A Boeing 737 jetliner prepares for takeoff. Photo: Twitter
A Boeing 737 Max jetliner prepares for take-off. Photo: Twitter

Six minutes in the air.

That’s all Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and 157 passengers and crew from 30 nations had before their aircraft, a months-old Boeing 737 MAX 8, crashed into an empty field near Addis Ababa on Sunday morning at 8:44 am, leaving no survivors.

Ethiopian Airlines, Indonesia and China reacted swiftly by grounding their fleets of Boeing 737 MAX 8s, while the head of Indonesia’s national transport safety agency said it will offer to assist the Ethiopian investigation into the crash. Singapore also invoked a ban late Monday on all MAX 8 variants in its airspace, followed by the U.K., Germany, Britain, Ireland, France, Australia, Iceland, Malaysia and Oman on Tuesday.

MAX 8 aircraft continued to fly in North America today, as the US largely stood alone in defending the beleaguered airliner, even in the face of calls for grounding from its largest flight attendant unions. Amid the growing international pressure, Canada announced Wednesday morning that it too would invoke a ban.

The same model of plane, operated by Lion Air, crashed in Indonesia in October, killing all 189 people on board. Like the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday, which killed 157 people, the Lion Air jet had erratic speed in the few minutes it was in the air.

Soerjanto Tjahjono, chairman of the National Safety Transportation Board, said on Monday that Indonesia could help Ethiopia’s investigation because one of its citizens was among those who died in the crash.

He said: “We will also offer to assist the investigation process.”

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam was understandably shaken after visiting the crash site, while China’s airlines moved quickly to ground their 737 MAX 8 fleets.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 is rolled out in Renton, Wash. Handout

Chinese officials cited the earlier crash involving the same model in Indonesia. Noting the “similarities” between the two accidents, China’s Civil Aviation Administration said domestic airlines had until 6:00 pm local time to take all their 737 MAX 8 aircraft out of service.

“[Operations would only resume after] confirming the relevant measures to effectively ensure flight safety,” the administration said in a statement. China’s aviation authority will contact the US Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, it added.

Boeing said in a statement Sunday that it “is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, a 737 MAX 8 airplane.”

“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team,” the statement said.

The world’s second-largest economy is an important market for the US aircraft giant, accounting for about one-fifth of worldwide deliveries of Boeing 737 MAX passenger jets.

Chinese airlines have 76 in their fleets and have ordered another 104, according to data from Boeing’s website.

Yet this latest tragedy has hit China hard. Eight Chinese nationals were among the 157 killed in the Ethiopian disaster.

In late January, 350 of the narrow-body, twin-engine planes were delivered to customers out of 5,011 orders from Boeing.

Pilot Yared Getachew had “an excellent flying record, with more than 8,000 hours of experience,” CEO Gebremariam said, as he gazed upon the wreckage and black body bags – the impact was severe, by all accounts.

It was a flight that would normally only take a couple of hours to reach Nairobi, a seemingly simple jump for passengers, largely multinationals. The pilot sent out a distress call, asking to return to Addis Ababa, and was granted permission. They never made it. They never even came close.

The trim control shut-off on the yoke, trim cutout controls on the console and manual trim control wheel, in the Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliner. Boeing says utilizing these controls should halt a ‘runaway stabilizer’ situation and the resulting nose-down attitude that can cause uncontrolled flight into terrain. Photo courtesy, The Air Current.

Frighteningly – and looming large for Boeing and aviation officials around the world – it was eerily similar to a Lion Air MAX 8 crash in Indonesia just months ago. Many aviation officials suspect that crash was caused by software issues not revealed to pilots at that time, called MCAS, or the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.

Following that tragedy, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive, warning of a possible fault in the aircraft’s angle of attack system that could cause the aircraft to violently pitch nose down.

A “stabilizer runaway,” as it was called it, could be stopped by using stabilizer cutout switches. It’s not stopped by pulling on the yoke – a counterintuitive characteristic for pilots. One that may only make the situation worse.

According to the Seattle Times, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee investigation found indications the jet’s flight computers received false angle of attack (AOA) readings from a bad sensor that may have triggered MCAS – which would have pushed the nose of the aircraft down and continued to do so as long as the system was active. The pilots were essentially fighting the computer that was pushing the nose down.

The Lion Air flight lasted only 11 minutes before it lost control, plunging into the Java Sea killing all 189 people on board.

The Ethiopian plane had just flown to Johannesburg and back, officials said, returning to Addis Ababa about 6 am Sunday. Adding to the mystery, Bebremariam said neither pilots nor ground-maintenance staff reported any issues.

“Routine maintenance check(s) didn’t reveal any problem,” Gebremariam told the Times. “It’s a brand new airplane, well maintained,” with only 1,200 hours on the clock. Nothing in commercial aviation terms.

Flight-tracking data from FlightRadar24 revealed that the plane’s vertical speed – the rate of climb or descent – varied from 2,624 feet per minute to minus 1,216 within minutes of take-off.

CNN also reported on Monday that both flight data recorders, or black boxes, have been found in the wreckage, and sent to Europe for analysis.

The plane’s Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) will enable investigators and experts piece together the last moments of the flight.

Boeing immediately sent a technical team to investigate the crash, but it may not be enough to staunch safety concerns.

FlightRadar 24 reveals the flight envelope, of the doomed Ethiopian Boeing 737 MAX 8. Handout

China moved to ban the operation of all MAX 8 aircraft with Chinese carriers, with Boeing 737 800s taking over routes for Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines. 

Following the FAA’s announcement that the MAX 8 “is airworthy,” Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said there were no plans to order a grounding. However, he reversed his decision on Wednesday, stating that new information was received and safety was of “paramount” importance. WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing all operate the MAX.

Garneau faced increasing pressure from CUPE, the union representing Canadian flight attendants, and Canadian travellers who expressed serious doubts over the Ethiopian development, notwithstanding the tragic deaths of 18 Canadian nationals on the flight.

Shockingly, one family from Brampton, Ont., lost six family members. A devastated relative told CBC, “It’s a huge tragedy. I lost my parents, I lost my sister. I don’t have anyone else now.”

And late Tuesday, CNBC quoted Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represent 27,000 American FAs, said: “Our Flight Attendants are very concerned with the recent Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash, which has raised safety concerns with the 737 MAX 8. Many respected global carriers are grounding the planes. We are calling on [American] CEO Doug Parker to strongly consider grounding these planes until a thorough investigation can be performed. ”

CNBC also reported that the Transport Workers Union of America, representing Southwest’s more than 15,000 flight attendants and 13,400 ramp workers, wrote to airline CEO Gary Kelly, asking him to take the MAX out of service.

Despite that steadily growing pressure, MSNBC aviation analyst, Tom Costello, said most US airlines continue to back the airliner.

“For the most part, they are standing by their aircraft. They believe that the 737 MAX is a good aircraft, it is reliable,” he said, adding that airlines that operate the type include American, Southwest and United.

“But as you know, the controversy is, could there be any similarity with what happened to the Indonesian plane that crashed back in October. And if there is any similarity at all, than that’s going to really add pressure to the FAA, to take action, and maybe follow China’s lead to ground the 737 MAX until they get answers. What brought this plane down, we simply don’t know right now.

And despite outstanding training at most North American Airlines, not all pilots are confident they could handle an “MCAS incident.”

“Boeing says, listen… the way to disengage that system, is the way that it’s always been, you simply disengage the automatic trim,” said Costello. “However, if you are in an emergency situation, you’re not that high up in altitude, suddenly the nose is pointed toward the ocean, and you’re panicking — a lot of airline pilots have said to me, listen, I’m not even sure if I would have the presence of mind in that situation, to reach down and disengage the auto trim.

“As a result, we’ve now had at least one plane, in Indonesia, they believe went down as a result of that … the question is whether this has happened again, we don’t know.”

According to Flying magazine, Boeing has been working on a flight control software upgrade for the system, partly in response to the Lion Air crash, that includes updates to the MCAS flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.

The Boeing upgrade is expected to be deployed in the next few weeks and likely will be the subject of an FAA airworthiness directive.

The Paris prosecutor’s office also officially opened an investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash because there were French citizens among the 157 killed – a standard procedure, one official said.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 cockpit. Handout

The Singapore decision to ban the MAX 8, which was reported by The Straits Times, will affect Singapore Airlines’ regional arm, SilkAir, which has six of the jets in its fleet. According to the Times, South Korea and India have also begun special inspections of the aircraft.

The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority said Tuesday it had “issued instructions to stop any [MAX 8] commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overflying U.K. airspace,” while officials in Germany ordered its airspace closed to the MAX 8 “until all doubts have been cleared.”

Meanwhile, AP reported today that airline pilots on at least two flights reported that an automated system seemed to cause their Boeing planes to tilt down suddenly. The pilots said that soon after engaging the autopilot on Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes, the nose tilted sharply. In both cases, they recovered quickly after disconnecting the autopilot. The reports were filed last year in a database compiled by NASA.

Some experts believe the repercussions could even be greater and more costly for Boeing in the long-term.

“The Lion Air flight was a big deal for Boeing, but they managed to overcome it,” former Inspector General of the US Transportation Department Mary Schiavo told CNN. “They put out the emergency warning about training, and the industry went on. With the second one, I don’t think everybody’s going to forget.

“The similarities with Lion Air are too great not to be concerned,” Schiavo added.

While Ethiopian leaders declared a day of mourning, AP reported that the UN migration agency estimated some 19 UN-affiliated employees were killed. Also among those on the flight were passengers from China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Israel, India and Somalia, Kenya and Canada.

An AP journalist outside Addis Ababa airport saw a distraught woman calling a mobile phone number in vain, over and over.

“Where are you, my son?” she said, in tears. There was no answer.

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