Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
In the latest news regarding the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 disaster, the black box has been recovered (as of Monday, March 11, 2019) and is currently being studied by teams of international investigators to piece together the details of what may have happened following take-off to cause the accident. Further, given that there have been two major, fatal accidents within six months, there has been significant pressure on governments around the world to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft (the model involved in the present disaster) until the aircraft is deemed safe for flight by industry regulators and investigators.
As of March 13, more than 45 countries around the world — including the USA, Canada, China, UK, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many other countries — joined together to prohibit all flights involving a 737 Max 8. Perhaps more strikingly, however, on March 14, in the wake of “new evidence” uncovered at the crash site, Boeing itself issued a comprehensive order to ground all 737 Max series aircraft until further notice. This grounding order applies globally.
On March 10, 2019, at roughly 8:38AM local time, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Bole airport in Addis Ababa en route to Nairobi. Within minutes, the pilot aboard Flight 302 contacted the airport control tower and requested that he be allowed to return to the airport for landing, as he was experienced flight control problems. Based on Flightradar data, the plane appears to have suffered unstable vertical speed following takeoff, gaining and losing speed in spurts, which is indicative of the aircraft’s pitch changing rapidly — a rather similar timeline to the Ethiopian Flight 302 disaster that also involved rapid shifts in elevation. The control tower lost communication by 8:44AM, just six minutes after takeoff. According to eyewitness reports, the rear of the aircraft was already on fire before it crashed.
On March 11, 2019, Boeing confirmed that it will be deploying a flight control software update to the MCAS on 737 Max 8 aircraft over the coming weeks so that the stabilizer trim command will be limited in response to an erroneous angle-of-attack sensor reading, and pilots will be notified as to the erroneous readings. However, Boeing still refuses to draw connections between Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Ethiopian Flight 302.
At least two airline pilots in the US have reported that an automated system was causing their planes to tilt down suddenly and that this system only activated when they were in autopilot mode (they could only stop the automatic pitching down of the nose by taking manual control of the aircraft). This may point to the possibility of some other, non-MCAS explanation for the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash.
Given the many “gaps” in the record and the unresolved questions regarding how the pilots lost control of the aircraft, investigators believe that the black box will be enormously useful for clarifying what really happened.
About the Airline
Ethiopian Airlines is state-owned and is one of the largest carriers in all of Africa, carrying over 10.6 million passengers in 2018 alone. The airline also has a reasonable safety record, with the last major incident occurring in 2010. According to Richard Quest, a CNN aviation expert, Ethiopian Airlines is a very well-run airline with “no safety issues,” thus raising serious questions about Boeing’s role in designing a potentially defective aircraft.
About the Aircraft
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 involved a Boeing 737 Max 8, the newest variant of the popular single-aisle aircraft, and more specifically, the next in the “Max” series. The specific aircraft in the present case was delivered just over four months ago in November 2018.
The 737 Max 8 was designed to extend the range of the aircraft (compared to earlier models), reduce emissions, and make the flight more comfortable by reducing noise levels in the cabin. The 737 Max 8 took the aviation industry by storm since its launch in 2016, with over 350 aircraft already delivered to various airlines around the world (mostly low-cost carriers) and 4,661 orders currently being processed.
Since October 29, 2018, when Ethiopian Flight 302 crashed off the coast of Indonesia, killing 189 passengers and crew (the first fatal incident involving the 737 Max 8), Boeing has been under increasing scrutiny over their design of the 737 Max 8. The 737 Max 8 incorporates a new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that automatically triggers when the aircraft is stalling. More specifically, the system is activated when the angle-of-attack sensors on the plane process data that show that the plane is moving at a dangerous angle upwards. When the MCAS kicks in, the aircraft’s nose is pushed down in an attempt to stabilize its angle. This autopilot anti-stall system can lead to a crash if the angle-of-attack sensors are faulty.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the MCAS implementation was put in the 737 Max 8 in a manner that was not “obvious.” When the 737 Max 8 aircraft was initially delivered to purchasers, the manuals did not contain information about the new MCAS implementation and pilots were not trained to respond to the issue that plagued the pilots on Ethiopian Flight 302, and that could have possibly affected the pilots on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
In the wake of the October 29, 2018 accident, Boeing did not admit fault, but made moves to minimize the risks associated with their MCAS system by modifying the manuals and putting out an emergency warning to all airlines operating the 737 Max 8 to adequately train pilots on the issue. These actions do not appear to have been sufficient to resolve the risks. Boeing stock has fallen 11 percent in just two days of trading, with the market seemingly anticipating that the fault lies with the manufacturer to some degree.
About the Pilot
The captain of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 was Yared Getachew. Captain Getachew was one of the youngest in Ethiopian Airlines history, though his age was not reflective of a lack of experience. Captain Getachew was a senior pilot with over 8,000 flight hours logged and has been described as having an “excellent flying record” and “commendable performance” by sources within the airline.