157 die in Ethiopian crash, marking second loss of Boeing 737 MAX jet in five months

157 die in Ethiopian crash, marking second loss of Boeing 737 MAX jet in five months

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Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam visits the accident scene. (Ethiopian Airlines Photo via Twitter)

Ethiopian Airlines said one of its Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets crashed today, just minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa’s airport en route to Nairobi, Kenya, killing all 157 people aboard.

It was the second fatal crash involving a recently delivered 737 MAX 8, following the loss of a Lion Air jet with 189 aboard last Oct. 29.

Although it’s too early to speculate about the cause, the fact that two recently delivered 737 MAX 8 jets have been involved in catastrophic accidents — during the same phase of flight — is drawing attention from analysts.

Leeham News and Analysis noted that today’s crash “is raising more intense questions — and speculation than usual after a crash because it comes in the wake of the Lion Air 737-8 crash last year.”

“But be cautious about drawing conclusions at this stage,” Leeham’s Scott Hamilton wrote. “Until the black boxes are recovered, information is limited.”

At a news conference in Ethiopia, Tewolde GebreMariam, the group CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, also counseled caution. He said Boeing and Ethiopia’s Accident Investigation Bureau would take part in the crash investigation. The U.S. National Transportation Board said it was sending four investigators to support their Ethiopian counterparts, and Kenyan investigators were on their way as well.

In a statement, Boeing said it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew,” extended its sympathy and confirmed that it would send a technical team to assist in the investigation.

Ethiopian Airlines said Flight 302 was carrying 149 passengers and eight crew members, representing 35 nationalities. Eight Americans were said to be aboard.

The airline said the flight had arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, earlier in the day from Johannesburg, South Africa, and headed out for Nairobi at 8:38 a.m. local time, flown by a senior captain with more than 8,000 cumulative flight hours.

GebreMariam said the pilot reported difficulties just after takeoff from Bole International Airport. The pilot reportedly sought, and was given, permission to return to the airport — but contact was lost at 8:44 a.m., six minutes into the flight.

The plane smashed into the ground violently in an area about 20 miles to the southeast, near the town of Bishoftu. A photo from Ethiopian Airlines showed GebreMariam at the crash scene, surrounded by wreckage and disturbed earth.

At first blush, the circumstances seem similar to those of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia. In that case, pilots reported difficulties maintaining level flight on their 737 MAX 8. Just minutes after takeoff, the plane pitched into a catastrophic dive.

The preliminary results of the Lion Air investigation suggest that an automatic flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, may have played a role in that incident. The MCAS system is a safeguard that’s meant to keep the 737 MAX from stalling under extreme aerodynamic conditions, but investigators surmised that the system was getting spurious data from sensors that measure air flow over the wings.

Boeing says pilots have a procedure that can quickly resolve such an issue, but that procedure was not followed by the Lion Air pilots. The Lion Air accident focused heightened attention on the MCAS system, raising pilots’ awareness about the control issue and how to resolve it.

Records show that the plane involved in today’s crash had its first flight last October. It was among five 737 MAX 8’s that Boeing has delivered to Ethiopian Airlines, out of a batch of 30 that were ordered in 2014. The airline said the plane “underwent a rigorous first check maintenance” in February.

In his cautionary posting on Leeham’s News and Analysis, Hamilton said investigators are likely to consider a wide range of factors, including the MCAS issue as well as mechanical failure, human error and weather conditions.

“It should be noted that Ethiopian is considered one of the best airlines in the world and the best in Africa,” he wrote. “It’s got a good safety record and service is considered very good. This is in contrast to the spotty safety record of Lion Air.”

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