On Wings of Fraud: The crash of Merpati Nusantara Airlines flight 8968
On the 7th of May 2011, a commercial flight approaching a remote airport in eastern Indonesia suddenly plunged into the sea moments after abandoning a failed approach, killing all 25 passengers and crew. Although crashes in this region are common, this one stood out because of the type of airplane involved: a Chinese-made Xian MA60, which had never been operated in Indonesia until the state-owned carrier Merpati Nusantara ordered 15 of them in 2009. The investigation into the crash would find that there was nothing wrong with the plane, but that the pilots, who both had less than 250 hours on the MA60, had not been properly trained to fly it. The findings raised questions about the decision to buy the Xian MA60 in the first place, and as a debate about the purchase played out at the highest levels of the Indonesian government, a steady drip of scandalous allegations eventually painted the ghostly outline of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving the struggling state airline, an airplane with a questionable safety record, and a fabulously corrupt attempt by shadowy figures to pocket Chinese loan money at the expense of Indonesian taxpayers.
Many people are familiar with Garuda, Indonesia’s state-owned flag carrier, whose blue and white planes can be seen at major airports around the world. Far fewer outside Indonesia were aware that the country used to have a second state-owned airline called Merpati Nusantara, meaning “Indonesian Dove,” complementing Garuda’s “Indonesian Eagle.” Merpati Nusantara, often shortened to just Merpati, was founded in 1962 as an “air bridge” service, providing scheduled flights to remote communities that were otherwise cut off from the country’s transportation network. Most of these communities were located in the eastern part of the country, particularly in the poorly developed and politically unstable region of West Papua, where there are few roads and airplanes are the only reliable means of transport.
Merpati Nusantara served this area for decades in various capacities. Sometimes it was structured as a subsidiary of Garuda Indonesia, and sometimes not; for a period in the 1960s and 1970s it was partially run by the United Nations. The airline was ordered by the government to become financially self-sufficient in 1997, but it never achieved any measure of fiscal independence, despite its efforts in the 2000s to operate Boeing jets on popular routes in addition to its traditional practice of flying small planes into backwater communities. The airline was also plagued by a poor safety record with frequent accidents, and passengers complained about terrible service, but in many areas the only options were to fly with Merpati or stay at home.
On the 7th of May 2011, a Merpati Nusantara crew consisting of 55-year-old Captain Purwandi Wahyu and 36-year-old First Officer Paul Nap reported for duty at the airport in Jayapura, the largest city in West Papua, for what promised to be a long day spent puddle-jumping around this remote area of eastern Indonesia. They had been scheduled to fly six sectors, departing Jayapura for Nabire, Kaimana, and Sorong, then returning to Kaimana and Nabire before ending the day in Biak. The plane they would be flying was a Xian “Modern Ark” 60, or MA60 for short, a Chinese twin turboprop somewhat analogous to the ATR-72, with room for 62 passengers. Although assembled in China, most of the plane was not Chinese: the MA60 was, by pedigree, a modernized Soviet Antonov An-24 with Western engines and avionics. This particular example was built in 2007 and had entered service with Merpati in 2010, since which time it had completed less than 800 flights.
Because the MA60 was so new to the airline, neither pilot could boast of much experience on the type. Captain Wahyu had accumulated an impressive 24,470 flying hours across a variety of aircraft types, but he had only 199 hours on the MA60, which he had started flying in January of that year. Although only his family knows for sure, he might have been privately unhappy with being asked to switch to the much smaller and less sporty MA60 after spending the last 16 years at Merpati flying Fokker 100 regional jets.
First Officer Nap was Captain Wahyu’s polar opposite. A complete newcomer to aviation, he had only 370 hours total across all aircraft types, and had been placed on the MA60 immediately after completing training. With 234 hours on the type, he had more MA60 experience than his captain did, but only just.
The first three legs of their trip that day proceeded without incident, and by half past noon local time, they were in Sorong, a city of about 250,000 people on the far western tip of West Papua. The next leg would take them to Kaimana, a village of some 13,000 inhabitants about an hour’s flying time to the south. Although lightly populated, Kaimana was the largest town for nearly 200 kilometers in any direction, and its tiny single-runway airport was its only real connection to the outside world.
At 12:45, Merpati Nusantara flight 8968 departed Sorong for Kaimana, lightly loaded with two pilots, two flight attendants, two mechanics, and only 19 passengers. The pilots had been informed that the weather in Kaimana consisted of intermittent rain, broken clouds at 1,400 feet, and 8 kilometers of visibility at ground level. This represented a potential problem, because the primitive airport in Kaimana had no navigation or landing aids of any kind, and thus had no published instrument approach procedures for use during low visibility. The only way to land at Kaimana was to perform a visual approach, where the pilot spots the runway visually and lines up with it by hand. But the minimum conditions for a visual approach were 5 kilometers visibility and a cloud base of at least 1,500 feet, the latter of which was not met at the time flight 8968 left Sorong.
After cruising at 15,500 feet, flight 8968 received clearance to begin its descent into Kaimana, at which point it entered uncontrolled airspace, where all maneuvers could be made at the pilot’s discretion. Although Kaimana Airport did have a control tower, it was staffed only by an Aerodrome Flight Information Services (AFIS) officer, who lacked authority to give orders to airplanes and could only provide advisory information.
By this point the weather had further deteriorated as rain clouds gathered over the airport. The cloud base had risen to 1,500 feet, but visibility was falling rapidly from eight kilometers toward three. In hope of finding a clear spot, Captain Wahyu, who was handling the radio while First Officer Nap flew the plane, asked the AFIS officer which end of the runway had better visibility. The AFIS officer replied that the south end seemed better, so Wahyu ordered Nap to loop around to the south to approach runway 01, a route which would bring them over the waters of Kaimana Bay until just before touchdown.
Flying past the airport to the south, the clouds closed in around them. First Officer Nap, worried that they were flying too far out, asked Captain Wahyu if he should begin the base turn to line up with the runway, despite being unable to see it. Wahyu replied that he should keep flying south over the water until he spotted a break in the clouds, regardless of how far they had to go in order to do it. Less than 30 seconds later, however, they began the base turn anyway, as Captain Wahyu lowered the landing gear and extended the flaps to five degrees in anticipation of an imminent landing.
This didn’t mean that Wahyu thought it would be easy, however. The turn had barely begun when he expressed doubt that the approach could be accomplished at all, given the low visibility. Hoping for a miracle, he called the AFIS officer and asked for the weather again, only to be told that visibility had fallen to two kilometers and there was rain over the runway, although the final approach to runway 01 was still visible from the tower. Moments later, First Officer Nap chimed in to say that he could see the island through a gap in the clouds. Although the runway was still nowhere to be seen, these two observations apparently gave Captain Wahyu enough confidence to continue, even though the visibility was much too low to legally execute a visual approach. Clearly aware that he was pushing his luck, he began to display signs of stress, because when he extended the flaps to 15 degrees, he announced “flaps 25,” a setting that does not exist on the Xian MA60.
Doing his best to continue, First Officer Nap flew directly toward the headland to the southeast of the runway, the only part of the island that he could actually see. At Wahyu’s order, he reduced power for final approach, then disconnected the autopilot 20 seconds later.
At this point, it seems that Captain Wahyu, who had flown to Kaimana countless times, decided he could better finish what his inexperienced First Officer had started. Without stating a reason, he took control from First Officer Nap — something that should never be done so close to landing.
Moments later, the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) called out, “MINIMUMS! MINIMUMS!” They had reached their minimum altitude of 580 feet — descending lower without sighting the runway was not allowed. Conscious of this fact, Captain Wahyu asked three times whether First Officer Nap could see the runway, only to be told three times that he could not.
Skirting around the headland, Wahyu turned to the left, then back to the right, nearly aligning with the runway, but due to the rain showers he never managed to spot it. At a height of 376 feet, he decided to throw in the towel and abandon the approach. Pushing the throttle levers forward with one hand, he held their pitch with the other, and flight 8968 began to climb away from the water. Aware of high terrain to the right of the runway, he also initiated a sharp turn to the left, which would take him out over the bay. Simultaneously with all of this, he ordered First Officer Nap to retract the flaps, first to five degrees and then zero, as well as the landing gear, which he promptly did. A landing gear warning bell briefly sounded, then fell silent.
Neither pilot seemed to be aware of it, but flight 8968 was already in an extremely precarious position, and it was only getting worse. The right engine was only at 82% torque, while the left engine was at 70% — the difference being down to Wahyu’s sloppy application of power. But the real problem was that neither engine was at go-around power, which normally would have been 95% torque, not 70 or 80. On the Xian MA60, the maximum torque that can be produced by the engines is determined by the operating mode selected by the crew: either Max Cruise, Max Climb, Max Continuous, or TOGA (takeoff/go-around), each of which increases the max power available relative to the one before it. During cruise, a low limit is normally used in order to avoid excess wear and tear on the engines by pilots who might be overly aggressive with the throttles. But during approach, it is standard procedure to press the TOGA mode button in order to ensure that the greatest possible power is available should the pilots need to perform a go-around on short notice. In this case, neither crewmember had ever pressed the TOGA mode button, so the engine operating regime was still set to “cruise,” limiting the maximum available power to a value below the go-around setting.
Pulling up for the go-around without applying go-around power caused the plane to lose airspeed, dropping from 155 knots to 125 knots in a matter of seconds. At the same time, the retraction of the flaps to zero degrees within moments of initiating the go-around caused a further loss of lift right when the airplane needed it most. This loss of lift was exacerbated even further by Captain Wahyu’s excessively steep left turn, which soon peaked at 38 degrees — outside the normal operating envelope, but not quite far enough to trigger a “bank angle” warning. The combination of the low speed, steep turn, and premature retraction of the flaps put flight 8968 into a position where it did not have enough lift to keep climbing. Still banked steeply to the left, the nose dropped and the plane began to descend, accelerating downward from a peak altitude of 585 feet. The EGPWS called out, “two hundr — TERRAIN, TERRAIN!” But there was no word from either of the two pilots, who seemed to be caught completely by surprise, nor was there any attempt to recover. Just 13 seconds after the beginning of the go-around, flight 8968 slammed nose-first into the waters of Kaimana Bay, instantly killing all 25 passengers and crew.
Although the crash took place just 800 meters southwest of the runway threshold, the AFIS officer was not initially aware of the crash because his view was blocked by trees. Instead, a witness called the other, off-duty AFIS officer, who then called the tower to report the accident, at which point the general alarm was raised. The airport’s four firefighters hurried out in their single fire truck, along with the town’s sole ambulance and 18 other security officers and airport personnel, but by the time they reached the site by boat, they could find only floating debris and no signs of survivors. The vague outline of the airplane, which had broken into five pieces, could be seen lying under 7 to 15 meters of water, but no one ever emerged from it, and within the tangled wreckage divers would find only mangled bodies.
The crash was merely the latest in a long string of accidents involving Merpati Nusantara Airlines. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the crash of flight 8968 was nothing less than the airline’s 21st fatal accident, a record so bad that Merpati could be comfortably called one of the most dangerous airlines in the world. Although fatalities peaked in the 1990s, when Merpati suffered an average of one fatal crash every year, conditions had only marginally improved since, with three more fatal accidents having occurred since 2000.
Investigators with Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, or KNKT, thus found themselves responding to yet another crash involving Merpati Nusantara. The KNKT’s final report on the accident gives the impression that the investigators didn’t really want to be there. Their analysis of the causes was laughably incomplete, and their safety recommendations read like a plea to just follow the rules, when the problem was clearly a lack of enforcement. As a result, some of the following analysis of the crash is my own opinion, based on the information available in the KNKT’s meager final report.
The proximate cause of the crash was a loss of control during the go-around as a result of Captain Wahyu’s lack of awareness of the plane’s energy state. With insufficient power and lift to accomplish the steep, climbing turn which he had commanded, the airplane simply failed to fly and fell into the sea. Simulations later showed that if Wahyu had merely leveled the wings, the crash could have been avoided, as the extra lift provided in such a configuration would have prevented the plane from descending even with the incorrect power and flap settings.
The fact that he did not do so indicates that he lost situational awareness during the go-around and did not realize what was happening until it was too late. This loss of situational awareness may have been caused by his decision to take over control of the plane about one minute before the crash — far too late on approach to conduct a control handover. While on a difficult approach such as this one, suddenly switching roles can cause both pilots to lose track of the parameters they were monitoring, allowing the situation to develop in an uncontrolled manner. As such, when he took control, Captain Wahyu probably stopped monitoring their airspeed without ensuring a positive handover of this duty to First Officer Nap, whom he repeatedly ordered to look for the runway instead. He also may not have had time to realize that the engine regime was still set to cruise, leaving him with insufficient power to perform a go-around.
Also contributing to these failures was a shocking lack of cockpit discipline and communication. The pilots barely spoke to each other throughout the flight, and most of the cockpit voice recording consisted of silence occasionally punctuated by Captain Wahyu giving orders to First Officer Nap. This cockpit environment was not a healthy one, but perhaps the biggest red flag was Wahyu’s last-minute takeover of the controls, which implied that he did not trust his extremely inexperienced First Officer to finish the approach under the conditions. Considering that his Captain had 65 times as much experience as he did, Nap would have been unlikely to protest.
Besides the lack of communication, the recording also contained no evidence that the pilots ever carried out the approach briefing, the approach checklist, the descent checklist, or the landing checklist, apparently preferring to wing it all the way down. The failure to conduct these checklists was probably why the engine regime was left in “CRUISE” when it should have been switched to “TOGA.”
The third factor in the loss of control — the premature retraction of the flaps — appeared to have been caused by Captain Wahyu reverting to familiar procedures while under stress. On the Xian MA60, proper go-around procedures call for the retraction of the flaps only after achieving a stable speed of at least 135 knots and an altitude of at least 400 feet, of which neither condition was met when Wahyu ordered “flaps up.” However, ordering flaps up immediately upon initiating a go-around was standard procedure on the Fokker 100, which Wahyu had flown from 1994 until 2010. Investigators suspected that in a moment of great stress, Captain Wahyu reverted to the procedures he had memorized during his time flying the Fokker 100, a theory which was further supported by his call for “flaps 25” earlier in the approach. While there is no such thing as flaps 25 on the MA60, there is on the Fokker 100, and it would have been normal to apply it at that point in the approach.
This type of reversion to previously learned routines is often a symptom of insufficiently rigorous training. The KNKT did not seriously attempt to investigate the quality of the flight crew’s training, except to note that they had not undergone required EGPWS response training, which was not directly relevant to the accident. Investigators did note that the training was conducted on a simulator in Xian, China, with instructors who had to speak to their students through an interpreter, a setup which could have resulted in poor information retention by the pilots, although the KNKT made no comment as to its effectiveness. Without more information, it’s impossible to accurately assess whether the pilots were properly trained to fly the MA60, but the weight of the evidence indicates that they were not, given their complete failure to adhere to standard procedures for the aircraft type.
However, some of their errors may have been the result of their operating environment, which lay somewhere between normal airline flying and bush piloting in terms of the support structures available. The fact that the pilots attempted the approach at all points to a normalization of deviance at the airline as its pilots adapted their behavior to suit the realities of flying in West Papua, rather than strictly adhering to regulations. Notably, the visibility was too low to legally attempt a visual approach in the first place, and the pilots were presumably aware of this fact, but chose to continue anyway. Had they called off the approach when Captain Wahyu first expressed his doubt as to its feasibility, the accident probably would not have happened. Instead, he pushed a marginal approach down to the limit, allowing stress to build until he lost control of the situation. This decision indicates that such behavior was most likely normal when flying in West Papua, where frequent storms can make strict compliance with visibility minimums impractical.
One question not answered in the KNKT’s report is why Wahyu was so insistent on pushing forward despite his own doubt that the approach could be completed. The only clue lies in one of the agency’s safety recommendations, which asked for Merpati dispatchers to “anticipate the possibility of [a] return to base.” This statement implies that Merpati dispatchers previously did not make contingencies for such a possibility. One wonders, then: did flight 8968 actually have enough fuel to go back to Sorong if it was unable to land at Kaimana? The amount of fuel on board the plane was not stated anywhere in the KNKT’s final report, which is highly unusual, and, under the circumstances, maybe even suspicious.
Speculation that the plane may have been deliberately underfueled is especially pertinent given the financial condition of Merpati Nusantara Airlines at the time of the accident.
According to numerous news reports, the airline had been in serious trouble since at least the mid-2000s, not long after the government ordered it to become financially self-sufficient. The self-sufficiency pledge was ill-conceived from the start, because Merpati Nusantara was founded specifically to serve routes to underdeveloped communities that would not otherwise be profitable, and it is unclear how policymakers expected the airline to turn a profit while continuing to fulfil its government mandate to serve those communities.
It was hardly shocking, then, that this move left the airline struggling to survive. In 2008, Merpati was forced to axe half of its work force as part of a restructuring program intended to cut costs, but this may have only worsened the bleeding. The Jakarta Post also blamed the airline’s difficulties on “profiteering among those in political parties who have vested interests in the airline,” without naming any names. In any case, by 2010 Merpati had accumulated a debt amounting to 1.6 trillion Indonesian rupiahs — considerably greater than the combined value of its assets — most of which was owed to the state-owned oil producer and the airport authority for unpaid refueling and landing fees. That year, the government bailed out the company as it had done in the past, but it was made explicit that this would be the last time. “We expect Merpati’s performance to improve within a year, otherwise we will have to reconsider its existence,” said Mustafa Abubakar, Minister of State-Owned Enterprises.
It was around this time that Merpati pledged to buy the 15 Chinese-made Xian MA60 regional turboprops. There were a number of items which made this decision questionable from the beginning. For one, unlike some other Chinese airplanes, the MA60 lacked a type certification from the US FAA, Europe’s EASA, or any other internationally respected air safety regulator, nor had Xian Aircraft sought to acquire one. This would make it very difficult for Merpati to sell the MA60s if it ever needed to get rid of them. In hearings after the accident, members of Indonesia’s House of Representatives also questioned why Merpati would need to buy Chinese planes lacking an FAA certificate when Indonesia had a domestic aircraft manufacturing industry producing passenger airplanes carrying FAA approval. Furthermore, no Indonesian airline had ever operated the MA60 or any other Xian Aircraft models before, and no support infrastructure for the type, such as approved maintenance facilities and training centers, existed in Indonesia. From an operational perspective, it therefore would have made more sense to purchase an aircraft type built in Indonesia or in use by other Indonesian airlines.
The MA60 was also known for having a questionable safety record, easily the worst of any Chinese airliner. Although flight 8968 was its first (and to date only) fatal crash, the model has suffered from an unusually high rate of hull loss accidents, something which many in Indonesia felt should have prompted Merpati to think twice before buying it. It is difficult to say whether the MA60’s poor safety record has to do with the kinds of airlines which were desperate enough to purchase it, or with some fundamental flaw in the aircraft. Although an ABC special report on the safety of the MA60 claimed that most of the accidents were caused by mechanical problems, a review of the type’s accident history while researching this article revealed that mechanical failures caused or contributed to fewer than half of them. Not that this assuaged everyone: in 2013, after two runway overrun accidents involving the MA60 in a period of several months, Myanmar grounded the type indefinitely, although one of the accidents was later found to have been caused by human error. What can be said is that the MA60 often left airlines disappointed. Nepal Airlines, for instance, operated two MA60s for several years but eventually sent them back after concluding that they did not meet their promised performance specifications, suffered more breakdowns than other models, and were unsuitable for use in mountainous terrain.
In the other column, however, Merpati knew that the MA60 cost considerably less than comparable Western models, and — most crucially for the struggling airline — all of that cost would be covered by a low-interest loan from the Chinese Export-Import Bank.
Convincing state-owned airlines to purchase airplanes by granting generous loans is common practice among aircraft-producing countries, and in fact a similar deal by the US Exim Bank in the 1970s resulted in the sale of several DC-10s to a wholly unprepared Turkish Airlines, contributing to the 1974 Ermenonville air disaster. Within the last 20 years China has also begun using this tactic to encourage the development of its own domestic aerospace industry, although its marketing techniques have been exceptionally heavy-handed. For example, in 2011 China offered Nepal Airlines a deal to purchase three Harbin Y12Es and a Xian MA60, in exchange for which China would provide an additional Y12E and MA60 at no cost in a “buy two, get one free” sales scheme.
Merpati executives were fully aware of China’s willingness to spend large amounts of money to establish Chinese aircraft in foreign markets as part of its broader geostrategic plans. In fact, Merpati Nusantara President Sardjono Jhony Tjitrokusumo stated in June 2011 that China might “turn the loan into a grant if there are strategic needs,” implying that he was willing to bet Merpati could get the planes for free if China thought it might gain influence in Indonesia in return.
Considering the above, it seems likely that the decision to buy the MA60 was based on up-front cost alone, without regard for whether Merpati was capable of safely operating the airplanes. Therefore, in 2010, the MA60s arrived without Merpati as yet having paid a dime, and numerous pilots, including Captain Purwandi Wahyu, were abruptly transferred to the unproven aircraft after years or decades flying Western airplanes. They were then sent to China to train on simulators with instructors who only spoke Chinese, before being released to fly passengers with only a few dozen hours on the type. An airline with a strong safety culture might have been able to get away with this, but at Merpati Nusantara, already one of the world’s most dangerous airlines, the new planes were practically guaranteed to crash.
In the aftermath of the crash of flight 8968, calls were made to ground the MA60 fleet in Indonesia until it could be proven that the model was safe. However, the Ministry of Transportation refused to do so, citing the lack of any evidence that anything was mechanically wrong with the plane. Merpati did end MA60 flights to three “difficult” airports, but otherwise no changes were made. Of course, Merpati itself also came under fire, with calls made to revoke the airline’s operating license due to its large number of accidents. Transportation Minister Freddy Numberi rejected these calls in August 2011, stating that he would not revoke Merpati’s license because “it has tried its best, so we will give it a chance.” The idea that Merpati Nusantara had done its best to ensure the safety of its passengers was obviously laughable, but Freddy Numberi apparently lacked the ability to feel shame.
At around this same time, Indonesian media began to report a series of shocking allegations regarding the deal to buy the MA60s. Shortly after the crash, a labor union representing workers at state-owned companies submitted a complaint to the Corruption Eradication Commission alleging that the government had purchased the MA60s at a significant markup for unknown reasons. Sources differ on the exact figures, but it was established that the price of an MA60 was normally between USD $11 million and $12.5 million, while Merpati bought each plane at a price of USD $14.3 million.
While still cheaper than any comparable Western model, this price raised red flags with journalists and anti-corruption advocates alike. With accusations already flying, the Indonesian Attorney General’s office opened an investigation into the markup, a move which was criticized by the labor union as an effort to pre-empt any investigation by the Corruption Eradication Commission and protect sitting government ministers who were involved in the MA60 deal. That appeared to be exactly what happened, as research for this article failed to turn up any resolution to the Attorney General’s “investigation.” However, in 2011 the Indonesian newspaper Tribun News reported that the markup was orchestrated by government officials and the money was most likely funneled to a shell company known only as PG, which was involved in the deal despite having no relation to aviation. Who owned this company was unclear, but it seems plausible that the markup was approved in order to line officials’ pockets with Chinese loan money.
After this, the drama continued. When Merpati began to take delivery of the MA60s in 2010, inspectors discovered cracks in their vertical stabilizers which had to be repaired before the planes could enter service. Angered by the poor condition of the planes, Merpati threatened to cancel the delivery of the remaining aircraft. According to reporting in the Jakarta Globe, China allegedly responded by threatening to pull funding from a major energy infrastructure project in Indonesia if Merpati reneged on the aircraft deal. The Minister of Trade supposedly had to travel to China to make amends. When asked for comment by Tribun News, the Transportation Minister at the time denied that the two events were related.
As so often seems to happen, the corruption allegations never went anywhere, and more than a decade later there are still more questions than answers regarding Merpati Nusantara’s purchase of the Xian MA60. In the meantime, however, the airline’s situation only continued to worsen. By the start of 2014 it was frantically selling off assets in an attempt to forestall bankruptcy, and the state oil company refused to keep extending credit to let the airline pay for fuel, demanding that they pay in cash instead. Payroll slipped by the wayside and pilots and cabin crews went three months without being paid, at which point 50 Merpati pilots publicly quit. The chief of the Merpati pilots’ union went to the media complaining that some of the airline’s pilots could barely even afford food. Still, the government stood by its promise not to bail out the airline, and officials simply watched as the state-owned company died a slow, agonizing death.
On February 3rd 2014, Merpati Nusantara ceased all flights without warning, citing its inability to pay for fuel. Passengers were left stranded at remote airports with no other airline service, and protestors attempted to storm a Merpati office in Makassar after being told that the airline had no money with which to refund their tickets. Although negotiations about the fate of the airline continued, it ultimately never flew again, and its remaining MA60s were sent back to the manufacturer. China got back two fewer than they sent, since Merpati had managed to crash another one in 2013 — fortunately with no fatalities — after the pilot accidentally put the propellers into reverse while the plane was still in the air.
The demise of Merpati Nusantara represented the end of an era, but perhaps its time had come. Other carriers, most of which have better safety records, have since moved into Merpati’s former turf and restored service to many of the communities left stranded by its collapse. Among those communities is Kaimana, which is now served by Wings Air, an even lower cost branch of low-cost carrier Lion Air. The airport in Kaimana has since undergone several major upgrades, with new landing aids now installed alongside a modern terminal capable of handling modest passenger numbers. These improvements have helped facilitate Indonesia’s efforts to promote the area around the town as an international tourist attraction, with some measure of success, all of it after the disastrous crash in 2011.
As for the crash itself, it is doubtful that any real lessons were learned. The report into the accident avoided some of the most troubling questions, and its recommendations provided no road map to improve safety. Major accidents continue to happen in West Papua, such as the 2015 crash of Trigana Air flight 267, which featured many of the same deficiencies. Overall, safety is steadily improving, even as Trigana Air has since taken up Merpati’s mantle as Indonesia’s most dangerous major airline. But corruption still sometimes threatens to get in the way of safety, and that is perhaps the most important lesson from the crash of Merpati Nusantara Airlines flight 8968: that using a state-owned airline as a test bed for a questionable new aircraft in order to pocket Chinese loan money might not be the best way to ensure the safety of its passengers.
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