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Excessive-Stakes Boeing Inquiry Hinges on Ethiopia Black Box Data

Black box data was downloaded in France but only Ethiopian experts leading the probe have heard the dialogue between Getachew,, and Mohammed

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FILE - Men unload a case containing the black boxes from the crashed Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 outside the headquarters of France's BEA air accident investigation agency in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, March 14, 2019. VOA

The investigation into the final minutes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 turned on Tuesday to the secrets in the cockpit voice recorder as Boeing and a shaken global aviation industry hung on the outcome.

The voices of Captain Yared Getachew and First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed could reveal what led to the March 10 crash of the Boeing 737 MAX that has worrying parallels with another disaster involving the same model off Indonesia in October.

The twin disasters killed 346 people.

Black box data was downloaded in France but only Ethiopian experts leading the probe have heard the dialogue between Getachew, 29, and Mohammed, 25. The data was back in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, sources familiar with the probe told Reuters.

Experts believe a new automated system in Boeing’s flagship MAX fleet — intended to stop stalling by dipping the nose — may have played a role in both crashes, with pilots unable to override it as their jets plunged downwards.

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Clothing and personal effects from passengers are seen near the wreckage at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, March 11, 2019. VOA

Both came down just minutes after take-off after erratic flight patterns and loss of control reported by the pilots.

However, every accident is a unique chain of human and technical factors, experts say.

The prestige of Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s most successful companies, and Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker and a massive U.S. exporter, is at stake.

Awkward questions for industry

Lawmakers and safety experts are questioning how thoroughly regulators vetted the MAX model and how well pilots were trained on new features. For now, regulators have grounded the existing fleet of more than 300 MAX aircraft and deliveries of nearly

5,000 more — worth well over $500 billion — are on hold.

Pressure on the Chicago-headquartered company has grown with news that federal prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Transportation are scrutinizing how carefully the MAX model was developed, two people briefed on the matter said.

The U.S. Justice Department was looking at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of Boeing, one of the people said. And a federal grand jury last week issued at least one subpoena to an entity involved in the plane’s development. The rest of the world is watching anxiously.

The European Union’s aviation agency EASA promised its own deep look at Boeing’s software updates and failure modes.

“We will not allow the aircraft to fly if we have not found acceptable answers to all our questions,” its executive director Patrick Ky told an EU parliament committee hearing.

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A worker walks past an engine on a Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane being built for American Airlines at Boeing Co.’s Renton assembly plant, March 13, 2019, in Renton, Wash. VOA

“Whatever the FAA does. OK? This is a personal guarantee that I make in front of you.”

Canada said it would independently certify the MAX in future, rather than accepting FAA validation, and would also send a team to help U.S. authorities evaluate proposed design changes.

In the hope of getting its MAX line back into the air soon, Boeing said it will roll out a software update and revise pilot training. In the case of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, it has raised questions about whether crew used the correct procedures.

The MAX, which offers cost savings of about 15 percent on fuel, was developed for service from 2017 after the successful launch by its main rival of the Airbus A320neo.

Argus Research cut Boeing stock to “hold” from “buy”, giving the planemaker at least its fourth downgrade since the crash, Refinitiv data showed. Its shares, however, were enjoying a rare respite on Tuesday, up 1.6 pct to $378 and cutting losses since the crash to under 11 pct.

Global ramifications 

In the hot seat over its certification of the MAX without demanding additional training and its closeness to Boeing, the FAA has said it is “absolutely” confident in its vetting.

The crisis has put pressure on airline companies.

Norwegian Airlines has already said it will seek compensation after grounding its MAX aircraft.

Various firms are reconsidering Boeing orders, and some are revising financial forecasts given they now cannot count on maintenance and fuel savings factored in from the MAX.

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FILE – Officials inspect an engine recovered from the crashed Lion Air jet in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nov. 4, 2018. The brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet plunged into the Java Sea just minutes after takeoff from Jakarta early on Oct. 29, killing all passengers on board. VOA

Illustrating the hoops airlines were jumping through, Air Canada said it intends to keep its MAX aircraft grounded until at least July 1, would accelerate intake of recently acquired Airbus A321 planes, and had hired other carriers to provide extra capacity meantime.

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Beyond the corporate ramifications, anguished relatives are still waiting to find out what happened.

Many have visited the crash site in a charred field to seek some closure, but there is anger at the slow pace of information and all they have been given for funerals is earth.

“I’m just so terribly sad. I had to leave here without the body of my dead brother,” said Abdulmajid Shariff, a Yemeni relative who headed home disappointed on Tuesday. (VOA)

Next Story

Ethiopia to Renew Safety Questions After Devastating Plane Crash

The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it

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FILE - Workers service an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane at the Bole International Airport in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 26, 2017. VOA

Investigators rushed to the scene of a devastating plane crash in Ethiopia on Sunday, an accident that could renew safety questions about the newest version of Boeing’s popular 737 airliner.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board.

The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it.

In those circumstances, the accident is eerily similar to an October crash in which a 737 Max 8 flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on the plane.

Safety experts took note of the similarities but cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes.

Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the similarities included both crews encountering a problem shortly after takeoff, and reports of large variations in vertical speed during ascent, “clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem” with the Ethiopian jetliner.

ethiopia, plane crash
The Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after taking off from the capital of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. Pixabay

But there are many possible explanations, Diehl said, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes. He said Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane’s maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air investigation.

By contrast, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO “stated there were no defects prior to the flight, so it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet,” said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.

“I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far,” he said.

Boeing representatives did not immediately respond for comment. The company tweeted that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew” on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane.

The Chicago-based company said it would send a technical to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators.

A spokesman for the NTSB said the U.S. agency was sending a team of four to assist Ethiopian authorities. Boeing and the U.S. investigative agency are also involved in the Lion Air probe.

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The plane was new. The weather was clear. Yet something was wrong, and the pilots tried to return to the airport. They never made it. Pixabay

Indonesian investigators have not stated a cause for the Lion Air crash, but they are examining whether faulty readings from a sensor might have triggered an automatic nose-down command to the plane, which the Lion Air pilots fought unsuccessfully to overcome. The automated system kicks in if sensors indicate that a plane is about to lose lift, or go into an aerodynamic stall. Gaining speed by diving can prevent a stall.

The Lion Air plane’s flight data recorder showed problems with an airspeed indicator on four flights, although the airline initially said the problem was fixed.

Days after the Oct. 29 accident, Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down. The notice reminded pilots of the procedure for handling such a situation, which is to disable the system causing the automatic nose-down movements.

Pilots at some airlines, however, including American and Southwest, protested that they were not fully informed about a new system that could automatically point the plane’s nose down based on sensor readings. Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in December that the Max is a safe plane, and that Boeing did not withhold operating details from airlines and pilots.

Diehl, the former NTSB investigator, said the Ethiopian Airlines pilots should have been aware of that issue from press coverage of the Lion Air crash.

ethiopia, plane crash
Safety experts took note of the similarities but cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes. Pixabay

The 737 is the best-selling airliner in history, and the Max is the newest version of it, with more fuel-efficient engines. The Max is a central part of Boeing’s strategy to compete with European rival Airbus.

ALSO READ: United Nations, Tech Giants Lead Push for Green Tech Solutions

Boeing has delivered about 350 737 Max planes and has orders for more than 5,000. It is already in use by many airlines including American, United and Southwest.

The Lion Air incident does not seem to have harmed Boeing’s ability to sell the Max. Boeing’s stock fell nearly 7 percent on the day of the Lion Air crash. Since then it has soared 26 percent higher, compared with a 4 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. (IANS)