The first concrete evidence of a possible link between two deadly Boeing 737 Max crashes came from space.
A new satellite network capable of tracking planes in high fidelity across the globe captured the flight path of the Boeing Co. 737 Max that crashed March 10. The data was critical in persuading the US to join the rest of the world in grounding the jet, according to industry and regulatory officials.
The erratic, six-minute flight of the Ethiopian Airlines plane convinced the Federal Aviation Administration that it was close enough to what preceded the October 29 crash of another Max off the coast of Indonesia to warrant concern.
After reviewing the data “it became clear — to all parties, actually —that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight,” agency Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell said.
Canada’s Transport Minister Marc Garneau also cited satellite tracking on Wednesday as the reason his country joined more than 50 other nations in grounding the 737 Max models.
Where the Boeing 737 Max Can’t Fly
The data was provided by Aireon LLC, which was formed in 2012 by Iridium Communications Inc. and Nav Canada, a nonprofit company that guides air traffic in Canada. After years of development and the launches of 66 satellites into orbit, Aireon will introduce a new commercial flight-tracking service in coming weeks.
The company shared the information with the US National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration, as well as “several European aviation authorities and various African aviation authorities,” said Jessie Hillenbrand, an Aireon spokeswoman.
Elwell said that initial tracks of the plane available immediately after the accident by a separate company with a ground station in Ethiopia weren’t consistent with how aircraft fly and weren’t credible. However, when agency experts reviewed a refined track provided by Aireon, it raised concerns.
The Lion Air plane experienced more than two dozen sharp dips shortly after takeoff. Indonesian investigators said in a preliminary report that the plane was automatically commanded to dive because software known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, thought the plane was in danger of losing lift on the wings.
Boeing had added the MCAS as protection against an aerodynamic stall. However, in the case of the Lion Air flight, a malfunctioning sensor signaled that the plane was in danger when it wasn’t and it commanded unnecessary dives.
Rather than switching off the motor triggering the dives —a procedure pilots on all models of the 737 are taught to memorize —the Lion Air crew continued counteracting it with their controls until it dove into the sea.
While Elwell and Canada’s Garneau didn’t detail the Ethiopian plane’s flight path, it apparently made the same highly unusual descents followed by climbs. Normally, a jet climbs steadily after takeoff.
“It certainly puts a magnifying glass on the MCAS system,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director at the NTSB who is now senior vice president at O’Neill & Associates, a Washington lobbying and public relations firm. “There’s an implication that there were two similar accidents and that it likely involved the interaction of the MCAS system with the flight of
Kevin Durkin, an aviation lawyer, said the connection could be important in any court cases. If Boeing knew of a defect in the 737 Max fleet, the plane manufacturer could face extra damages in lawsuits. The company’s knowledge might be demonstrated by its statements that it was making software changes after the Lion Air crash, he said.
“If you have a defective product and it turns out Boeing knew about it, this could easily expose them to punitive damages,” said Durkin, a partner at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago. The standard is whether the company engaged in conduct with a “conscious indifference to the safety of others,” he said.
Boeing has said that following longstanding procedures should prevent accidents involving MCAS failures.
Last week, the Chicago-based manufacturer issued a statement saying it still has “full confidence” in the plane.
“We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution,” Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said in the statement, referring to the FAA action. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”
Elwell cautioned that there is still no definitive evidence suggesting that the two accidents are related.
The Indonesian accident investigation isn’t complete. In addition to MCAS, the preliminary report cited repeated maintenance failures and pilot performance issues. For example, the Lion Air plane suffered the same MCAS malfunction on a previous flight but it wasn’t repaired.
The Ethiopian pilots had received notice about MCAS and additional training suggested by Boeing after the Lion Air accident, Tewolde Gebre Mariam, chief executive
of Ethiopian Airlines told reporters in a broadcast on state-controlled ETV.
The tracking of aircraft from space was made possible by technology designed to move away from traditional radar tracking as the US, Europe and other regions introduce more modern technology to their air-traffic systems. By the end of 2020, most aircraft in the US will have to be equipped with devices that use GPS to calculate a plane’s position and then broadcast that and other information about the flight.
The US invested more than $1 billion in building a network of ground stations that track the signals as it attempts to move to the tracking technology, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast or ADS-B. That network is operated by Harris Corp., which is also a partner with Aireon.
The same data transmissions reach space only a small fraction of a second after the ground antennas and it’s what Aireon relied on to track the Ethiopian Airlines flight. A ground station operated by tracking firm FlightRadar24 captured only data from the first two minutes of the flight before the plane went out of range.
Aireon has agreements to sell its data to countries including Canada and the UK to track flights over the ocean, where ground-based radar doesn’t reach and planes must be kept far apart.
In addition to helping air-traffic agencies monitor flights over oceans and in countries without radar, Aireon has said the data may also assist accident investigations and help locate aircraft that crash in remote areas. It took about two years to find an Air France plane that went down in the Atlantic in 2009, but Aireon’s data would have limited the search area to a mile or less.
“We now have a global picture of all aircraft,” Don Thoma, Aireon’s chief executive officer, said in an interview last month. “It’s finally real. It’s finally here.”
Two short, erratic flights end in tragedy
Could they be linked?
Once again, an almost brand new Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 crashes not long after takeoff as it flies erratically and pilots ask to return to the airport.
The crash of a jetliner in Ethiopia bears unmistakable similarities to the October 29 tragedy off the coast of Indonesia involving the same model, prompting questions about whether a design issue that arose during the earlier accident could be to blame.
The stakes for Boeing and one of its most popular models are enormous. But veteran crash investigators and the airline say there’s too little data to draw a direct tie between the two at this stage of the investigation.
The Ethiopian plane’s
initial flight track was very unusual at a time when airliners typically climb steadily to get safely away from terrain and to reach altitudes where
engines burn more efficiently.
Instead, it twice descended briefly during the first two and a half minutes after liftoff, according to tracking data provided by FlightRadar24.com. The plane’s “vertical speed was unstable after take off,” the company said in a tweet.
The Ethiopian plane reached a speed of 230 miles per hour as it was still on the ground or just lifting off, according to FlightRadar24. Within a minute, it had reached an estimated 316 miles per hour, according to the company’s data.
Lion Air Flight 610 dove into the Java Sea in October about 11 minutes after takeoff as pilots struggled to
handle a malfunction that prompted MCAS to repeatedly command a dive.
While Indonesian investigators have identified multiple failures of the airline’s maintenance and raised questions about the pilots’ actions, one of the factors under review in the investigation is Boeing’s design.
The FAA is working with the Chicago-based planemaker on a design changes and upgrades to its pilot training manuals to reduce the chances that such a failure could cause an accident in the future.
One difference between the two crashes: Indonesia Air said pilots on prior flights with the doomed jet had reported mechanical problems. The crew of the Ethiopian 737 hadn’t reported any mechanical issues on an earlier flight from Johannesburg, the airline said.
The Lion Air plane lost altitude dozens of times before it crashed as the jet’s computers, thinking it was in danger of losing control, continually tried to push down its nose. The pilots countermanded the aircraft’s software over and over, pulling it back into climbs, until they failed to do so and it crashed.
The Ethiopian plane’s flight track is at least partially similar, said John Cox, who flew earlier versions of the 737 during his career. However, for at least the time that it was tracked by FlightRadar24, it was flying mostly level at a range of 7,700 feet to 8,600 feet altitude.
Many other things could have caused the plane to climb and descend, Cox said. For example, if pilots were handling an unrelated emergency and were planning to return to the airport, they could have deviated from their altitude simply as a result of being distracted by the emergency, he said.
What’s more, Boeing issued a bulletin after the Indonesian accident alerting pilots that the plane might initiate a dive on its own and reminding them that a pair of switches in the cockpit can disable the motor that pushes the nose down.
“All 737 pilots have been made aware of the potential and what would cause it,” Cox said.
Other carriers say they are monitoring the latest accident.
“We will closely monitor the investigation via Boeing and the National Transportation Safety Board,” American Airlines said in a statement. The carrier flies 24 Max 8 aircraft.
The Boeing single-aisle model, revamped with larger engines, is the latest version of a jetliner that has formed the backbone of global fleets for five decades. Southwest Airlines Co. is the largest customer, with 31 of the 737 Max 8 aircraft in its fleet.
“We have been in contact with Boeing and will continue to stay close to the investigation as it progresses,” Southwest Airlines said in a emailed statement. “We remain confident in the safety and airworthiness of our fleet of more than 750 Boeing aircraft.”
Southwest and American said last week that they hadn’t yet received any information from Boeing about a software update for MCAS on the Max. Both carriers said their planes haven’t experienced any problems related to the MCAS issue that investigators have focused on in the Lion Air crash.
Boeing said in a statement it is “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302” and will be assisting investigators.
Worried fliers ask ‘is this a Max?’
For many fliers, “Am I booked on a 737 Max?” has become a crucial question after Boeing Co.’s new plane was involved in a second mysterious crash that killed all on board.
Travelers are shaken by the two catastrophes involving the Boeing 737 Max 8, which came just five months apart and killed 346 people. Passengers are turning to social media to express their fears about the plane’s safety and to seek assurance from the airlines that fly the jet.
“We are fielding some questions from customers asking if their flight will be operated by the Boeing 737 MAX 8,” said Brian Parrish, a spokesman for Southwest, which doesn’t charge a fee to change reservations. “Our customer relations team is responding to these customers individually.”
Airlines declined to say how many passengers were seeking to change their flights. Carriers also dealt with questions like how travelers could tell what type of plane they’re booked on, what routes are flown with the Max and whether a Boeing 737-800 is the same as a 737 Max 8.