Rudder error and pilot reaction caused AirAsia crash

Wreckage of the AirAsia Airbus A320 which crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people onboard. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Wreckage of the AirAsia Airbus A320 which crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people onboard. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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A rudder control system problem that had occurred 23 times in the previous 12 months coupled with the pilots’ response led to last year’s crash of an AirAsia plane that killed all 162 people on board, Indonesian investigators said yesterday.

The National Transportation Safety Committee said an analysis of Flight 8501’s data recorder showed the rudder control system had sent repeated warnings to the pilots during the December 28 flight from Surabaya to Singapore.

Aircraft maintenance records for the Airbus A320 showed similar problems with the rudder system had occurred 23 times during the year prior to the crash, including nine instances in December. The investigators said the fault was caused by cracked soldering on an electronic card.

Investigator Nurcahyo Utomo said the problem by itself should not have been dangerous. But after the fourth time an alarm went off during the flight, a crew member apparently went outside of handbook recommendations and removed a circuit breaker to try to reset the system, he said.

The autopilot then became disengaged, and the aircraft began to roll, but no movement was detected on the manual control stick for nine seconds, he said. It then began climbing rapidly before stalling and plummeting into the Java Sea.

Mr Utomo said the voice recorder showed the pilot said “pull down”, but in fact the plane was ascending. “It seemed there was a miscommunication between the pilot and co-pilot after the fourth fault,” he said.

The same warnings had occurred three days before the crash with the same pilot, who witnessed a technician on the ground addressing the problem by removing the circuit breaker and then replacing it, according to investigators.

The last contact the pilots had with air traffic control indicated they were entering stormy weather. They asked to climb from 32,000 feet to 38,000ft but were denied permission because of heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the plane dropped off the radar. No distress signal was issued, and investigators said weather conditions did not play a role in the crash.

Only 106 bodies were recovered due to rough seas and poor underwater visibility that hampered divers’ efforts. Most of those on board were Indonesian headed to Singapore for the New Year holiday.

“There is much to be learned here for AirAsia, the manufacturer and the aviation industry,” tweeted Tony Fernandes, chief executive of the Malaysia-based budget carrier. “We will not leave any stone unturned to make sure the industry learns from this tragic incident.”