The pilots of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 encountered troubles with their brand new Boeing 737 Max shortly after the jet’s wheels left the pavement in Addis Ababa, early in the morning of March 10th. The sensor registering the angle at which the airplane sliced through the sky sent erroneous information into the plane’s system and the stick shaker in front of captain Yared Getachew (seen left in photo above) “activated and remained active until near the end of the flight,” the Ethiopian investigators have determined.
Reading through the 25-page preliminary report the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) of Ethiopia released today, a cascade of problems engulfed the crew early and relentlessly. Further, it would appear that the remedy for the situation in which the Maneuvering Augmentation Control System (MCAS) forces the airplane into repeated dives, did not work even though it had been stressed as the appropriate response to runaway trim, following the first 737 Max crash of a Lion Air jet in October. One hundred and eighty-nine people died in that crash.
A 737 Max pilot described the six-minute Ethiopian flight as extremely disturbing. “There are things that are going on that are way beyond what you would ever expect to see in any normal emergency you would have,” said John Gadzinski, a 737 captain with 12-thousand hours in the Boeing 737 flying for a U.S. carrier.
“Within 20 seconds of lifting off, three things are happening to them,” he said, referring to the finding that the angle of attack readings on the captain’s side deviated from the first officer’s very quickly, followed by the stick shaker and then the activation of several other warnings.
Capt. Yared, who was flying the plane then turned on the autopilot. Gadzinski speculates he may have been trying to shed some work to concentrate on the most critical problems. But the autopilot turned off after 33 seconds. A Boeing document in the report says inaccurate sensor reading can cause the autopilot to disengage.
The report states that Capt. Yared had received differences training when he transitioned to the Max from an earlier version of the 737. It is silent on whether Nur had as well. But as the airplane repeatedly nosed down and the two pilots fought to bring it back to level flight, the first officer suggested removing power from the stabilizer trim, which Boeing has stressed is the appropriate emergency procedure.
Quotes from the cockpit voice recorder in the report indicate that even with the stabilizer trim off, the pilots were unable to manually bring the airplane out of the dive by pulling back on the control yoke and turning the trim control wheel.
With both pilots pulling back on the stick, the front end of the plane continued to drop, until reaching 40° nose down, the report said.
The plane plowed into a field creating a deep crater. One hundred and fifty-seven people were killed.
Dominic Gates, who covers aviation for the Seattle Times, suggested in an article published on Wednesday that “the emergency procedure laid out by Boeing and passed along by the FAA after the Lion Air crash is wholly inadequate and failed the Ethiopian flight crew.”
A number of pilots and engineers have theorized as to why this might be, including Peter Lemme, a Boeing flight control engineer who spoke to Gates, and a European pilot who hosts a popular YouTube channel for professional pilots called Mentour Pilot. In a video that has since been removed from the channel, he re-enacts the Ethiopian flight with a co-pilot to discover the two of them together were not strong enough to break the counter forces on the control surfaces. Read more about his findings at Scott Hamilton’s site Leeham News.
The difficulty may be due in part to the speed at which the 737 was flying. The report indicates during the takeoff roll the “the engines stabilized at about 94% N1” and for most of the flight “the throttles did not move.”
“They are going the speed of heat,” Gadzinski said. “In 20/20 hindsight, they should have clicked off the autothrottles and that would have made some of the problems they were dealing with a lot easier to handle.” But Gadzinski added that during the crisis he can easily imagine airspeed falling off the scan of the overworked pilots. He has seen it happen in far less stressful circumstances.
The report is only the first step in what will be a lengthy and highly-charged investigation. Still, it ratifies the concerns of air safety agencies around the globe that opted to ground the fleet of 300+ airplanes in the days following the crash of Ethiopia Flight 302. Even Boeing is now acknowledging its role in the two crashes that together killed 346 people.
“Erroneous activation of the MCAS function can add to what is already a high workload environment. It’s our responsibility to eliminate this risk. We own it and we know how to do it,” Boeing chief, Dennis Muilenburg said in a videotaped statement.
While Boeing was making its mea culpa, Ralph Nader, a long-time consumer advocate, presidential candidate and author of the 1993 book Collision Course The Truth About Airline Safety was calling for a permanent grounding of the airliner.
“Those planes should never fly again. They must be recalled,” he said. Nader’s grandniece, Samya Stumo, (left in the photo below) died on the Ethiopian Airlines flight.
On Thursday, attorneys in Chicago filed a lawsuit against Boeing in Federal Court on behalf of her family. In an emotional news conference announcing the suit, Samya’s parents Michael Stumo, Nadia Milleron and brother Adnaan Stumo remembered the ambitious 24-year old sent to Uganda to open health care offices on behalf of a Washington D.C. nonprofit. But they also turned their attention to Boeing.
“It’s not just Samya who died. One family lost their whole family. Another guy lost a wife and one-year-old baby. This is repeated 100 times.,” Milleron said. “It’s horrible, its not like it was an accident. This is something that could have been prevented and should have been prevented. I’ve lost the dearest person in my life and I want her death not to be in vain. I don’t want anyone else to die. That’s my reaction.”