Ethiopia Airways Boeing crash: When technology is the enemy

The nose and engine of a crashed plane. Flight data recovered from the Indonesia crash, for example, indicated pilots repeatedly tried to get the plane's nose up before impact.  [Courtesy]
Just hours after an Ethiopian Airlines flight of model, 737 MAX 8 crashed killing all 157 people on board, airlines in a number of countries suspended the use of the aircraft over concerns about its safety.

Flight ET302 crashed Sunday 10March 2019 on its way to Nairobi minutes after it had taken off from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Pilots reported a technical problem then made a request to turn back to the airport shortly before the deadly clatter.

In response to the crash, the Civil Aviation Administration of China ordered Monday that all domestic Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets be grounded by 6 p.m. local time, until the cause of the recent accidents involving the Boeing planes is fully established. Other countries simply followed suit!

"Given in both air crashes, the aircrafts were newly delivered Boeing 737 MAX 8, and both accidents occurred during the take-off, they share certain similarities," the Chinese administration said in a statement.

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The March-2019 Ethiopian plane crash marks the second accident in five months that a new Boeing aircraft crashed just minutes after takeoff. In October last year, a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 flight went down over the Java Sea killing all 189 people on board.

While extensive investigations are still underway in both cases, preliminary reports show glaring similarities in the incidents that have prompted caution among some airlines.

In its emergency order, America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that they have 'identified similarities between the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight and the Lion Air crash in Indonesia,' leading the agency to ground all Boeing 737 Max planes.

Mechanical setup

The Boeing Company is an American multinational corporation that designs, manufactures, and sells airplanes, rotorcraft, rockets, satellites, and missiles worldwide. The company also provides leasing and product support services.

SEE ALSO :All 157 in Ethiopian airliner crash dead

Model 737 MAX is a narrow-body aircraft series designed and produced by Boeing Commercial Airplanes as the fourth generation of the Boeing 737, succeeding the Boeing 737 Next Generation (NG).

The new 737 series was launched on August 30, 2011 but made its first flight on January 29, 2016 after getting series of new FAA certifications. The first MAX 8 was bought and operated by Malindo Air, which placed the aircraft into service soon after the purchase.

Boeing engineers introduced two safety technologies which, ideally were supposed to enhance the operability of the plane. One of the technologies is Augmentation System, designed to reduce mid-air collisions between aircraft as well as to keep the plane at a responsive angle. 

The other technology is Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that monitors the airspace around an aircraft for other aircraft equipped with a corresponding active transponder, independent of air traffic control, and warns pilots of the presence of other transponder-equipped aircraft which may present a threat of mid-air collision (MAC).

"This particular aircraft has something new as far as how the autopilot responds when the aircraft's nose is too high. It pushes that nose down even when the autopilot is off. And a lot of pilots are not used to that," said Aviation Investigator David Soucie, in a media interview.

SEE ALSO :Ethiopia flight 'had unstable vertical speed' - Flightradar24

In the case of Indonesian and Ethiopian plane crashes, pilots repeatedly fought to override the Augmentation System but failed to prevail over the technology.

Whereas investigations are still ongoing, preliminary findings suggest that faulty sensors within Augmentation System could have led to wrong responses in the battle between the pilots and the technologies involved.

Months before an Ethiopian Airlines crash killed 157 people, American pilots filed a complaint with authorities about perceived safety problems with the same aircraft.

According to USA Today, the two pilots reported their aircraft unexpectedly pitched nose down after they engaged autopilot following departure.

It was also reported that another pilot experienced a "temporary level off" triggered by the aircraft automation. The captain of a flight called part of the aircraft's flight manual "inadequate and almost criminally insufficient."

SEE ALSO :Eight Chinese among the casualties in crashed Ethiopian Airlines

"The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag," that captain – who was not identified by name – wrote in a report to the federal Aviation Safety Reporting System. The captain said part of the plane's flight system was "not described in our Flight Manual."

Professional aviators who operated Boeing 737 MAX 8, and logged from April 2018 to December 2018 filed at least 11 reports concerning 'erroneous' automation responses.

Both Ethiopia and Indonesian ill-fated planes crashed after experiencing drastic speed fluctuations during ascent, and their pilots tried to return to the ground after takeoff.

Aviation experts suspect that MAX 8's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, may have caused the jets to make unwanted dives.

In both cases, it's believed that technology took over the control of the planes from the pilots, and all attempts to take back the control failed – leading to deadly crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

In fact, flight data recovered from the Indonesia crash indicated pilots repeatedly tried to get the plane's nose up before impact.

While responding to Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 crash, Boeing issued a service bulletin warning pilots that erroneous flight data fed into the MCAS could force the aircraft into a dive for up to 10 seconds.

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