Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed Sunday morning just six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 passengers and crew. It was the second crash of a new Boeing 737 MAX 8 in just over four months, following the Lion Air crash.
The fatal crash Sunday morning of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 soon after takeoff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the second crash of Boeing’s new 737 model in just over four months, shocked the aviation world.
On Monday morning in Ethiopia, the airline announced that it was grounding the six remaining MAXs in its fleet “until further notice … as extra safety precaution.” And in Asia, China’s air safety regulator grounded the entire country’s MAX fleet. China takes delivery of about a third of all 737s built.
All 157 people on board were killed. Ethiopian Airlines said the flight data and cockpit voice recorders had been found, according to The Associated Press. An airline official, however, told AP that one of the recorders was partially damaged and “we will see what we can retrieve from it.”
The accident will draw intense and urgent scrutiny for any link with the Oct. 29 crash of Lion Air Flight JT 610, in which 189 people died. It is highly unusual to have two deadly crashes of such a new model.
“Being a new airplane, and with the tragedy in Indonesia a few months ago, they need to find out if there is a connection or not,” said John Cox, founder and chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation safety consultancy. “There’s a sense of urgency.”
Speaking before China’s announcement, Cox, who previously served as the top safety official for the Air Line Pilots Association, said it’s premature to think of grounding the 737 MAX fleet.
“We don’t know anything yet. We don’t have close to sufficient information to consider grounding the planes,” he said. “That would create economic pressure on a number of the airlines that’s unjustified at this point. We have to be patient and let the investigators do their job. They know the urgency.”
However, later Sunday multiple reports from China said that country’s aviation safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has grounded its fleet of MAXs. Boeing has delivered 96 of the jets to China.
And in addition to Ethiopian Airlines, Indonesia said it will halt flights involving the 737s starting Tuesday, according to Bloomberg. And Cayman Airways, the flag carrier of the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, announced Sunday that it is grounding its two new 737 MAXs “while the cause of this sad loss is undetermined … until more information is received.”
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed Sunday morning just six minutes after takeoff from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, bound for Nairobi, Kenya.
Like the Lion Air plane, the Ethiopian MAX was a new aircraft. Ethiopian took delivery from Boeing on Nov. 15, 2018.
The MAX, a new version of the 737, entered service in May 2017 and more than 350 are flying worldwide. In addition to the seven MAXs Ethiopian has taken already, it has 23 more on order.
For Boeing, the MAX is its cash cow. Soon all the 737s assembled in its Renton plant will be MAXes, due to be pumped out later this year at a rate of 57 jets per month.
At the end of January, Boeing had only 46 of the older 737 NG model left to build, and a massive backlog of 4,661 MAXes on order.
In a news conference Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines Chief Executive Tewolde Gebremariam, who had just visited the crash site, called it a “very sad and tragic day.”
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He said the plane had just flown to Johannesburg and back, returning to Addis Ababa about 6 a.m. Sunday. He said neither the pilots on that flight nor ground-maintenance staff reported any issues.
“The routine maintenance check didn’t reveal any problem,” Gebremariam said. “It’s a brand-new airplane, well maintained.”
The jet had “flown for more than 1,200 hours,” he said. “It was a very clean airplane.”
After about three hours on the ground, the fatal flight to Nairobi was dispatched as normal and took off at 8:38 a.m. local time.
The pilot radioed air traffic control soon after, saying that “he had difficulty and wanted to return,” Gebremariam said. He was given permission to return to the airport, but the jet crashed at 8:44 a.m.
The pilot in command was a senior pilot with more than 8,000 flying hours experience, he said.
In a statement Sunday, Boeing said it is “deeply saddened” and extended sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew.
“A Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board,” the statement said.
Later on Sunday, Boeing said it has postponed the celebratory rollout of the new 777X that was planned for Wednesday in Everett.
On Monday, shares of Boeing sank 9.6 percent to $382.11 in early U.S. trading.
Any link to the Lion Air crash?
Preliminary investigation into the Lion Air crash established that a faulty sensor triggered a new flight control system on the MAX — called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) — that repeatedly pushed the nose of the airplane down.
In response, Boeing sent out notification to all pilots worldwide warning them of this possibility, and provided instructions about how to handle the plane safely if it were to happen again.
Bole International Airport is at high altitude, 7,625 feet above sea level, and the terrain nearby is mountainous.
Flight tracking company Flightradar24, using information transmitted from the airplane, tracked Ethiopian Flight 302 for three minutes. However, coverage at low altitudes in the area is limited due to the terrain, and the data on the last minutes is not immediately available.
The Flightradar24 data that is available shows a fluctuation in altitude, with the jet climbing to 8,000 feet above sea level, then sinking to 7,700, then climbing again to 8,600. These figures have to be corrected for local air pressure so that data will need to be adjusted.
The Aviation Herald, a reputable website that tracks information on airline accidents, reported that the last transponder data available, corrected for atmospheric pressure, showed the plane about 24 miles east of Addis Ababa flying at 9,027 feet above sea level, or less than 1,000 feet above the terrain at that point, which was 8,130 feet above sea level.
It’s unclear if the unusual dip in altitude before the crash is the result of a relatively normal flight transition, such as if the pilot was manually flying the plane and momentarily got busy and was distracted, or evidence of some technical problem.
Certainly, because of the Lion Air crash, there will be an immediate focus on whether the MCAS system could have been activated on the Ethiopian flight.
The Lion Air flight data showed that airplane repeatedly losing and then regaining altitude for 12 minutes before the final dive into the sea, as the pilots struggled to pull the nose up each time MCAS pushed it down.
But MCAS cannot activate until the pilot has gained altitude and retracted the flaps that give the wings extra lift for takeoff. It’s not clear at this time what phase of flight the Ethiopian plane had reached and whether the flaps were retracted.
Gebremariam in Sunday’s news conference called Ethiopian, which has expanded rapidly in recent years, “one of the safest airlines in the world.”
The airline does have a very modern fleet. However, the airline suffered a previous 737 crash in 2010, when a flight from Lebanon to Addis Ababa crashed shortly after takeoff and killed all 90 people on board.
The investigation into that crash blamed the pilots for “mismanagement of the aircraft’s speed, altitude, headings and attitude through inconsistent flight control inputs resulting in loss of control.”
The airline said Sunday the passenger list from Flight 302 spanned more than 30 nationalities, including citizens of Kenya, Canada, Ethiopia, Italy, China, the U.S., Britain, France and Egypt.