The retrieval of the black boxes from the wreckage of Indonesia's Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 will shed light on why the Boeing Co. 737-500 jet, a 27-year workhorse of the skies, plunged into the Java Sea just minutes after take off. Until that time, there are questions over what caused the tragedy. Human error, bad weather and equipment malfunction are all possibilities.
On paper at least, both pilots were highly experienced, in command of an aircraft with a relatively good safety record. Sriwijaya Air, despite being little known outside of Indonesia, has a solid history too, with no fatal accidents since its establishment in 2003.
Captain Afwan, who only goes by one name, started his career as a Hercules pilot in Airlift Squadron 32 and had several decades of flying experience.
"We never fly together because he's a pilot for the 737 Classic while I'm on the 737 Next Generation" family of jets, said Captain Rama Valerino Noya, who's also a pilot for Sriwijaya as well as vice chairman of the Indonesian Pilot Association. "But from my interaction with him, he's very skillful."
Noya said all pilots for the airline had more than enough flying hours to meet regulatory requirements even through COVID-19.
Afwan's co-pilot Diego Mamahit was equally qualified, joining Sriwijaya's NAM Flying School in 2010 after getting his bachelor's degree from a university in Jakarta. The senior first officer had clocked more than 5,000 hours on a Boeing 737 in his seven-year career. "I really love to fly," he'd written on his LinkedIn page.
Sriwijaya started with just one Boeing 737-200 in its early days and initially flew short-haul routes from Jakarta. It's since expanded to 48 Boeing jets and has 53 routes, mainly serving small cities across Indonesia's sprawling archipelago, according to its website. Its fleet maintenance is carried out by aviation engineers from Indonesia and overseas.
Flag carrier PT Garuda Indonesia briefly took over the operation of Sriwijaya and its unit NAM Air in 2018 to expedite Sriwijaya's debt restructuring. Maintenance during that period was also conducted by Garuda.
For an airline with a 17-year history, Sriwijaya's track record is sound. It hadn't been involved in any fatal accidents before last weekend, although one incident in 2008 killed a farmer after a jet overshot a runway and careened into a field.
In May 2017, another of Sriwijaya's planes overshot a runway and in June 2012, another veered off the tarmac after touchdown in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, where Flight 182 was headed. That plane was written off due to extensive landing gear damage.
The type of Boeing jet in question, part of the airline manufacturer's Classic series, has only been involved in a handful of hull-loss incidents, or accidents where the plane is beyond repair, as well as two hijackings.
The four other fatal accidents, which altogether claimed the lives of 220 people, include two in Russia, one in South Korea and another in Tunisia. The 737-500's most recent non-fatal accident was early last month when an Air Djibouti jet carrying 44 passengers suffered a landing gear collapse upon arrival at an airport in Somalia.