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
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.
claim by Nolan - representing 15 families in the lawsuit
against aircraft manufacturer Boeing - has raised new
Among other things: How did Nolan manage to
uncover such vital information that had eluded aviation
experts and investigators? How authentic is the
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
But according to Mr Ellis, the FDR came to a halt
only 30 to 40 seconds before the crash.
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
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
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