Tuesday 16 July 2019

Boeing black box reviewed but first report 'may take days'

Respects: United Nations workers mourn their colleagues during a ceremony for the victims at the scene of the plane crash. Photo: REUTERS
Respects: United Nations workers mourn their colleagues during a ceremony for the victims at the scene of the plane crash. Photo: REUTERS

Richard Lough

Investigators in France yesterday examined the black boxes of a Boeing 737 Max that crashed in Ethiopia, as a spooked global airline industry waited to see if the cause was similar to a disaster in Indonesia months before.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed soon after take-off from Addis Ababa last weekend, killing 157 people including Irish aid worker Micheál Ryan.

It was the second such calamity involving Boeing's flagship new model after a jet came down off Indonesia in October with 189 people on board.

In both cases, pilots asked to return minutes into flight.

The international repercussions are huge. Regulators have grounded the 737 Max around the world, and the US planemaker has halted next deliveries of the several thousand planes on order for a model intended to be the future industry workhorse.

Parallels between the twin disasters have frightened travellers worldwide and wiped almost $28bn (€24.7bn) off Boeing's stock market value.

US aviation authorities say information from the wreckage in Ethiopia, plus newly refined data about its flight path indicated similarities.

Two sources said investigators retrieved from the wreckage a piece of a stabiliser, which moves the nose up and down, that was set in an unusual position - one similar to that of the Lion Air plane that crashed in Indonesia.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa for Nairobi, killing all 157 people on board.

Pilots were waiting anxiously for the investigation.

"Looking at the crash site photos, the aircraft appears to have nose-dived," Paul Gichinga, former head of the Kenya Airline Pilots Association, told Reuters.

"The pilot must have gotten some sort of indication that maybe the airspeed was unreliable or something and decided, instead of climbing and going to sort out the problem up there, the best thing was to return to have it sorted."

Boeing, the world's biggest planemaker, has said the 737 Max is safe, though it plans to roll out a software upgrade in the coming weeks. It continued to produce at full speed at its factory near Seattle, but paused shipments.

French authorities have possession of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, though Ethiopia is formally leading the investigation and US experts are in Paris and Addis Ababa too. First conclusions could take several days.

The 'New York Times' said the Ethiopian captain, Yared Getachew, initially reported a "flight control" problem in a calm voice before asking to return in panicked tones three minutes into the flight. "Break break, request back to home," he told controllers, the newspaper reported, citing a person who had reviewed the communications.

The jet initially flew below the minimum safe height for its climb, then once at higher altitude was oscillating up and down by hundreds of feet, all at abnormal speed, the 'Times' said. It then disappeared from radar over a restricted military zone and lost contact with air controllers five minutes after take-off.

In Ethiopia, grieving relatives have been visiting the charred and debris-strewn field where the jet came down to pay last respects. Only fragments remain, meaning it may take weeks or months to identify all the victims who came from 35 nations.

Some families stormed out of a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday complaining about lack of information.

Israeli Ilan Matsliah flew to Ethiopia hours after confirming his brother was on board, thinking it would be quick to find remains for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.

"More than 24 hours is a problem for us. But I have been here for more than 96 hours," the 46-year-old said.

"We are now stuck in the same place, the same as Monday. We are very emotional."

With heightened global scrutiny, the head of Indonesia's transport safety committee said a report into the Lion Air crash would be speeded up for release in July or August.

A preliminary report focused on maintenance, training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor.

Legal experts said even non-US families of the Ethiopia victims may be able to sue Chicago-based Boeing in the US - where payouts are larger - as eight of the dead were American and plaintiffs may argue liability hinges on system design and safety decisions made by executives.

Irish Independent

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