SilkAir Flight 185 Crash

Eighteen months after the crash of a Silk Air jet in Indonesia, families of the 103 passengers and crew who died are still waiting for an official explanation.

GEOFFREY THOMAS has found evidence of a murder-suicide by a pilot who should not have been flying.

FOR THE passengers on flight MI 185, it should have been a short hop from Jakarta to Singapore on that steamy day on December 19, 1997. They could not have known of the deeply troubled past of their captain and how that and alleged crushing personal debts would conspire to lead to a fiery end in a muddy Indonesian river.

Although not concluded by the Indonesian authorities, it has been suggested by a.o. the US NTSB that the captain may have committed suicide by switching off both flight recorders and intentionally putting the Boeing 737 in a dive, possibly when the first officer had left the flight deck. During 1997 the captain experienced multiple work-related difficulties, particularly during the last 6 months. Also at the time of the accident the captain was experiencing significant financial difficulties (this was disputed by the Indonesian investigators). Another interesting fact is the accident which happened on exactly the same date in 1979 the captain was forced to withdraw from a scheduled Air Force jet training mission because of a mechanical problem with his aircraft. The other three aircraft continued with the training mission and collided with terrain after encountering bad weather in a mountainous area. All of the pilots on board the aircraft were killed.

SilkAir Flight 185, a Boeing 737-36N, registration 9V-TRF, was a scheduled passenger flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Singapore, which crashed on 19 December 1997 after abruptly plunging into the Musi River from its 35,000 feet cruise altitude, killing all 97 passengers and 7 crew on board.

Remarkably, the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder stopped recording, at different times and for no apparent reason, minutes before the aircraft departed level flight and entered a steep vertical dive.

The crash was investigated by various groups, with different results. The Indonesian NTSC, who were lead investigators, were unable to determine the cause, while the U.S. NTSB concluded that the crash resulted from an intentional act by a pilot, most likely the captain.

Flight 185 remained level at FL350 until it started a rapid and nearly vertical dive, as shown on Jakarta radar, around 16:12:18. The aircraft broke up in flight, crashing into the Musi River, near Palembang, Sumatra.

All 104 people on board, including the 41-year-old Singaporean captain, Tsu Way Ming and the 23-year-old co-pilot, New Zealander Duncan Ward, died in the crash.

The aircraft broke into pieces before impact, with the debris spread over several kilometres, though most of the wreckage was concentrated in a single 60x80 meter area at the river bottom. There was not a complete body, body part or limb found, as the entire aircraft and passengers disintegrated upon impact. Only six positive identifications were later obtained from the few recovered human remains.

Among those killed in the crash was Singaporean model and author Bonny Hicks.