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A Jet Crash That Defies Resolution

Some suspected pilot suicide. Now victims' families are suing in Singapore to prove it.

September 05, 2001|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SINGAPORE — It was a good day to fly. The weather was clear, and the SilkAir jet was nearly new. The Boeing 737-300 took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, with 104 people aboard and headed for Singapore.

The aircraft had reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet over the island of Sumatra when it plummeted to earth without warning. The plane was traveling close to the speed of sound when it crashed into the muddy Musi River near the town of Palembang on Dec. 19, 1997. No one survived.

The plane hit with such force that the largest piece of wreckage found was a scrap of fuselage 10 feet long. Rescuers recovered only fragments of bodies. Investigators located the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, but both had stopped working before the plane began to plunge.

Examination of the wreckage showed that there was no midair explosion, no cabin depressurization and no sign of mechanical failure. There was no distress call from the cockpit and no apparent attempt by the crew to pull the plane out of its dive. Strangely, the controls were set to point the jet's nose down and the throttle was on full speed.

Investigators found that the pilot, Capt. Tsu Way Ming, 41, had been disciplined by SilkAir six months earlier for turning off a cockpit voice recorder. The Singaporean, a skilled pilot, had lost more than $1.2 million in high-risk securities trading and had bought a $600,000 life insurance policy that took effect the day of the crash.

After three years of investigation, the Indonesian government announced the official findings: There was not enough evidence to determine the cause of the crash. But in an extremely unusual dissent, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said that the crash was most likely caused by intentional pilot action and that the evidence pointed to Tsu.

Some victims' families contend that Singapore and Indonesia have tried to cover up the cause of the disaster to protect the airline's reputation. SilkAir is a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, one of the city-state's most prominent businesses and one in which the Singaporean government owns the controlling interest.

Thomas Oey, an American who lost his mother and brother in the tragedy, believes that a timely determination of pilot suicide might have prevented the October 1999 crash of an EgyptAir flight, which some believe was caused by intentional pilot action. That disaster killed 217 people. Unlike the EgyptAir crash, which occurred off the Massachusetts coast, the Silk-Air crash was little reported in the U.S.

Even without an official determination of the cause, most of the families have reached settlements with the airlines. Oey is one of a handful of relatives suing SilkAir in Singapore in an attempt to prove that the pilot intentionally or recklessly crashed the plane. "People have the right to know the truth," he said.

SilkAir denies that one of its employees crashed the plane deliberately and argues that the cause of the disaster has not been determined. The judge in the case could rule as early as this month whether the pilot engaged in "willful misconduct."

Whatever the Singaporean court decides, New Zealander Derek Ward believes that the evidence is clear. His son, Duncan, was the flight's first officer. "Tsu intentionally flew the plane directly into the ground," Ward said. "I call that mass murder. What else can it be called?"

Pilot Had Cheated Death for Years

Tsu was among SilkAir's most talented fliers--a former top fighter pilot in the Singaporean air force and a member of its performing aerobatic team, the Black Knights. After the crash, the Singaporean press dubbed him the "Cowboy Pilot."

He had been cheating death for years.

On Dec. 19, 1979--exactly 18 years before the SilkAir disaster--he was scheduled to fly with his squadron on an air force training mission but was grounded by a mechanical problem. The other four pilots crashed into a cloud-covered mountain, and all died.

In 1981, he crashed with a student pilot during takeoff. Tsu survived, but his student did not. During a training mission five years later, Tsu's A-4 Skyhawk developed mechanical problems. He and his student ejected safely. Investigators concluded that Tsu was not at fault in either crash.

Tsu left the air force in 1992 as a major and went to work for SilkAir, a regional carrier that flies from Singapore to about 20 cities in Asia. He turned down the chance to fly for parent company Singapore Airlines because he could rise to a command post faster with the smaller organization.

He soon was seen as management material and put on the fast track. Tsu was promoted to captain in 1996 and given the additional post of instructor pilot seven months before the crash.

A father of three, he was said to be a devoted family man. He was quiet, sometimes distant, colleagues said, but spoke his mind and was a leader among the airline's Singaporean pilots. He gained a reputation for doing things his own way and not always following procedure.

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