Ethiopian Airlines crash: Indonesia offering to assist investigation

There are many possible explanations, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes

March 11, 2019 12:24 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 10:07 am IST - BEIJING

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 parked at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. | File photo

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 parked at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. | File photo

The head of Indonesia’s national transport safety agency, Soerjanto Thahjono, offered on March 11 to assist the Ethiopian investigation into the crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane.

Like the Ethiopian Airlines crash minutes after the jet’s takeoff from Addis Ababa on March 10, which killed all 157 people on board, the Lion Air jet, which crashed in October 2018, had erratic speed in the few minutes it was in the air.

The crashes have put global aviation authorities on alert.


Cayman Airways says it was temporarily grounding the two Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft it operates, as of Monday. The president and CEO of the Caribbean carrier, Fabian Whorms, acknowledged the cause of the Ethiopian crash was unclear, but said the airline was taking the step because of its “commitment to putting the safety of our passengers and crew first.” China’s aviation authority said it would issue further notices after consulting with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing.

Safety standards

The crash in Ethiopia has renewed safety questions about the newest version of Boeing’s popular 737 airliner, since the plane was new and the weather was clear at the time. The pilots tried to return to the airport but never made it. But safety experts cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the two crashes.


It is very early, and more will be known after investigators find and analyze the Ethiopian plane’s black boxes, said William Waldock, an aviation-safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But suspicion will be raised because the same type of plane appeared to crash the same way a fatal nosedive that left wreckage in tiny pieces.

“Investigators are not big believers in coincidence,” he said. Waldock said Boeing will look more closely at the flight-management system and automation on the Max.

Controllability problem

Boeing representatives did not immediately respond for comment. The company tweeted that it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew” on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane.

The Chicago-based company said it would send a technical team to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators.


Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the similarities in the crashes included both crews encountering a problem shortly after takeoff, and reports of large variations in vertical speed during the Ethiopian jetliner’s ascent, “clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem.”

But there are many possible explanations, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes, he said.

Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane’s maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air crash.Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO told reporters a maintenance check-up did not find any problems with the plane before Sunday’s flight.

Faulty readings from a sensor

“I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far,” said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.

Indonesian investigators have not stated a cause for that crash, but they are examining whether faulty readings from a sensor might have triggered an automatic nose-down command to the plane, which the Lion Air pilots fought unsuccessfully to overcome. The automated system kicks in if sensors indicate that a plane is about to lose lift, or go into an aerodynamic stall. Gaining speed by diving can prevent a stall. The Lion Air plane’s flight data recorder showed problems with an airspeed indicator on four flights, although the airline initially said the problem was fixed.

The director general of Air Transportation in Indonesia, Polana B. Pramesti, said the agency has been following up on an FAA airworthiness directive and is still evaluating the 737 Max 8 following the crash.

Days after the Oct. 29 accident, Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down. The notice reminded pilots of the procedure for handling such a situation, which is to disable the system causing the automatic nose-down movements. Pilots at some airlines, however, including American and Southwest, have protested that they were not fully informed about the new system.

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