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Ethiopian Flight Data Shows Similarities To Indonesian Crash Of Same Boeing Model


There are new developments today in the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines' Boeing 737 MAX that crashed last week. A spokesman for Ethiopia's transport minister said, based on a preliminary review of the plane's flight data, there are, quote, "clear similarities between that accident and the crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX last October." NPR's Russell Lewis has been following the investigation, and he is with us now. Russell, thanks so much for being here.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Yes, my pleasure.

MARTIN: Do we know what those similarities are?

LEWIS: The similarities involve a new control system that was installed on this new jet to prevent an aerodynamic stall under certain circumstances. And the way it works is that it would push the nose of the 737 MAX down if the plane's sensors and flight control computers sensed a problem with low airspeed. But what's been learned in the initial investigations of the accident in Ethiopia and one last October in Indonesia is that the pilots of both planes struggled to keep the planes in the air not long after takeoff and were actually fighting the planes to keep them from nosing down towards the earth at high speed.

Ethiopian officials made this announcement today after their initial analysis of the plane's flight data recorder. We should point out that an analysis of the plane's flight path from a satellite-tracking system also found similarities as well.

MARTIN: So, since the accident, the Boeing 737 MAX has been grounded around the world. Does this latest development affect that investigation?

LEWIS: Well, this is just one aspect of what's expected to be a lengthy investigation that could take several years. But it is another clue that seems to indicate that what brought down both jets seems to be related. And it's why many countries and airlines decided to ground the 737 MAX fleet after so many questions were raised about these two accidents. It is highly unusual to have two brand-new planes fall out of the sky under similar circumstances within five months of each other.

We should point out, Michel, that aviation accidents are rarely the result of a single cause. There are often many small things that lead to a crash. And that's why these investigations take so long.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about one other development in the story. The Seattle Times published a story today about how the Federal Aviation Administration, quote, "pushed its own engineers to delegate wide responsibility for assessing the safety of the 737 MAX to Boeing itself." Can you just tell us a bit more about what they found?

LEWIS: In its report, The Seattle Times talked to a range of anonymous sources, both inside Boeing and out, that detailed that rush to certify the plane, despite the concerns from safety engineers that the analysis on the plane had some crucial flaws. This was all about the plane's new flight control system. It's called MCAS. That is believed to have played a key role in bringing these two jets down, which killed a total of 346 people. Again, this is just one detail on what's expected to be this wide-ranging overall investigation of the plane.

MARTIN: Ethiopian Airlines tweeted out a statement today, defending the low flight experience of the first officer on board the jet that crashed. What did they say?

LEWIS: Well, in its statement, the airline updated the total flying time of the first officer and said that he had 350 hours. Under international flight regulations, that is permissible, and that first officer was paired with a very experienced captain, who had 8,000 hours. But in the United States, under most circumstances, a first officer of an airline is required to have 15,000 hours.

And here's why this is important. You want an experienced flight officer to be able to help out in any phase of flight, and that's especially true when there's an emergency like what happened last weekend. I'd imagine this will be one of the findings of the final investigative report when it's completed.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Russell Lewis. Russell, thank you so much.

LEWIS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: We want to add here that Boeing has now issued a statement in response to Ethiopia's transport ministry. It reads in part, "following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation. Boeing is finalizing its development of a previously announced software update and pilot-training revision that will address the MCAS test flight control laws behavior," unquote. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.