Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 Crash. What We Know So Far

A truly disheartening event happened over the weekend. An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 has crashed shortly after taking off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The aircraft was en route to Nairobi, Kenya.

Considering this is the second fatal Boeing 737 MAX 8 crash in the span of 6 months, the aviation community is raising questions whether the MAX 8 variant is safe to operate. Although authorities are still investigating why the Lion Air 610 crashed, multiple people are suspecting that the MCAS of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is at fault for both fatal accidents.

Events on Flight ET302

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 registered ET-AVJ was late by 20 minutes to take off. Ethiopian Airlines schedules the flight ET302 to take off at 8:15 AM local time and arrive in Nairobi an hour and a half later, at 10:25 AM local time.

The aircraft took off at 08:38 AM. The 737 carried 149 passengers and 8 crew members on board. As soon as the flight ET302 took off, the captain of the aircraft reported an issue with the aircraft. Subsequently, the pilot requested permission from air traffic control to return to Addis Ababa.

As ATC allowed the aircraft to return, at 08:44 it completely disappeared from radars. It became clear that the Boeing 737 MAX 8 had crashed near the town of Bishoftu, around 60 kilometers from Addis Ababa.

Flight ET302 Path Flight ET302 Path

Unfortunately, there were no survivors. All of the 157 people on board the aircraft have passed away. Many of the passengers on board the plane were traveling to the United Nations Environment Assembly session.

The captain and the first officer had 8000 and 200 flight hours respectively. The low hours of the first pilot have caused some concern as he would not be able to attain a commercial pilot’s license (CPL) in the United States because of the lack of hours. While previously you could attain a CPL with a low amount of flight hours, everything changed after the disaster of Flight 3407.

According to Reuters, witnesses reported that they saw white smoke and heard loud, rattling sounds as the Boeing 737 plunged into the ground.

One witness has noted that “It tried to climb but it failed and went down nose first. There was fire and white smoke which then turned black.”

Investigation underway

As soon as the news broke out about the crash, a lot of top officials around the world have expressed their condolences to the affected families.

The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority has started investigating the crash. The NTSB and FAA are going to help out the Ethiopian authorities to investigate the reason behind the Flight ET302 accident.

Boeing, the company that built the 737 MAX 8, has also released a statement that they will help out with the investigation. To illustrate, Boeing said that “A Boeing technical team will be traveling to the crash site to provide technical assistance under the direction of the EAIB and NTSB.”

Good news is that investigators have already found both black boxes of the 737. The authorities investigating the crash are going to try to analyze the FDR and CVR data.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 Crash Site Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 Crash Site

Nevertheless, there are no conclusive findings on why the aircraft has crashed.

However, a lot of people are suspecting the MCAS system to be at fault for the Flight ET302 crash.

MCAS explained

As the Boeing 737 MAX 8 engines are in a different location than on a regular 737 and have a different shape, the handling of the jet has changed as well. The nose of the MAX 8 has a tendency of going up. Because of this, the aircraft is very prone to stalling in a different manner than usual.

So, to counteract the dangers of staling, Boeing has installed the MCAS system. But this is where the troubles begin.

After the Lion Air Flight 610 crash, Seattle Times has published an article that Boeing did not inform companies or pilots that they even installed the system. This means that pilots had no knowledge about MCAS and its processes.

So, what does the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System do?

Boeing 737 MAX 8 has a MACS system on board Boeing 737 MAX 8 has a MCAS system on board

In short, it pushes the aircraft’s nose down to reduce the chances of the 737 stalling. That is done by moving the horizontal stabilizer trim up by a couple of degrees.

However, the system triggers only under certain, non-normal flight conditions, which are:

  • The AoA (angle of attack) is unusually high
  • Autopilot is disconnected
  • Flaps are up
  • The aircraft is in a steep turn.

MCAS then deactivates itself when the AoA is lowered or if pilots override the system with manual controls.

And although witnesses have noted that the plane made a very sharp turn, we still cannot draw a concrete conclusion as various aviation authorities have still not released any reports on why the Boeing 737 MAX 8 has crashed.

Boeing statement regarding MCAS

On March 11th, 2019, Boeing has released another statement regarding MCAS. In short, Boeing stated that they are releasing an update to the software. The update will make “an already safe aircraft even safer” and will change the flight control law, pilot displays, operational manuals and finally, crew training procedures.

The updates to the flight control law include changes to AoA inputs, reduces stabilizer trim commands under wrong AoA readings and limits stabilizer command to maintain elevator authority.

Boeing will update the software in every Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in the coming weeks.

Fleet Grounding

Nonetheless, even if Boeing promises updates to every MAX aircraft, airlines are concerned. As we mentioned previously, this is the second fatal 737 MAX accident in a span of 6 months.

To illustrate, airlines have been operating the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft for just under 2 years. The aircraft made its maiden commercial flight in May of 2017 with Malindo Air.

In response to the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 and Lion Air Flight 601 crashes, national aviation authorities and airlines around the world have grounded the Boeing 737 MAX.

Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have banned the Boeing 737 MAX 8 from entering or leaving its airspace. Just now, the United Kingdom has also announced its banning the MAX 8 from landing or departing from British airports.

The FAA has deemed that there is not enough evidence to ground the aircraft in the United States.

UPDATE: As of March 14th, the FAA has grounded the Boeing 737 MAX. Every single one 737 MAX is on the ground right now. China Southern Airlines is one of the biggest Boeing 737 MAX 8 operators China Southern Airlines is one of the biggest Boeing 737 MAX 8 operators

So far 26 airlines have grounder their MAX 8 aircraft, including Ethiopian Airlines. One of the biggest operators of the 737 variant, China Southern Airlines has grounded its 22 airplanes. In total, airlines around the world operate more than 350 Boeing 737 MAXs.

Lastly, we would like to express our condolences to families that were affected by the crash.

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