An Even Deeper MI185 SilkAir Crash Mystery

The Silkair MI185 mystery murkens. It would appear that the NTSB and Professor Diran do have some explaining to do. I would doubt that the Freedom of Information Request was handled at the NTSB with anything other than acute awareness of what could transpire from these revelations. Boeing will not be happy.

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First created :
30 May 2003 0913 hrs (SST) 0113 hrs (GMT)
Last modified :
30 May 2003 0913 hrs (SST) 0113 hrs (GMT)

Black box riddle: 
New twist to SilkAir case raises more questions than answers

By Kim-Kyna Tan

It’s a new twist to the five-year-old mystery of SilkAir Flight MI185 - one that may redeem reputations and have a bearing on the outcome of multi-million lawsuits.

Amid continued whispers that pilot suicide is behind the crash, a US law firm said that it had unearthed new evidence which suggests that mechanical, rather than human error, sent the plane with 104 people on board crashing into Indonesia’s Musi River on Dec 19, 1997.


According to the Chicago-based Nolan Law Group, its review of the flight data recorder (FDR) or black box, suggests that the plane was under severe mechanical distress minutes before it crashed.

But the claim by Nolan - representing 15 families in the lawsuit against aircraft manufacturer Boeing - has raised new questions.

Among other things: How did Nolan manage to uncover such vital information that had eluded aviation experts and investigators? How authentic is the data?

In an e-mail interview, Mr Thomas Ellis, Nolan’s director of litigation support, said: “Boeing has maintained that the FDR tape was damaged and unreadable in the last few minutes of the flight … We decided we wanted to see the final data for ourselves.”

Nolan’s review apparently throws up findings that are quite different from those by the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The Indonesian report said the black box had stopped recording at 4.11pm, six minutes after the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) stopped functioning.

At 4.12pm, readings at air traffic control in Jakarta showed that the plane was beginning its descent. In 32 seconds, the plane had plummeted to an altitude of 19,600 feet.

The US safety board had earlier ruled out mechanical failure, asserting that the CVR was “intentionally disconnected”, most likely by Captain Tsu Way Ming.
But according to Mr Ellis, the FDR came to a halt only 30 to 40 seconds before the crash.

“When you review the 25-hour FDR data, you will see that it shows the airplane at a last altitude of approximately 16,000 feet, its airspeed increasing, and interestingly, a full rudder deflection,” Mr Ellis said.

The fresh finding is highly significant as a full rudder deflection is not normal for a plane travelling at 16,000 feet.

Nolan’s experts have pointed out that the rudder, which helps steer the plane from side to side, is used extensively during take-off and landing but not during a flight.

“If you were riding in an airplane where the rudder moved three degrees to the right, you would definitely feel it and wonder what was going on. Imagine what a full rudder deflection of 30 degrees would feel like,” said Mr Ellis.

The new data, if proven true, may also rule out the possibility of pilot suicide or homicide as claimed by six families who had unsuccessfully sued SilkAir for wilful misconduct on the part of Flight MI185’s Capt Tsu and his co-pilot.

Mr Ellis said: “The evidence we uncovered … does not indicate, per se, that there was a rudder malfunction. Rather, it tells us that we have the accident flight data as opposed to what was previously thought. The movement is highly unusual. It is not what you would see if a pilot was trying to take an airplane on a suicide/homicidal dive. It may be more of an attempt to get the plane under control.”

For those who doubt the authenticity of the findings, Mr Ellis said the US safety board “had this information all along”.

“Nolan Law Group sent a freedom of information request to NTSB asking for the FDR data. This is possible under United States law … One year later, we were surprised when we received all of the final 25 hours of information for the aircraft,” said Mr Ellis.

He added: “It is interesting to note that the FDR data attached to the Indonesian final report states that it is preliminary data of the last five minutes and is dated Jan 21, 1998. However, the 25 hours of data we received states that it is finalised data from May 22, 1999. The Indonesian NTSC report was issued on Dec 14, 2000 … did the NTSB not give the Indonesian investigators the information, or did the Indonesian investigators choose, for some reason, not to use the finalised data?”

When contacted, Professor Oetarjo Diran, who led the Indonesian investigation team, said: “We did not find anything in the investigation that indicates there was rudder malfunction.”

Speaking in his personal capacity, Prof Diran said: “I think the NTSB and my team have made a thorough investigation of the flight data and it is a very interesting fact if they (Nolan) can find more information than us.”

He also questioned how Nolan had obtained the FDR tape as it had “limited circulation” among the investigating parties, namely the NTSC, NTSB and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

Others who remain sceptical of the new findings noted that the law firm may have vested interests.

The lawsuit by Nolan’s clients against Boeing will be heard in October.

Said Mr Jim Eckes, an aviation consultant from Indoswiss Aviation: “Lawyers representing either side of the dispute are not the best people to get an unbiased opinion from.”

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