A Singapore court is reviewing the 1997 crash of a near-new SilkAir jet. MATHEW DEARNALEY reports.
SilkAir flight MI 185 took just over a minute to plunge 35,000 feet to the depths of an Indonesian river.
More than three years on, the question remains: were the 104 people killed the victims of a pilot bent on suicide?
Two New Zealand families are among those awaiting a judge's verdict on whether SilkAir, a Singapore Airlines subsidiary, wilfully turned a blind eye to the pilot's previous safety breaches.
On board the Boeing 737 that December day in 1997 were Aucklanders Duncan Ward, the 23-year-old co-pilot, and 42-year-old Kenneth Wilson, a Scottish-born engineer travelling to join his wife and two teenage daughters for Christmas from an Indonesian mining job.
SilkAir says suggestions that Captain Tsu Way Ming was suicidal when he crashed the 10-month-old jet through the sound barrier into the Musi River in the Sumatran jungle are "false, malicious and highly irresponsible."
But its chief pilot admitted last week before the end of a 13-day Singapore Supreme Court hearing that it remained "stumped" for an alternative to the United States National Transportation Safety Board finding blaming "intentional pilot action."
No evidence of any technical fault was presented to the court, but SilkAir suggested that disconnection of the cockpit voice recorder, followed six minutes later by the flight data recorder, might have been the result of progressive electrical failure.
The families of the two Aucklanders are not directly involved, having already accepted compensation, but they are closely following the action by five other bereaved families suing the airline.
These families say the idea of progressive electrical failure is nonsense. It is more likely the two black boxes were switched off to mask evidence of an intentional nose-dive from which the aircraft hit the river upside down but almost vertical.
Captain Tsu had been disciplined before for disconnecting a cockpit voice recorder.
Indonesian investigators concluded after a three-year inquiry that there was not enough evidence to determine the cause of the crash. But an appendix attached by the United States agency to their report held that the plane could not have acted as it did without deliberate pilot action.
Most of the passengers would have blacked out well before impact, but Captain Tsu was a skilled aerobatic pilot who could have stayed conscious a lot longer. Yet he made no apparent attempt to throttle back.
There was considerable courtroom argument over whether the co-pilot could have reacted in time to counter the dive, but his father, retired Howick engineer Derek Ward, believes he may even have been locked out of the cockpit before the descent.
Mr Ward told the Herald the last sounds on the cockpit voice recorder before it cut out were Captain Tsu asking Duncan if he wanted a drink of water and telling him to finish a meal, followed by the noise of a seatbelt buckle falling on the floor.
Lawyers now have five weeks to make submissions on claims for unrestricted damages by the families of passengers from Singapore, Malaysia, the United States and Scotland - before Justice Tan gives his verdict.
The two New Zealand families have instead joined most others in accepting compensation of $US200,000 ($489,000) for each victim after rejecting initial offers starting at $US25,000.
Mr Ward says his family took the payout very reluctantly, against a deadline and feeling pessimistic about finding justice in a Singapore court presided over by astate-appointed judge sitting with no jury.
He noted that SilkAir was majority-owned by the Singapore Government and that the suing families' lawyer, Michael Khoo, was a former judge sidelined after his controversial acquittal of an Opposition leader on politically related charges in 1987.
But Mr Ward has kept close contact with those involved in the case, passing information he has gleaned in more than three years of his own sleuthing, and says their determination may have achieved more than he thought possible.
He and Tanse Wilson, widow of Kenneth Wilson, are also involved with about 30 families in a lawsuit in the United States against Boeing and its parts suppliers.
Mr Ward says this is just part of his quest for the truth, and he has instructed lawyers to withdraw from that case if it ends up conflicting with the other families' claims against the airline.
One plaintiff in the Singapore case withdrew last week from the United States proceedings after SilkAir, which is separately suing Boeing for $US55 million, questioned how those blaming the pilot could also seek damages for alleged equipment failure.
The airline's lawyer, Lok Vi Ming, told the court the United States case could be taken as an admission that the crash could have been caused by mechanical or other non-human factors.
He also noted that an independent inquiry by the Singapore police ruled out suicide as a possible motive for either pilot.
Before MI 185 left Singapore for what was supposed to be a routine return flight to Jakarta on December 19, 1997, Duncan Ward told a friend he would meet him the next evening, "if I make it."
Colleagues now see this as a reference to concerns about Captain Tsu, a 41-year-old former Singapore Air Force ace who had been demoted by SilkAir five months earlier for two performance lapses and later reprimanded for a third.
After landing safely in Jakarta, the seven crew welcomed aboard 97 passengers - including four children - for the flight back to Singapore over Sumatra.
There was no untoward weather or any sign of trouble until 50 minutes after takeoff, when the aircraft suddenly plunged out of the sky to become embedded 10m into the river's muddy bed, mangled almost beyond recognition. Only 63 per cent of the plane has been recovered, and SilkAir says the answer to the mystery may be among the 13 tonnes of missing debris.
Radar readings suggest the plane plummeted from 35,000ft to 19,500ft in just 32 seconds before disappearing off a Jakarta air traffic screen, but an aeronautic engineer testified for the company that this was impossibly fast and he questioned the data.
Captain Tsu, married with three children, was found to have been in financial trouble after losses in the Asian economic crisis.
December 19 was also the anniversary of a tragedy still weighing on him in which four of his Air Force colleagues crashed into a mountain in 1979. He had been due to lead the training exercise but pulled out when his Skyhawk developed a fault. He is believed to have blamed himself for not being with the men.
A key witness in the Singapore court was another New Zealand pilot, Laurence Dittmer, a close friend of Duncan Ward and first officer during the two incidents for which Captain Tsu was demoted as an instructor pilot.
The second incident involved a heated cockpit conversation about the first, when Mr Dittmer said he was scared by S-turns the captain executed to lose speed in April 1997 after finding himself flying too fast and high to make a landing.
"If the passengers were anything like me, they would have been scared. I was scared," said Mr Dittmer, who has seven years' flying experience and who now works for a British domestic airline.
The manoeuvre failed to get the plane into position and it had to turn for another landing attempt, but Mr Dittmer said it had lost too much altitude and he had to intervene to help Captain Tsu regain power.
Captain Tsu failed to report the incident, despite assuring Mr Dittmer he would do so.
Three months later, after a tense conversation before takeoff on a Singapore runway, Captain Tsu pulled out the circuit breaker of a cockpit voice recorder but reconnected it when Mr Dittmer said he would not fly without it.
SilkAir said in a subsequent demotion letter that it took a serious view of his non-disclosure of the first incident and accused him of conduct unbecoming to a commander in disabling essential equipment.
The lawyer for the suing families, Mr Khoo, challenged the airline for not taking more severe action against Captain Tsu for a third incident, a month before the crash, in which he took off from Singapore to China without gaining enough engine thrust. The plane had to return to Singapore, overloaded with fuel, and Captain Tsu again failed to report the incident.
His supervisor, Captain Anthony Leong, sent him a letter merely asking him to be "more mindful" in future.
The reason for the lack of thrust was later found to be a leaky fuel pump, which former Australian Air Force instructor Maurie Baston told the court was "a significant unserviceability."
Mr Khoo said the plaintiffs were not out to show that Captain Tsu committed suicide, and there were two possible explanations for the crash - an intentional action or recklessness.
He acknowledged that whoever ended up at the controls could have been reacting to an emergency such as a sudden loss of air pressure, a possibility raised by the airline.
But he said it would have been a reckless act that spun the plane out of control, and a finding that someone had caused it to dive would be enough for the families' claims to succeed.
Former Australian Air Force accident inspector John Laming said it would have needed someone to hold down the controls, set an electrical stabiliser trim control to full-forward and engage full engine power to force the plane into such a steep dive.
Even an airline witness, former French test pilot Robert Galan, said he considered Captain Tsu a dangerous pilot but added that there was no sign of suicidal tendencies.
He noted that the captain had made plans for a drink with colleagues after work on the day of the crash and was looking forward to his father's birthday and to helping his son with exams.
A Singapore court is reviewing the 1997 crash of a near-new SilkAir jet. MATHEW DEARNALEY reports.