as much and possibly break both legs. There would have been extreme shuddering; equipment such as navigation lights, hard aerials and the odd panel would likely be breaking off. Inside the cockpit the air noise would be roaring.

If Ward had been down near the back of the plane when the spiral dive started, the only way to get to the cockpit would be to crawl along the floor on his hands and knees. Walking would be almost impossible, like a diver wearing huge iron boots. If the cockpit door were locked it would be extremely difficult to break in. Retrieval would be uncertain - by pulling the thrust levers back to reduce speed, then rolling to level the wings and pulling the nose up to the horizon, a 737 would recover from a supersonic dive but it could take several thousand feet.

Mercifully, a lot of the passengers would have blacked out due to the forces of gravity drawing blood to their feet. ''Due to his Air Force training the captain would be able to keep the 'G' [gravitational force] on and stay conscious with ease,'' said the former RAAF pilot. ''He would have been conscious all the way down.''

There are some who suspect Silkair's disaster can be linked to the Skyhawk mission in the Philippines in which Tsu narrowly cheated death. The psychologists involved in the Silkair investigation will already have examined closely whether he suffered ''survivor guilt'', a post-traumatic stress disorder.

''It is a reaction to trauma where the person feels guilty for surviving something that others have not,'' said Mr Hayward. ''It has been documented in a number of studies, from soldiers in the Vietnam War to school children in Israel. Those who survived bomb blasts without a scratch had more ongoing psychological problems than those who lost a leg. They could not understand why they survived unscathed while others died or were maimed.''

Whether such problems can be detected during routine medical evaluations is arguable. ''The screening is not perfect,'' says Professor Reason. ''You don't have to be depressed to commit suicide, it can be completely impulsive.''

Captain Peter D'Cruz, president of the Airline Pilots Association of Singapore, said his members - like commercial pilots the world over - have been closely following the probe. ''We want it to get down to the truth,'' he said. ''There are several theories. I could put forward a theory that maybe someone entered the cockpit and whacked both the pilots.'' According to Captain D'Cruz, the six-monthly medicals for Singapore Airlines pilots do not include psychological evaluations.

Singapore Airlines and Silkair spokesman Rick Clements refused to comment on speculation relating to Tsu. The airline has been assisting investigators as well as liaising with families of the victims. More than half were from Singapore or Indonesia, as well as the US, Malaysia, France, Germany, Britain, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Austria and New Zealand.

In Park Avenue offices in Manhattan, lawyer Francis Fleming, whose high-powered firm Kreindler and Kreindler represents several families of Silkair victims, angrily rebuts speculation that Tsu took his own life and the lives of 103 others.

''There is no evidence, absolutely and unequivocally, that this is suicide,'' he says. ''What we have here is a story that picks out the most bizarre circumstances such as the crash 18 years earlier of his colleagues during their Air Force days. I have even heard a reference to a fictional novel in which a Federal Express pilot does the same thing.''

Mr Fleming, whose firm won US$500 million in damages from Pan Am stemming from the 1988 downing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland, has filed suit against Boeing in the US on behalf of the family of passenger Suzan Picariello, an American Express executive.

He believes that Silkair's crash ''is related to control problems of the 737 and the rudder and we are trying to explore that [against Boeing] the best we can''. ''But if evidence develops to suggest suicide, it would be suicide and a series of murders. And I believe the claims in such a case would be against Silkair.''

On the first anniversary of the crash in 10 weeks, a private memorial service will be held in Palembang, eight kilometres north of the crash site. Families of the dead - children, elderly, honeymooners, students and businessmen - will gather to remember loved ones. And to ask why.

Published in the South China Morning Post. Oct 3, 1998

Return Home