Experts still divided on SilkAir pilot-suicide theory
December 19, 2000
THREE years ago Dec 19, SilkAir Flight MI-185 took off from Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport on a scheduled afternoon flight to Singapore. At the controls were Tsu Way Ming, the Singaporean captain, and Duncan Ward, a New Zealander who was the co-pilot. .
The jet, a new Boeing 737-300, carried the pilots, five cabin crew and 97 passengers, mainly Singaporeans and Indonesians but also four French nationals, three Britons and two Americans. At about 4 p.m., the pilots reported that everything was normal as the aircraft cruised at 35,000 feet in light winds and scattered clouds over the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about halfway to Singapore. . At 4:05 p.m., the cockpit voice recorder indicated that Mr Tsu was getting out of his seat after telling the co pilot that he wanted to go to the passenger cabin. He asked if Mr Ward wanted a drink of water. Moments later, the recorder ceased to function. . Shortly afterward, air traffic control in Jakarta informed Flight MI-185 that it was near the south Sumatran town of Palembang, a notice that Mr. Ward acknowledged. At about 4:11 p.m. - six minutes after the cockpit voice recorder had stopped - the automatic flight-data recorder stopped.
At about 4:12 pm, radar in Jakarta showed that the plane had started a steep descent. It dropped more than 15,000 feet (4600 meters) in 32 seconds to an altitude of 19,600 feet. At 4:13 pm the aircraft disappeared from the radar screen. There was no distress call.
Villagers living near the muddy delta of the Musi River, 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Palembang, watched in horror as Flight MI-185 plunged almost vertically into the river at the end of its high-speed dive. Fishermen started a search for survivors, but it was futile. All 104 people on board had been killed.
The two onboard recorders were recovered and sent for examination by a team of experts led by the official investigating body, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee. The panel included representatives of the US National Transportation Safety Board, because the plane was American-made, and the Singaporean Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, because SilkAir is the regional wing of Singapore Airlines. The Australian Bureau of Air Safety Investigation participated in an advisory role.
When the Indonesian committee published its preliminary findings in August 1999, it said there was reason to suspect that the crash of Flight MI 185 had been the result of an intentional act by one or more persons on the aircraft. The report pointed the finger at Mr Tsu, saying he had suffered heavy losses on the stock market around the time of the accident. He had also been reprimanded three times and demoted by SilkAir management for breaches of pilot discipline.
According to SilkAir and Singaporean police investigations, in March 1997, in the first of those incidents, a plane piloted by Mr Tsu into Manado airport in North Sulawesi Province in Indonesia was too high to land and had to make a second approach. Mr Tsu failed to file a report as required and both he and his co-pilot were summoned by SilkAir for investigation.
Three months later, Mr Tsu was scheduled to fly with the same co-pilot from Singapore to Jakarta. During pre-flight checking, Mr Tsu reportedly discussed the Manado incident with the co-pilot. Just before the plane taxied out to the runway, Mr Tsu triggered the circuit breaker of the cockpit voice recorder.
He subsequently explained to SilkAir management that he wanted to preserve the conversation and had planned to use it as evidence in the investigation into the Manado incident. But the co-pilot refused to fly unless Mr Tsu reset the circuit breaker. Mr Tsu contacted the air traffic controller and got permission to return to the gate to download information from the recorder, which operates on a loop. However, he subsequently changed his mind, reset the circuit breaker and they proceeded to take off. As a consequence of this incident, SilkAir management demoted Mr Tsu from instructor-pilot to the rank of captain.
Investigations by the Singaporean police show that Mr Tsu also had had financial problems at the time of the ill-fated flight. Between 1993 and 1997, Mr Tsu and his family made gross capital gains of more than 2.5 million Singapore dollars ($1.4 million at the current rate of exchange) from the sale of two properties. But in the same period, he suffered stock trading losses of 2.25 million dollars and on Dec. 4, 1997 - just 15 days before the crash - he was suspended from trading with just over 118,000 dollars owed to the stockbroking firm with which he did business.
Also shortly before the crash, Mr Tsu had arranged for an insurance policy to protect his wife and their three children from having to pay the balance of their home mortgage in the event of his death or permanent disability. On Dec. 12 he was told that his application had been accepted. He posted a check for the first premium payment on Dec. 16 and the insurance took effect on Dec. 19 - the day of the crash.
YET, in its final report last week, the Indonesian investigating committee concluded that although the wreckage showed that the plane's horizontal stabilizer trim was set in a dive position, there was no way of knowing how and why it was put in that position. Nor was it possible to determine why both the voice and flight data recorders had stopped before the fatal dive began. . "Due to the highly fragmented wreckage, and the nearly total lack of useful data, information, findings and evidence, the investigation cannot explain how and why the accident happened," the Indonesian committee concluded in its report. . Mr Tsu's wife, Evelyn, said she was relieved. "I always knew for sure that he would never do such a thing," she said. "It has been a long, painful wait. But I don't know if my heart can ever heal."
In a dissenting view, Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the probe had led the board to the conclusion that no airplane-related mechanical malfunctions or failures caused or contributed to the accident, but that it could be explained by intentional pilot action.
"The evidence suggests that the cockpit voice recorder was intentionally disconnected," Mr Hall wrote. "It is more likely that the nose-down flight control inputs were made by the captain than by the first officer." . The board noted in its comments on the final Indonesian report that the circuit-breaker panel was located directly behind the captain's seat and contained the breakers for both the cockpit and flight data recorders. . "It was determined that the cockpit door did not open before the cockpit voice recorder ceased recording," the US board said. "Thus it is evident that the captain would have been in the best position to manually pull the circuit breaker at the time that it stopped."
In a separate report into whether a criminal offense might have caused the crash of Flight MI-185 on Dec. 19, 1997, the Singaporean police concluded that they could find no evidence that the pilot or anyone else on board had suicidal tendencies or a motive to deliberately cause the crash.
An independent review by an accounting firm into Mr Tsu's financial background, made at the request of Indonesian investigators after they issued their preliminary report in August 1999, found that he was solvent and possessed a positive net worth.
The Singaporean police found that despite his trading losses, Mr Tsu had a net worth of more than US$880,000 before his death and that Mr Tsu's father had promised to lend him the money to pay off his trading debt. The police said there was no indication that Mr Tsu had committed suicide at the controls of Flight MI-185 so that his family would gain from the insurance policy he had taken out.
Police officials said a team of psychologists and psychiatrists who had interviewed many people who knew Mr Tsu and MrWard did not find "any substantive psychosocial evidence to establish the probable motivation, intention or reason of an alleged suicide cum homicide committed by the pilot, co-pilot or both."
Oetarjo Diran, chairman of the Indonesian investigating committee, said that the panel had extensively explored the allegation of intentional pilot action made by the US board. "While the US has put forth a plausible hypothesis, the objective of the investigation has to go beyond hypothesizing to establish conclusions based on concrete evidence and proof," he said. "The US position, in my opinion, is based on insufficient evidence."
David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flight International magazine in London, said that if the Indonesian committee had concluded that Mr Tsu had committed suicide at the controls, it would have been effectively judging him guilty of murder, for which proof beyond reasonable doubt was required.
"The amount of circumstantial evidence is pretty overpowering and, frankly, everybody in the business thinks that this is actually what happened," Mr Learmount said. "But if you approach this in a completely legalistic way, the evidence that they have simply doesn't prove what happened."
Meanwhile a lawyer for airline crash victims' families criticized the US report according to Associated Press, Dec 20
The lawyer Dec said pilot suicide could have caused the Boeing 737 crash in Indonesia that took 104 lives.
Attorney Benton Musslewhite, speaking at a news conference in Singapore, angrily argued that there was no evidence of "suicide-murder" by Singaporean pilot Tsu Way Ming. The American lawyer also accused U.S. investigators of overlooking rudder defects on 737s.
The suggestion that the pilot could have intentionally crashed the plane "relies upon sheer speculation," Musslewhite said. "There's just no real evidence to support it. You've got to have real evidence in a court of law."
Investigations by Singapore authorities showed that pilot Tsu was psychologically sound and financially solvent, despite having large debts at the time of the crash and a history of disciplinary problems at work.
Singapore officials interviewed more than 100 people who knew Tsu, and thoroughly checked his financial background, Musslewhite said.
"This man loved his family. He loved his wife. He was proud of his son," Musslewhite said. "This was not a man that was about to commit suicide."
The lawyer also criticized the NTSB report for "disregarding the known historical proclivity of the 737s to make uncommanded departures from controlled flight." He cited a number of past examples, and details from a July 2000 report on the issue by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz on Dec 20 told the Associated Press that the board had not ignored 737 rudder problems in its investigation.
"We're quite aware of those because we're the ones that found them," he said.
Regarding the pilot's possible role in the crash, Lopatkiewicz said: "Our report speaks for itself. It sets out our findings to the Indonesians. We really can't go beyond that."
Musslewhite is on a team of lawyers representing families of victims of SilkAir Flight MI185 in a lawsuit lodged against Seattle-based Boeing Co. in 1998 in a California State Court in Los Angeles.
"We're asking for a lot of money. In the range of $1 million plus" for each family, he said Dec 19.
"We're suing for product liability. We're saying that the aircraft was defective or unreasonably dangerous," Musslewhite said, adding that his case would probably be ready for trial in early 2002.