JAKARTA, Indonesia – A "black box" that investigators believe to be the flight data recorder from a Lion Air jet was discovered off the Java coast on Thursday, officials said, a crucial discovery that will help investigators determine how an almost-new plane fell out of clear skies in one of the worst commercial air disasters in recent years.
On Thursday morning, divers discovered the bright orange flight recorder 100 feet underwater close to the coast of Jakarta. An airplane has two flight recorders, one that captures flight data and another that records the pilot and his co-pilot in the cockpit.
"This is most likely the flight data recorder," said Bambang Irawan, an investigator at Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee. "We are still looking for the cockpit voice recorder."
The crash has so far puzzled experts, who without data from the plane have only been able to speculate on what caused the plane to go down on Monday morning just 13 minutes after takeoff, crashing into the sea with such speed and force that no victim has been found intact.
Finding the flight recorder – which sometimes can take years to track down or is never found at all after a crash – is a crucial to piece together the last moments of the ill-fated flight.
Lion Air 610, a twin-engine Boeing 737 Max 8, took off from Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for the mining region of Pangkal Pinang early Monday. Just a few minutes into the flight, the pilot asked permission to return to the airport, a request that was granted.
Radar showed the aircraft climbed and descended erratically and that its speed increased dramatically before it lost contact with air traffic controllers.
Budi Karya Sumadi, Indonesia's Transportation Minister, said 10 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes operated by Lion Air and one operated by Garuda Airlines, Indonesia's national airline, have been grounded and are being inspected and evaluated by the transportation safety committee. They will discuss the details of their evaluation with Boeing, he added, which has sent a team of engineers to Jakarta.
His ministry has also asked Lion Air to suspend the licenses of a number of officials, including its maintenance director, engineering director and flight maintenance director, while they aid in the investigation.
Indonesia is Southeast Asia's biggest aviation market, according to the Center for Aviation, a travel market research company, bolstered by a rising middle class and the necessity of air travel to navigate the large archipelago of islands. But the country has suffered from safety oversights in the past.
Its airlines were banned from flying to the United States in 2007 because they were "deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping, or inspection procedures," the Federal Aviation Administration said. The FAA lifted the ban in 2016 after the country's airlines showed signs of improvement. The European Union similarly barred Indonesian carriers from flying into European airspace from 2007 until June.
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. The Washington Post's Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong contributed to this report.