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The MAX saga

The MAX saga

The crash that shocked global aviation industry

In the early morning of Sunday March10, 2019, YaredGetachew(Capt.), 28, who was in command of the ill-fated Ethiopian Boeing 737-8MAX jetliner phoned his mother who lives in Nairobi, Kenya to tell her that he was coming home. Sadly he could not make it.

Few minutes after departing from the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport the aircraft with registration number ET-AVJ encountered a problem with the flight control system. Before reaching the cruising altitude allotted for Flight ET302 Yared contacted the Air Traffic Control Tower(ATCs) at Addis Ababa Airport informing them of the problem he had faced with the flight control system. “I have faced a flight control problem. I would like to return back,” a source who listened to the voice communication recording told The Reporter.

Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Group CEO,TewoldeGebremariam, confirmed that the Captain made a distress call requesting for clearance for landing.

The ATCs who were on duty at the control tower gave clearance for ET302. The cockpit crew were unable to return the brand new airplane back to Addis Ababa Airport. At 2:44AM ET302 disappeared from the radar.

The debris of the aircraft was found in a locality called Ijere some 70 KMs south east of Addis Ababa. 149 passengers and eight crew members perished in the tragic accident that shocked the world.

The Ministry of Transport and the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) have established a national Accident Investigation Committee headed by AmdeyeFenta (Col.), head of the National Aircraft Accident Prevention and Investigation Bureau.

The black box was recovered on Monday and was handed over to the investigation committee in the presence of the Minister of Transport DagmawitMoges. Experts of the Boeing, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the US National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) arrived in Addis Ababa on Tuesday morning to assist the accident investigation. Investigators from the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAiB) who also arrived Tuesday met the Transport Minister DagmawitMoges, director general of ECAA WossenyelehHunegnaw (Col.) and AmdeyeFenta, the chief investigator, and volunteered to help the investigation process. The investigators visited the crash site on Tuesday afternoon.

Sources told The Reporter that both NTSB and AAIB offered to take and read the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and Flight Data Recorder (FDR) called the black box. However, the National Investigation Team decided to send the black box to France.

The French president Emanuel Macron who visited Addis Ababa early this week has offered to lend a hand to Ethiopian aviation Authorities in the aircraft accident investigation. In a press briefing held on Tuesday, Macron stated that his government would provide the required assistance to the accident investigation.

Accordingly an Ethiopian delegation led by Accident Investigation Bureau(AIB) has flown the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) to Paris, France for investigation.Wossenyeleh and Amdeyeaccompanied the black box to France. A source close to the investigation process told The Reporter that the French Accident investigation agency, the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis (BEA) is working on the black box. The source said experts of the agency are downloading the readings of CVR and FDR.

The BEA, which is located at Paris Le Bourget Airport, has 120 employees, including 30 investigators and 12 investigative assistants. The same agency investigated the back box recovered from Ethiopian Airlines Boeing B737-800 plane crash in Beirut, Lebanon in January 2010. 

In the wake of Ethiopian fatal plane crash on Sunday,Boeing’s newest jetliner failed under heavy scrutiny. Ethiopian Airlines announced that it decided to ground its B737MAX fleet as of March10. China followed suit. Indonesia, Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, India, Morocco, Australia took the same measure. The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority has also banned the flight of B737-MAX 8 and 9 into Ethiopian airspace.  

Countries had enough reason to question the safety record of the B737-8MAX jetliner after witnessing two tragic air accidents that involved the same aircraft in just five month time-the first being the Lion Air B737MAX that crashed in the Java Sea in Indonesia, 12 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta. Investigators fear the two Boeing 737s crashed for similar reasons.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on Tuesday followed several more countries’ civil aviation authorities in closing its airspace to Boeing 737 Max operations. Cologne-based EASA published an Airworthiness Directive suspending all flight operations of all Boeing 737-8s and 737-9s in Europe. EASA also has published a Safety Directive suspending all commercial Max flights performed by third-country operators into, within, or out of the EU.

“EASA is continuously analyzing the data as it becomes available,” it said, stressing that the accident investigation continues and that it remains too early to draw any conclusions about the cause. Ethiopian authorities lead the accident investigation with the support of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. EASA has offered its assistance in supporting the investigation.

Countries including Germany, the UK, France, Canada, Ireland and more have grounded Boeing 737 MAX flights. The UK was the first country in Europe to impose flight restrictions on all B737MAX aircraft.

American flagship company Boeing and the US aviation regulator FAA have been reluctant to ground the B737MAX fleet which now look a snakebite. In a statement on Tuesday March12 Boeing said safety is Boeing’s number one priority and it has a full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX. “We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets. We will continue to engage with them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets. The United States Federal Aviation Administration is not mandating any further action at this time, and based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.”

The FAA,too, said it did not see systemic performance issues that require the grounding of MAX fleet.

However, in midweek, the MAX saga took another turn when President Donald Trump announced that the FAA was ordering the immediate grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 aircraft in the U.S.

On March13, the FAA ordered the temporary grounding of Max aircraft operated by the US Airlines or in US territory. “The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site and analysed today. This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to FAA this morning, led to this decision,” FAA said. According to the agency, grounding will remain in effect pending further investigation, including examination from the aircraft’s flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.     

On the same day, Boeing stated that after consultation with the FAA and NTSB and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, it has determined—out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety—to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.

“On behalf of the entire Boeing team, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives in these two tragic accidents,” said Dennis Muilenburg, president, CEO, Chairman of The Boeing Company.

 

“We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution. Safety is a core value at Boeing for as long as we have been building airplanes; and it always will be. There is no greater priority for our company and our industry. We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again”Muilenburg said.

Boeing said it made the recommendation adding that it supports the decision by the FAA.

The US Congress plans to scrutinize the FAA as to why the United States waited so many days to ground all Boeing Co 737 MAX jets as other countries and airlines acted more quickly.

In the advent of Ethiopian plane crash, Boeing seems to be in hot water. Investigators have identified similar patterns of events in Lion Air and Ethiopian MAX aircraft crashes. American and Canadian regulators cited newly available satellite-tracking data that indicate similarities between the two deadly crashes. The data cited by regulators points to preliminary indications that the two planes could have been brought down by the same cause, a malfunctioning automated system intended to keep the jet from stalling.

Marc Garneau, Canada’s transport minister, disclosed that the satellite-tracking data revealed “vertical variations” in the Ethiopian Airlines flight similar to that of the crash of the Lion Air Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia in October. 

Aviation analysts are trying to figure out the technological glitches that made the jet vulnerable to crashes.

Jeff Wise, an American aviation analyst, argues that Boeing has made a bad business decision. In his opinion piece titled “Where did Boeing go wrong?” Wise stated that it all comes down to business strategy. According to him,Chicago-based Boeing is locked in a fierce duopolistic rivalry with Toulouse, France–based Airbus, with whom it roughly splits the USD 200 billion airliner market. The biggest segment of that market is for short- to medium-range narrow-body jets that typically carry between 100 and 200 passengers.

“Boeing’s entry, the 737, first flew in 1967, and though various improvements have been rolled out over the years, at heart, it is still a creature of the Right Stuff era. Instead of computer-controlled fly-by-wire controls, which guide a plane’s flight electronically, it still has old-fashioned mechanical actuators, and it is made of aluminum rather than modern lightweight composites,” Wise said.

“Airbus’ A320 family, meanwhile, took to the skies a generation later, in 1987, but it was a fly-by-wire, composite creature from the get-go. In 2014, Airbus rolled out its most recent iteration, the A320neo, a range of jets with engines that were billed as being 15 percent more fuel efficient than the old model,” he said.

To maintain its lead, Boeing had to counter Airbus’ move. “It had two options: either clear off the drafting tables and start working on a clean-sheet design, or keep the legacy 737 and polish it. The former would cost a vast amount—its last brand-new design, the 787, cost USD 32 billion to develop—and it would require airlines to retrain flight crews and maintenance personnel.”

Instead, it took the second and more economical route and upgraded the previous iteration. Boeing swapped out the engines for new models, which, together with air frame tweaks, promised a 20 percent increase in fuel efficiency. In order to accommodate the engine’s larger diameter, Boeing engineers had to move the point where the plane attaches to the wing. This, in turn, affected the way the plane handled. Most alarmingly, it left the plane with a tendency to pitch up, which could result in a dangerous aerodynamic stall. To prevent this, Boeing added a new autopilot system that would pitch the nose down if it looked like it was getting too high. According to a preliminary report, it was this system that apparently led to the Lion Air crash.

According to Wise, if Boeing had designed a new plane from scratch, it wouldn’t have had to resort to this kind of kludge. “It could have designed the air frame for the engines so that the pitch-up tendency did not exist. As it was, its engineers used automation to paper over the aircraft’s flaws. Automated systems can go a long way toward preventing the sorts of accidents that arise from human fecklessness or inattention, but they inherently add to a system’s complexity. When they go wrong, they can act in ways that are surprising to an unprepared pilot. That can be dangerous, especially in high-stress, novel situations.”

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the 737 Max is MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. According to Benjamin Zhang, aviation analyst, to fit the Max's larger, more fuel-efficient engines, Boeing had to redesign the way it mounts engines on the 737. “This change disrupted the plane's center of gravity and caused the Max to have a tendency to tip its nose upward during flight, increasing the likelihood of a stall," Zhang said.

MCAS is designed to automatically counteract that tendency and point the nose of the plane downward.

Tewolde who speaks confidently about the competence of the cockpit crew of ET302 admits that the pilots faced a problem with the flight control. “The captain requested for clearance to return after he encountered a flight control problem,” he said. Adding that, Yared is a senior captain who accumulated more than 8000 flight hours on his log book. “He has been serving Ethiopian Airlines since July2010 with an excellent flight record.”

A senior executive of Ethiopian Airlines told The Reporter that Ethiopian Airlines acquired the B737-8 MAX flight simulator last January and all the B737MAX crew were undergoing simulator training since then. Speaking about the captain, the executive said “He is a reliable pilot. If he had not been qualified would not have assigned him on that post.”

According to him Ethiopian did not encounter a challenge in operating the MAX fleet before the accident.

Ethiopian received its first MAX aircraft in June 2018. It had six max aircraft and 24 more on its order book.

Officials fear that the accident investigation and other related issues could sour the long standing relation between Africa’s largest airline, Ethiopian, and Boeing.  

Boeing  is the major supplier of Ethiopian Airlines but  other American companies such as GE, UT, Rockwell Collins, BE Aerospace and  Honey Well  are also  large  suppliers of aircraft Engines, Avionics Components, Aircraft   Seats and In flight products.

Ethiopian Airlines has been a dedicated Boeing Customer for the last 73 years until it mixed with Airbus A 350 and Bombardier Turbo Propeller Q-400 aircraft in recent years. Ethiopian was the first African carrier to join the jet age by bringing the B 720 in 1962. It was the first in Africa and second in the world to acquire the B 767 in 1986. Again in 2012, Ethiopia was the second country only next to Japan to own and operate the B 787 Dream liner aircraft.

Today Ethiopian Airlines has a total fleet of 110 aircraft out of which 80 are Boeing aircraft. The national airlines operates B737, B767, B777 and B787 jetliners and it has flight simulators for all the Boeing fleet. According to information obtained by The Reporter, Ethiopian invested more than 9 billion USD to purchase 69 Boeing aircraft and ordered additional 44 Boeing airplanes to be delivered in the next five years with a total value of six billion USD. Ethiopian has also purchased spare engines and other components valued at 6 billion USD.

As per the  US Government  multiplier  factor; each  USD 1 Billion export generates 5,500  jobs  in the  USA and accordingly Ethiopian Airlines import of airplanes, engines  and components worth   of USD 21 Billion  generated 115,000  jobs  in the  USA.

Only time will tell if the findings of the accident investigation will affect this huge business transaction.   

An aviation official close to the accident investigation process told The Reporter that it will take three month to prepare the preliminary report and a year to issue the final report.

Yared did not make it home to his mother in Nairobi, Kenya, as he passed away commanding the ill-fated Flight ET302. Both Group’s CEO and officials at Ethiopian’s flight operations say that he was a capable pilot and that he would not have been assigned to that flight if he was not.

“I am proud of my son,” is all, his father, a retired surgeon, GetachewTessema (MD), can say.