Unfortunately we’re only a few days into 2021 and we already have our first major airline crash. Keeping it brief, here’s the basics of what we know:
The airline: Sriwijaya Air is an Indonesian low-cost carrier that has operated since the early 2000s, with domestic and a few short international routes. The airline has had a few runway overrun accidents, but nothing like this before. However the Indonesian low-cost carrier segment as a whole, which has been growing like wildfire to accommodate demand in its developing home country, has been fraught with safety issues.
The airplane: The aircraft involved was a 26-year-old Boeing 737-500 with the registration PK-CLC. It was first operated by Continental Airlines, and came to Sriwijaya later in its life. Of course, this is not a 737 MAX. It’s from a generation of the 737 lineage with a longstanding great safety record overall. So far, most of the mainstream media coverage we’ve seen has made that distinction clear, which we’re glad to see (for the sake of keeping unnecessary hysteria to a minimum).
The flight, SJ182: The flight had 62 people on board. All that we know about the five-minute flight for now is from flight tracker data, and it looks like the plane lost over 10,000 feet of altitude in less than a minute, four minutes into the flight. A trajectory like that suggests something significantly worse than an engine loss or minor malfunction. Other losses of aircraft with pre-crash trajectories like that have been affected by things like bombs, unrecovered stalls, or a truly catastrophic level of damage to the airframe. As for what happened in this case, it’s far too early to speculate. There was definitely some bad weather in the area, though we don’t have granular enough data to know exactly what was going on around the plane at the point it began its dive.
Wreckage has been spotted in the water, and it does not appear likely that there are any survivors. Our thoughts go out to the passengers and crew lost, and their families. We’ll be keeping an eye on the news, though airline incident investigations are thorough and often take some time to yield definitive findings.