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A perfect storm hits Flight JT 610

Tim Newton

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A perfect storm hits Flight JT 610 | The Thaiger

If you get into a car that has had, and officially logged, malfunctions over the past four outings – all critical malfunctions to the correct operation of the car – would you start the key and head out into the traffic?

Probably not.

That appears to be what Captain Suneja, and his co-pilot on Flight JT610, did as the sun rose on Monday, October 29 in the fatal Lion Air crash into the waters off Jakarta.

In the four preceding flights investigators now know there was a persistent problem with systems – either instrumentation or software, or both – that measured the plane’s angle-of-attack – the relationship between the angle of the air flying over the wing vs the plane’s airspeed. Too high an angle-of-attack and too little airspeed could result in a stall, when the plane’s nose would routinely dip down and need urgent attention from the pilot.

Whilst it could be months until we have an exact cause of the events that led to the fatal accident (the investigation will be much easier with the recovery of the cockpit voice recorder), we do know there was some key clues in the flights leading up to the disaster. All point to a preventable crash and the death of 189 people.

The pilot would have read the maintenance logs before preparing for the flight. Why would he take-off knowing that there had been systemic problems with the same plane over the past two days? In the two days before the flight engineers had tried to fix the issue at three different airports. Maintenance staff, the pilot and the airline would have been aware of the problems.

Still, just 13 minutes into the flight, the plane was hurtling, nose-down, engines at full power, into the sea. Hitting the sea at such speed has dislodged the cockpit voice recorder from its usual position, presumed to be be sitting in the muddy bottom awaiting discovery.

There was no distress call, no turn back to the airport. Whatever happened clearly embraced the full attention of the two pilots in mere moments.

Boeing, not mentioning the fatal crash, has issued a global bulletin this week advising pilots to follow its operations manual in such cases.

Bhavye Suneja, the 31 year old Indian pilot, and his 41 year old Indonesian co-pilot, Harvino likely had seconds to decide what to do. They certainly didn’t have time to refer to the jet’s operations manual. As the nose of the plane plunged downwards the pilots, under stress, had to ascertain the discrepancies of their instrumentation with what they could see and experience outside the windows of the cockpit – all whilst considering the passengers and crew sitting behind them, radioing for help and their own survival.

The Boeing operating manual refers to the pilots needing to switch off the power to the stabilisers in the tail of the aircraft that were pitching the plane into an increasingly problematic dive. The series of switches to turn off these systems, and the routine to disable the plane’s stabilisers, was probably not intuitive to the pilots on a new series, highly-automated plane.

Lion Air is also coming under acute scrutiny with a decade of safety-related issues. Boeing and Airbus are struggling to keep up with the demand of aviation growth around the world and the training of new pilots, maintenance, operational staff and air safety regulators appears to be lagging behind.

The smaller, discount airlines are under even greater stress to find competent, trained pilots and usually end up with the pilots with the least hours on their log books. At the same time pilots routinely seek jobs with larger, more prestigious airlines. Captain Suneja had 6,000 hours under his belt before he stepped onto the new Boeing 737 Max 8 jet on Monday, October 29.

“The problem is, the less-desirable airlines are the ones with the least resources that are scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of human resources,” says Martin Craigs, chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia, an industry advocacy group in Hong Kong.

Lion Air started 20 years ago when an Indonesian travel agent established the budget airline to provide low-cost flights through the many islands of Indonesia. Over the 20 years there have been 15 major safety lapses and pilots complaining about being overworked and underpaid. A former investigator for Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee claims that Lion Air repeatedly ignored orders to ground planes for safety issues.

Since the crash of flight JT610, Lion Air was involved in at least two other minor safety issues. A plane’s wing clipped a pole taxiing on the ground in Jakarta and a flight from Malaysia suffered hydraulic failure after landing.

As the investigation continues to unfold, and details about the incident are revealed, it is clear that a perfect storm of problems were already lined up before the plane dropped its nose and started hurtling towards the sea below.

A perfect storm hits Flight JT 610 | News by The Thaiger

Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for nearly 40 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented 3,200 radio news bulletins in Thailand alone, hosted 360 daily TV news programs, produced 1,800 videos, TV commercials and documentaries and now produces digital media for The Thaiger - Website, Radio, TV, Instagram and Facebook.

Election

The day that shook Thai politics

Tim Newton

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The day that shook Thai politics | The Thaiger

OPINION

It was just another Friday except that it was also the final day that political parties were able to nominate MPs for the March 24 elections. And their proposed candidates for the role of the a Prime Minister following the election.

PM Prayuth Chan-ocha would announce his candidacy sometime during the morning, the worst kept secret in Thai politics.

After engineering a new constitution in 2017, with an outward veneer of democracy, the General and the military minders were a shoe-in to regain control following the election. Except this time they would appear to have a mandate through an electoral process.

The country’s upper house of parliament, the National Assembly, would be nominated, entirely, by the Military. But there was plenty of residual negative feeling brewing, both from the factions loyal to former PM Thaksin, still lurking in exile, and a reaction to four years of military rule.

There were plenty of new political parties putting forward MPs vying for a seat in the lower house of the Thai parliament. They realised that they would have an uphill battle. But the sheer numbers of MP candidates, the largest ever in Thai history, was an impressive show of the country’s desire to return to a semblance of democracy, even if the military would continue to pull the strings.

The new charter throws a new electoral system into play. Untested and untried. It’s a modified proportional method of choosing the 500 members of the lower house of parliament in which people vote for one of 350 constituency candidates; those votes are totalled to determine which of the remaining 150 party list seats go to which party.

Under the previous system voters cast two ballots, one for the candidate and one for the party.

The barely disguised aim was to increase the seats held by medium-sized parties, but significantly reduce the seats held by the party of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, which won every election held since 2001.

The Thaksin parties needed to pull a political rabbit out of the hat to maintain their margin – pluck a winning card out of the stacked deck.

First thing last Friday, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, actually dropped their political, and social bombshell. Although rumored in the days before the nomination deadline, they announced that Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, as its prime ministerial candidate.

Princess Ubolratana was a famous actress, singer and businesswoman. She had officially relinquished her royal titles in 1972, when she married an American and moved to the United States. At the time she was the eldest child of Rama 9, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a female, so unable to assume the throne under the Thai royal succession guidelines.

But now she was the sister of the current Monarch. And, aghast, she was throwing her hat in the ring with the country’s pro-Thaksin forces.

What did all this mean? Was there some back-room collusion between the Thai monarch and the exiled fugitive former PM Thaksin? Was this some unforeseen coup d’état attempt against the country’s military? Had a deal being brokered between the Shinawatras and the Thai palace following decades of rivalry which had caused so much political turmoil?

Was THIS the move that would break the long-standing stalemate between the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt factions?

The news of her candidacy sent academics scurrying for their history books. The media were in a frenzy. The current PM’s nomination as prime ministerial candidate almost went unnoticed.

The news would throw Prayuth’s ‘cunning plan’ to put a democratic varnish on his leadership into turmoil.

This was a first. The first time in Thai history that a member of the royal family ran for elected office. Was it legal? Could she do it? Had she spoken to HM The King before agreeing to the invitation from the Thai Raksa Chart party?

If it had gone ahead, Ubolratana’s candidacy would probably have been a walk in the park, all the way to the keys of the PM office in Government House.

Who would run against her, or make statements against a candidate who cannot be legally criticised? Although she had relinquished her Royal title ‘HRH’, she was still very much a part of the ‘Family’.

For Thais, they would be divided between making a political vote or displaying their loyalty to the country’s monarchy – an institution with potent emotional power in the South East Asian nation.

But a mere 13 hours after Princess Ubolratana had been announced as a prime ministerial candidate, her brother HM King Vajiralongkorn issued a strongly worded statement which took the winning card out of the deck.

“Despite the fact that Princess Ubolratana relinquished her titles, in compliance with the Palace Laws, she has been maintaining her status as a member of the Chakri royal family.”

“Any attempt to involve high-ranking members of the royal family in the political process, by whatever means, would be a breach of time-honoured royal traditions, customs and national culture.”

“Such actions must be deemed a transgression and a highly inappropriate act.”

The Princess’ 13 hour political career was over.

The statement from His Majesty, and the Princess’ Instagram response the following day, were both ambiguous enough to allow the Election Commission to make a final decision about her candidacy, although to allow her continuation in the political race, in defiance with The King, would have thrown the country into a constitutional crisis in the weeks leading up to the general election.

But the drama wasn’t entirely over with rumors of a coup underway from another military faction just four days after the events of the tumultuous Friday. The NCPO’s public relations machine, along with the Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, were rolled out to firmly deny the rumors and promised to track down the source of the fake news and punish anyone who shared the news on social media.

Everything was back to normal, although ‘normal’ is never a word that can be used to describe the political situation in Thailand or the complex social links between the Family, the Privy Council, business people and the Army.

The election campaign is forging ahead as planned but March 24 is still a long way off and, really, anything could happen. The NCPO’s 2014 aim to ‘bring the happiness back to Thailand’ will be sorely tested in the next few weeks.

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Election

Can the Princess be PM?

The Thaiger

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Can the Princess be PM? | The Thaiger

Analysis

The Princess was nominated. Her brother, HM Thai King, objected. Thai Raksa Chart postponed their campaign launch on Saturday morning. The PM and Election Commission have stayed silent.

With the weekend allowing cooler heads to sift through yesterday’s events, next week it is hoped some clarity will emerge about the Princess’ nomination as a prime ministerial candidate that threw the election campaign a curved ball yesterday morning.

Princess Ubolratana’s position within the Thai Royal Family doesn’t preclude her from running for a political position, although to defy The King’s wishes, after his strongly worded statement on Friday night, would place the country in an unprecedented constitutional conundrum.

That she was nominated by a political party with strong ties to the former disgraced and fugitive PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, also places an additionally complex spin on the Princess’ decision to accept the nomination.

For her to run as a candidate for the role of PM would put all other candidates in a very difficult position, including the current PM, Prayut Chan-o-cha, who also was nominated as a PM candidate yesterday.

With her clear connections to the royal family it would make questioning her, or even running against her, untenable or even impossible within the dynamic of Thai society. Would any candidate dare to run against the King’s sister?

The Election Commission, by law, has the final say on the acceptance of candidates. But, to be sure, the batteries on the smartphones of politicians and palace officials will be running low this weekend.

At this stage, the man who has the most to lose, the current PM, has made no comment about the nomination.

Can the Princess be PM? | News by The Thaiger

Princess Ubolratana is the eldest child of Rama 9, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016, and Queen Sirikit. According to some analysts, royal family members of her ‘rank’ are not barred from politics but have opted to stay neutral in the past, a long-standing protocol in most modern constitutional monarchies.

Ubolratana was close to her father – the two won a gold medal in sailing at the 1967 Southeast Asian Games. She relinquished her royal title when she married her American husband Peter Ladd Jensen in 1972 and settled in the US, where she studied biochemistry.

The couple had three children but their second, Khun Bhumi Jensen – known as Khun Poom – died in the 2004 tsunami that ravaged southern Thailand.

Following her divorce in 1998, she returned to Thailand permanently in 2001 and became active in royal life. She has been working as a representative for the Thai tourism authority for more than 10 years. He also set up several charities, including the Khun Poom Foundation, named after her son, that assists children with autism and other learning disabilities, and headed a campaign that helps young people stay off drugs.

She is regularly featured in the daily TV coverage of the royal family going about their duties in the Kingdom and is generally treated with the same respect as the other leading members of the family.

She is also well known and loved in Thailand as a keen singer and actor, appearing in several films, and is active on social media, where posts of her singing and dancing have gone viral on her Instagram page.

On March 24, Thais will vote for the 500 seat lower house of parliament. The 250 member upper house, the National Legislative Council, will be chosen entirely by the military.

Can the Princess be PM? | News by The Thaiger

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Bangkok

Bangkok air pollution reduction schemes – FAIL

Tim Newton

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Bangkok air pollution reduction schemes  – FAIL | The Thaiger

OPINION

Smog, air pollution, air quality, PM2.5 micron particulate. If you live in Bangkok it’s all the same thing.

Four water-carrying drones took off from Bangkok City Hall this morning to join three fire engines in the latest assault on health-threatening haze.

Bangkok is a city covering some 1,500 square kilometres with a population of over 8 million. The frequent media ‘photo opportunities’ of water cannons, fire trucks spurting perfectly good drinking water into the sky and domestic drones spraying their 10 litre loads into the air, are lapped up by the local media but are doing nothing to address the key air pollution issues.

In the grand scheme of things, nothing.

The Bangkok Governor indignantly replied to a journalist who dared to ask him if the drones would help reduce the city’s air pollution with the response “at least we’re trying something”.

Whilst this media show continues, Bangkokians, adorned in cheap facemarks that are more a fashion accessory than a reliable health prevention measure, continue to suffer the month-long haze and smog that has settled over the capital.

The readings of ‘Unhealthy’ provide a daily scorecard of the Bangkok authorities’ efforts.

Last week, bereft of any workable solutions, a spokesperson for the Pollution Control Department even went as far as debunking the science behind the measurement of the PM2.5 micron particles and said the websites publishing the air quality readings were ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is still pinning its hopes on water sprayed into the air as a means of lowering levels of harmful PM2.5 dust particles. Nearly a month of all this water being sprayed into the air has resulted in a net zero result.

Whilst being a very visible and photo-worthy effort, the water sprayed into the air sells umbrellas and that’s about all.

The Nation reports that Pol Lt Colonel Somkiat Nonthakaew, director of the BMA Fire and Rescue Department, reported a small change in plans from yesterday’s deployment. The three fire engines, each with a 10,000 litre water tanks, were spraying water to lower heights, while the drones would be spraying the air from 30-50 metres’ altitude.

Water was also being sprayed from the 37th floors of tall buildings (why the 37th floor?). The operation would continue for “as long as it takes”, Somkiat said to The Nation.

The drones can cover one rai per flight, according to the BMA Fire and Rescue spokesperson. There are 50 drones. There are 625 Rai in a square kilometre. Bangkok is over 1,500 square kilometres… you do the maths.

Bangkok air pollution reduction schemes  - FAIL | News by The Thaiger

Whilst this show is being played out in Bangkok, the burning of agricultural fields – rice and sugar cane plantations mainly – continues in the central, north-eastern and northern plains of Thailand. And the old diesel buses, along with other old cars, keep plodding around the city and environs every day pumping out plumes of black smoke.

But NONE of these issues, the core problem of Bangkok’s air pollution issues, are being actively addressed, or even admitted by the authorities.

Nature, a change in the weather and the progression of the seasons is the only thing that will clear this mess in the short term. It won’t be the 50 drones dropping their gooey loads onto the streets below.

Meanwhile, the burn-offs continue in the agricultural sectors of Thailand, the largest sector of voters in the country.

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