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Pilot, Tower Confused Over Directions Before Jet Crash

Asia: Transcripts show miscommunication moments before Indonesian plane went down, killing 234.

September 30, 1997| From Associated Press

MEDAN, Indonesia — The pilot and air traffic controller confused the words "left" and "right" seconds before an Indonesian jetliner crashed into a jungle, killing all 234 aboard, according to a transcript of the plane's final radio conversation obtained Monday.

The controller was handling two other flights at the time of Friday's crash--one arriving and one departing from the two-runway airport. The planes were also flying through a thick haze caused by hundreds of forest fires on the island of Sumatra.

A transcript of the confused exchange, conducted in English between Capt. Rachmo Wiyogo and the controller, portrays a pilot distracted by confusing instructions in the critical moments before he attempted to land.

Control tower: "Turn right--heading 046--report established localizer." The tower's order commanded the pilot to turn to a heading of 46 degrees (approximately northeast), guide his plane into the path of the localizer, a radio beam that shows the direction to the runway, and to report back when the plane was headed toward the runway.

Pilot: "Turning right, sir."

Control tower: "152, confirm you're making turning left now?"

Pilot: "We are turning right now."

Control: "OK--you continue turning left now."

Pilot: (pause) "Confirm turning left? We are starting turning right now."

Control: "OK. [Pause.] OK. Continue turn right heading 015."

That command was immediately followed by the pilot's desperate scream, "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great!" in Arabic). At that moment, according to witnesses, the plane smashed into trees and exploded.

It was not clear whether the confusion over directions led to the crash, but it would have distracted the pilot at an important time during the approach.

At another point, the air traffic controller emphatically assured Rachmo that the 15-year-old, twin-engine Garuda Airlines Airbus was clear of mountains in the area. Two minutes later, the jetliner slammed into a highland jungle 20 miles south of the airport.

The flight data and cockpit voice recorders--which should indicate what the crew and plane were doing up to half an hour before the crash--were still missing three days after the disaster.

Government officials had no comment on the transcript. But the official news agency, Antara, quoted sources as saying the crash may have been caused by human error.

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