Sayoga / Getty Images Contributor
A member of the Indonesia Search and Rescue Agency prepares to look for the cockpit voice recorder inside the wreckage of a 737-800 that crashed into the sea on Saturday in Bali.
The pilot whose jet slumped into the sea while trying to land in Bali, Indonesia, has described how he felt it "dragged" down by wind while he struggled to regain control, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
All 108 passengers and crew members survived when the Boeing 737-800 passenger jet, operated by Indonesian budget carrier Lion Air, undershot the tourist island's main airport runway and belly-flopped in water on Saturday.
Officials stress it was too early to say what caused the incident, which is being investigated by Indonesian authorities with the assistance of U.S. crash investigators and Boeing.
But initial debriefings, witness comments and weather reports have focused attention on the possibility of wind shear or a downdraft from storm clouds known as a microburst.
A passenger jet ended up in the ocean while attempting to land on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Saturday, local officials said. NBC's Annabel Roberts reports.
Experts say the violent and unpredictable gusts can leave even the most modern jet helpless if they are stronger than the plane's ability to fly out of trouble -- with the plane most vulnerable in the moments before landing.
"If you have a downdraft which exceeds the performance of the plane, then even if you put on full thrust you will go downhill and you can't climb out," said Hugh Dibley, a former British Airways captain and expert on loss-of-control events.
According to initial pilot debriefings, details of which have been described to Reuters, Flight JT-904 was on an eastward approach to Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport at midafternoon on Saturday after a normal flight from Bandung, West Java.
The co-pilot, an Indian national with 2,000 hours of relevant flying experience, was in charge for the domestic trip, which was scheduled to last 1 hour and 40 minutes.
As the Lion Air plane was coming in to land, with an aircraft of national carrier Garuda following behind and another about to take off on the runway just ahead, the co-pilot lost sight of the runway as heavy rain drove across the windshield.
The captain, an Indonesian citizen with about 15,000 hours experience and an instructor's license, took the controls.
Between 400 and 200 feet, pilots described flying through a wall of water, according to the source. Bursts of heavy rainfall and lost visibility are not uncommon in the tropics, but the aircraft's low height meant the crew had little time to react.
With no sight of the runway lights or markings, the captain decided to abort the landing and perform a "go around," a routine maneuver for which pilots are trained.
SAR via EPA
An Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency photo shows teams working to help passengers on a Lion Air plane after it crashed into the water in Bali on Saturday.
But the captain told officials afterward that instead of climbing, the brand-new 737 started to sink uncontrollably.
From 200 feet, well-practiced routines unraveled quickly.
"The captain says he intended to go around but that he felt the aircraft dragged down by the wind; that is why he hit the sea," said the source, who was briefed on the crew's testimony.
"There was rain coming east to west; very heavy," the source said, asking not to be named because no one is authorized to speak publicly about the investigation while it is under way.
However, Erasmus Kayadu, the head of Ngurah Rai Airport's weather station, said there was no rain during the crash period and that visibility was 6 miles.
The weather station's data showed the wind speed was 7 mph with lots of low cloud cover, including dense storm clouds, said Kayadu, who is involved in the investigation.
A passenger on board the jet painted a picture of an aircraft getting into difficulty only at the last minute. "There was no sign at all it would fall but then suddenly it dropped into the water," Tantri Widiastuti, 60, told Metro TV.
Lion Air declined to comment on the cause of the crash.
Both pilots were given urine tests by the Indonesian police and were cleared for drugs and alcohol, the Reuters source said.