Everything We Know About Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 And The Boeing 737 Max 8

Getty Image

This post is updating regularly.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed shortly after takeoff this past Sunday, killing all 157 passengers on board. The route was the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya. The Washington Post reports that the flight was carrying passengers representing more than 30 nationalities and the victims of the crash included law students, tourists, writers, academics, aid workers, and employees of the United Nations.

The cause of the crash is currently unclear, but this is the second Boeing 737 Max 8 to crash in months — joining the Lion Air crash in Indonesia in which 189 people died — raising concerns about the safety of the new Boeing 737 Max 8s and leading multiple nations to temporarily ban the model.

What We Know

Flight 302 took off from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa on Sunday without a hitch, amid good weather conditions and visibility, but according to data published by FlightRadar24, it struggled to ascend at stable speeds, varying between zero feet per minute to 1,427 to minus 1,920 within the first three minutes of takeoff.

The pilots sent out a distress call but lost contact with air traffic controllers six minutes after takeoff, later crashing near the town of Bishoftu, southeast from the airport.

Why Travelers And Flight Crews Are Concerned

The October 2018 Lion Air crash in Indonesia came under similar circumstances, when the crew requested permission to return to the airport minutes after takeoff, only to then crash off course. The New York Times reports that the investigation into that accident has officials checking to see if a Boeing software update is the cause, noting that automatic controls meant to prevent a stall can send the plane into a fatal descent if altitude and angle information is incorrect.

Changes in the flight system that override manual actions taken in the Boeing Max model planes were reportedly not explained to pilots, according to some pilots’ unions.

The Boeing 737 Max 8 Tech

The Max 8 airplanes use a system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, to stabilize itself during flight. According to USA Today, the MCAS system was added when the redesign of the 737 platforms changed the placement and size of the aircraft’s engine, altering how the aircraft handled in flight.

MCAS was designed to automatically reduce the Max 8’s tendency to pitch — when an aircraft raises its nose in flight — despite being in manual control settings. MCAS is fed data through synchronized devices on the plane’s nose, known as Angle of Attack sensors, which detect plane pitch. However, when the Angle of Attack sensors are fed faulty or contradictory data, the system can inadvertently force the aircraft into a dive.

The MCAS system does contain a manual cut off, but the suddenness of a dive can confuse pilots and in the case of the Lion Air crash, flight data indicates that the pilots made repeated attempts to right the plane.

Boeing’s Business Decision May Hold Some Blame

The Boeing 737 Max 8’s redesign, which created the need for MCAS, was done to keep Boeing competitive with the Toulouse, France-based Airbus — a company with which Boeing remains locked in a duopolistic rivalry over the airliner market, according to an article by Slate.

The $200 billion airliner market is dominated by short-to-medium-range narrow-body jets, but Boeing’s 737s — which date back to the 60s — are made of heavier aluminum materials than the 80s era Airbus A320 family of planes, causing them to be less fuel efficient.

The 737, though improved upon many times, was outfitted with technology two decades behind its direct competitor’s planes, so rather than starting from scratch and creating a new design which would’ve likely cost Boeing upwards of $32 billion to develop (and required new pilot and crew training costing millions), the company took the economical tack and decided to upgrade the 737 yet again, resulting in the Max 8 model.

To increase fuel efficiency, Boeing redesigned the engines to have a larger diameter, which required shifting the point at which the plane’s body would attach to the wing — which seems to have created the pitching problem and, in turn, the need for the self-governing pitch system embedded in the Max 8’s MCAS software.

What We Don’t Know

It remains to be seen if the Angle of Attack sensors and the resultant communication with the MCAS software are the reason why Flight 302 experienced a similar fate to the Lion Air crash, but Tewolde GebreMariam, the chief executive of Ethiopian airlines told the Times that, “at this state we cannot rule out anything” in regards to the exact cause of the crash.

Many of the victims of flight 302 were delegates traveling to Nairobi for a United National Environment Assembly, which was scheduled for today, while others were members of various nonprofit and humanitarian groups. The dead include 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians, eight from the United States, China, and Italy, and seven from Britain, with the French Foreign Ministry claiming nine of its citizens were on board, leaving 58 people still unidentified.

Responses From Boeing, The FAA, And President Trump

Currently, a technical team from Boeing is aiding the Ethiopia Accident Investigation Bureau along with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board at the crash site of flight 302. While various airlines worldwide have temporarily grounded Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes, the FAA has issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification for the plane model and as a result, Boeing isn’t issuing any new guidelines for operators of the 737 Max 8.

CNN reports that just two weeks ago, President Trump oversaw the sale of 100 planes to Vietnam, 20 of which were the Boeing 737 Max 8. Boeing claims the total order was worth $12.7 billion. The chief of Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Authority, Đinh Việt Thắng, said in a statement “This morning, we had a meeting about this issue and came to the decision that we will not be reviewing licenses for the use of the Boeing 737 MAX planes until the causes for the crashes are identified and the US Federal Aviation Administration takes proper remedying measures.”

The President weighed in on the issue on his Twitter account, seemingly placing the blame on the Max 8’s tech, ending his tweet with “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”

The FAA issued a new statement Tuesday evening to their Twitter account from Washington DC, doubling down on their initial assertion that the 737 Max 8 is airworthy, and concluding that at the time and after review they’ve found no basis to ground the aircraft. According to CNN, the United States and Canada are the only two countries that are still flying a substantial amount of Max 8s.

The Senate Announces A Hearing

A hearing on air safety has been set by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation after days of questions and concerns by lawmakers, with some even calling for the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8.

In a statement on the matter, Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker said, “Thousands of passengers every day depend on the aviation system to get them safely to their destinations, and we must never become complacent with the level of safety in our system. Therefore the committee plans to hold a hearing reviewing the state of the aviation safety to ensure that safety is maintained for all travelers.”

Regardless of the hearing, some senators like Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, who is a member of the committee, has claimed that he’s told his family to switch planes, adding “There should be a full investigation but in the meantime, better safe than sorry.” CNN reports that Senator Lindsey Graham — whose state has a major Boeing plant — feels comfortable trusting the FAA’s guidelines and told reporters, “I trust their judgment until somebody proves that I shouldn’t.”