Indonesian investigators said they were homing in on the black box from a crashed jetliner after locating its “pings” on Wednesday, two days after the jet crashed shortly after take-off with 189 people on board.
Retrieving the black box will be key to unlocking why the Boeing 737-MAX, one of the world’s newest and most advanced commercial passenger jets, nosedived into the Java Sea so soon after leaving Jakarta.
Authorities said they believed they were closing in on the main wreckage and had picked up the box’s signals some 30-40 metres (100-130 feet) below the surface of the water off Indonesia’s north coast, where the plane crashed on Monday.
“We’ve detected the black box signal,” Muhammad Syaugi, head of Indonesian search and rescue agency, told reporters in Jakarta.
Boeing officials were expected to meet with Lion Air on Wednesday, after Indonesia ordered an inspection of the US plane maker’s 737-MAX jets.
The black box contains important flight data that shows the speed, altitude and direction of the plane, while the cockpit voice recorder keeps track of conversations and other sounds in the cockpit.
The downed plane, which went into service just a few months ago, was en route to Pangkal Pinang city when it crashed into the Java Sea off Indonesia’s northern coast moments after it had asked to return to Jakarta on Monday.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s transport minister took the unusual step of ordering the removal of Lion Air’s technical director and several other staff, citing government authority over the aviation sector.
“Today we will remove Lion’s technical director from his duties to be replaced by someone else, as well as technical staff” who cleared the flight to depart, Budi Karya Sumadi told reporters.
Aviation experts say it is too early to determine what caused the accident.
But Lion’s admission that the plane had an unspecified technical issue on a previous flight – as well as the plane’s abrupt nosedive just 12 minutes after takeoff – have raised questions about whether it had any faults specific to the newly released model, including a speed-and-altitude system malfunction.
‘Worst in the world’
“The bigger picture here is that you’ve got a lot of American carriers flying the same aircraft,” said Stephen Wright, aviation expert at the University of Leeds.
“Is there [a problem] that could affect other aircraft?”
The crash has also resurrected concerns about Indonesia’s patchy air safety record which led to a now-lifted ban on its planes entering US and European airspace.
Lion’s co-founder Rusdi Kirana, now Indonesia’s ambassador to Malaysia, said in a 2015 interview that “my airline is the worst in the world, but you don’t have a choice”.
Founded in 1999, the budget carrier capitalised on a boom in Indonesia’s aviation industry, but has been plagued by safety woes and complaints over unreliable scheduling and poor service.
Lion was involved in a number of incidents including a fatal 2004 crash and a collision between two Lion Air planes at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport.
Lion Air Managing Director Daniel Putut said the airline had “many questions” for Chicago-based Boeing and they would discuss the delivery of 737-MAX models on still on order, Indonesian news website tirto.id reported.
Indonesia’s biggest low-cost carrier announced this year it was buying 50 Boeing-737 MAX 10 jets for $6.24 billion.
Boeing suspended release of the fuel-efficient 737 MAX just days before its first commercial delivery last year due to an engine issue. But the single-aisle jet was subsequently cleared for commercial delivery and has had thousands of orders from more than 100 customers worldwide.
Boeing and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are taking part in the probe.
Search teams have been recovering personal effects and separating human remains from plane debris, sending the body parts – including from an infant – to hospital for DNA testing.