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Lion Air Pilots Struggled to Control Plane That Crashed in Indonesia, Killing All 189 on Board

Investigators examine engine parts from the ill-fated Lion Air flight JT 610 at a port in Jakarta on Nov. 7, 2018, after they were recovered from the bottom of the Java sea. (Credit: Bay Ismoyo / AFP / Getty Images)

Investigators examine engine parts from the ill-fated Lion Air flight JT 610 at a port in Jakarta on Nov. 7, 2018, after they were recovered from the bottom of the Java sea. (Credit: Bay Ismoyo / AFP / Getty Images)

Black box data collected from their crashed Boeing 737 MAX 8 show Lion Air pilots struggled to maintain control as the aircraft’s automatic safety system repeatedly pushed the plane’s nose down, according to a preliminary investigation into last month’s disaster.

The investigators are focusing on whether faulty information from sensors led the plane’s system to force the nose down. The new 737 MAX 8 plunged into the Java Sea on Oct. 29, killing all 189 people on board.

Information from the Lion Air jet’s flight data recorder was included in a briefing for the Indonesian Parliament. Indonesian authorities released the findings Wednesday but were not expected to draw conclusions from the data they presented.

Peter Lemme, an expert in aviation and satellite communications and a former Boeing engineer, wrote an analysis of the data on his blog.

The MAX aircraft is the latest version of Boeing’s popular 737 jetliner. It is equipped with an automated system that pushes the nose down if a sensor detects that the nose is pointed so high that the plane could go into an aerodynamic stall.

Lemme described “a deadly game of tag” in which the plane pointed down, the pilots countered by manually aiming the nose higher, only for the sequence to repeat about five seconds later. That happened 26 times during the 11-minute flight, but pilots failed to recognize what was happening and follow the known procedure for countering incorrect activation of the automated safety system, Lemme told The Associated Press.

Colleagues of victims of Lion Air flight JT 610 throw flowers from the deck of an Indonesian Navy ship during a visit to the site of the crash on Nov. 6, 2018. (Credit: Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images)

Colleagues of victims of Lion Air flight JT 610 throw flowers from the deck of an Indonesian Navy ship during a visit to the site of the crash on Nov. 6, 2018. (Credit: Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images)

Lemme said he was also troubled that there weren’t easy checks to see if sensor information was correct, that the crew of the fatal flight apparently wasn’t warned that similar problems had occurred on previous flights, and that the Lion Air jet wasn’t fully repaired after those flights.

“Had they fixed the airplane, we would not have had the accident,” he said. “Every accident is a combination of events, so there is disappointment all around here,” he said.

Boeing spokesman Charles Bickers said the company is “taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident.”

The company said last week that it remains confident in the safety of the 737 MAX and had given airlines around the world two updates to “re-emphasize existing procedures for these situations.”

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Lion Air Flight 610. We extend our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families and loved ones of those onboard. We will analyze any additional information as it becomes available,” the company said in a statement.

Pilots at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines complained this month that they had not been given all information about the new system on the MAX. More than 200 MAX jets have been delivered to airlines around the world.

The Indonesian investigation is continuing with help from U.S. regulators and Boeing. Searchers have not found the plane’s cockpit voice recorder, which would provide more information about the pilots’ actions