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Flying in Indonesia is a necessity to travel ... but it can also be a terrifying experience

CNN logo CNN 1/10/2021 By Ivan Watson, CNN
a airplane that is flying in the sky: A security personnel stands in front of a sign for a crisis centre for Sriwijaya Air flight SJY182 at the Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Tangerang near Jakarta on January 9, 2021. © Fajrin Raharjo/AFP/Getty Images A security personnel stands in front of a sign for a crisis centre for Sriwijaya Air flight SJY182 at the Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Tangerang near Jakarta on January 9, 2021.

Search and rescue teams are scouring the stormy waters of the Java Sea, hunting for the wreckage of Sriwijaya Air Flight 182.

At this early stage, Indonesian officials still don't know why the Boeing 737 suddenly plunged from the sky within minutes of take-off.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Children's shoes, lined up on a white tarp in the port, as relatives search for items belonging to their loved ones after the October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 610 crash. © Ivan Watson Children's shoes, lined up on a white tarp in the port, as relatives search for items belonging to their loved ones after the October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 610 crash.

Hours after the plane crashed Saturday afternoon, authorities began the grim search for the 62 passengers and crew who were on board.

While it is too soon to speculate on what caused the Sriwijaya Air disaster, and it should be noted that the airline has a solid safety record with no onboard casualties in four incidents recorded on the Aviation Safety Network database, for me it brought back an uncomfortable memory, which speaks to the wider problem of aviation safety in Indonesia.

a group of people on a boat in the water: The Indonesia Rescue team find part of a Sriwijaya Air plane on January 10, 2021. © Oscar Siagian/Getty Images The Indonesia Rescue team find part of a Sriwijaya Air plane on January 10, 2021.

One morning in October 2019, some other airlines canceled their departures from Kalimarau Airport amid poor weather. Initially, my colleagues and I thought we'd got lucky when our Sriwijaya Air flight went ahead, and airport workers ushered us onto our 55-minute domestic route to Balikpapan.

But just moments after take-off our aircraft began rocking and bumping.

Tension in the cabin mounted, as the turbulence grew more and more violent. We were flying through dark storm clouds.

It didn't help that the plane looked old, with threadbare upholstery and cracked plastic tray tables that reminded me of the aging aircraft that serviced Russia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There was a brief respite, when sunlight momentarily streamed through the windows.

But then the sky grew dark again and the pitching and hewing of the aircraft got worse.

I looked around and saw most of the passengers sitting with their eyes closed, quietly murmuring in prayer. Even more alarming, the airline attendant strapped to her seat in front was also praying.

Suddenly there was a flash of light outside the plane and an ear-splitting boom that I felt in my feet through the floor of the cabin.

In that instant, I feared an engine caught fire. "So this is how it ends," I remember thinking. I had instant regret that I would never be able to propose to the woman who is now my wife.

In retrospect, I believe it was a lightning strike directly on or near the aircraft -- although this was never confirmed.

Soon after, the aircraft stabilized. We landed on-schedule safely in Balikpapan. But everyone, including the CNN colleagues I was traveling with, were clearly very shaken.

One of them, our Indonesian producer Masrur "Jamal" Jamaluddin, told me that as passengers disembarked, the man next to him asked to wait several minutes to stand up because his legs were still shaking.

That night, Jamal, a veteran Indonesian journalist, told me about a separate frightening experience he'd had on a domestic Garuda Indonesia flight in 2004.

Minutes after take off, Jamal recalled, he started hearing loud banging on the aircraft. "And then all of the sudden, the plane was nose down, so my body was pushed to the front. Everyone on the plane was screaming," he said.

Jamal said the emergency masks popped out of the ceiling. The plane briefly stabilized, but then it went into another steep dive.

"People started screaming again. I heard (people saying) 'Allahu Akbar' and 'Jesus,'" he said.

Jamal said the plane eventually turned back and made a safe emergency landing at its original departure airport.

"As far as I remember, no one explained what happened," he says. Though Jamal said he reported the incident back to his Indonesian news organization, he said his editors never picked up the story.

"I still remember that once in my life I promised to Allah that if you give me a second chance I will be a better version of me. Because I was so scared that I was going to die," he said.

Indonesia's air safety record

Throughout his career, Jamal has covered several tragic air disasters in Indonesia. We worked together after the October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 610 crash, which killed 189 people.

For days, we sat in Jakarta's main port, watching as National Search and Rescue boats and Indonesian Navy ships returned from the Java Sea, depositing wreckage, luggage and the physical remains of victims on the concrete pier.

Grieving relatives made agonizing trips to the port to identify their loved ones' belongings.

The lonely image of children's shoes, neatly lined up on a white tarp in the port, is seared into my memory.

A year later, an investigation concluded that the primary cause of that disaster was a design flaw in Lion Air's brand new Boeing 737 Max 8.

That same problem, which sent contradictory messages between the Max 8's auto-pilot system and sensors, caused the deadly crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019, 5 months after the Lion Air disaster.

Years after the grim Lion Air vigil, Indonesian authorities are once again using the same Jakarta port as the hub of the search and rescue effort for Sriwijaya Air Flight 182.

With Lion Air, Indonesia became the victim of fatal mistakes at Boeing that led to the grounding of Max 8 planes worldwide.

But Indonesia has dark spots in its own flight safety record.

In 2007, the European Union banned all 51 Indonesian airlines from its airspace after a Garuda Indonesia plane with 140 people on board overshot the runway in Yogyakarta in March and burst into flames, killing 21 people on board.

In a separate deadly incident in 2014, AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea, killing 162 people.

The EU cleared all of Indonesia's airlines in 2018, "following further improvements to the aviation safety situation that was ascertained in the country."

Indonesia can't operate as a modern republic without air travel. It is a massive archipelago of more than 13,000 islands which sprawls across four time zones. According to the CAPA-Center for Aviation, air passenger traffic tripled in Indonesia between 2005 and 2017.

Airlines like Sriwijaya Air will be critical to that travel, and it certainly isn't fair to judge the carrier based on my one frightening experience on one of its planes.

Boeing's role in the Lion Air disaster also revealed the dangers of jumping to conclusions after a plane crash.

We have to wait for the results of the investigation, while also extending sympathies to the scores of suffering families now waiting to learn about the fate of flight 182's passengers and crew.

Though I had one frightening experience flying in Indonesia, every other flight I've been on there has been smooth, and in clean, new aircraft.

Indonesia's aviation network has facilitated trips to a sulfur spewing volcano, surf breaks in Bali, the jungles of Borneo, and the high-charged, steamy streets of the capital Jakarta.

Some day, when this pandemic recedes, I will be delighted to fly back to Indonesia.

Hopefully, I can join Jamal on another island-hopping flight across his country.

And if we hit turbulence, while I nervously grip the arm-rest, I'll take comfort in the fact that Jamal will be praying beside me.

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