The arduous affair of air crash investigation commences in Ethiopia - a pursuit to find the cause of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 320 departing Addis Ababa for Nairobi.
Long and tedious are the hours of combing through minuscule debris and piecing together wreckage like a jigsaw puzzle to recreate the accident. Months and probably years shall pass before a verdict of determination emerges from the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority.
At hand is a case of two new B737 MAX 8 aircraft crashing six months apart, and the public jury decries safety of the plane. What are the odds of a coincidence vis-à-vis manufacturer cause?
In the 50 years after the introduction of the wide-body jet airliners in the 1970s, a decline in aviation accidents (see chart below) occurred notwithstanding an annual 4.3 percent increase in aircraft production, according to IBIS World, a global market research company with headquarters in New York. This drop was largely a result of safety regulations and automation of flight control systems.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that the global accident rate (measured in hull losses per million flights of Western-built jet aircraft) was lowest in 2010 at 0.61 - that translates to one accident for every 1.6 million flights. Compared to 10 years prior, the accident rate dropped by 42 per cent. A hull loss is an accident in which the aircraft is destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
In May 22, 2010, Air India Express Flight 812, a Boeing 737-800 overshot the runway at Mangalore, India resulting in 158 deaths. The accident accounted for 65 per cent of casualties in 2010. It remained the deadliest accident involving the Boeing 737 Next Generation model until Lion Air Flight 610, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, the latest version of the 737 Next Generation model, crashed in 2018 with 189 deaths. Ethiopian Airways flight 320, also involving a MAX 8, joins the list of fatal accidents involving Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft.
In the case of Air India Express, investigation attributed the accident to pilot error – the captain ignored warnings by the First Office to abort the landing. However, the peculiar similarities in the Indonesian and Ethiopian cases portends trouble for Boeing - both aircrafts were of the 737 MAX 8 model; both crashed just minutes after take-off; both struggled to gain altitude; and both appeared to ascend and descend several times before crashing.
It has been revealed that redesigning the 737 to produce the cost-effective 737 MAX 8 brought about considerable aerodynamic challenges, prompting the manufacturer to introduce a self-correcting mechanism. However, this wasn’t revealed in the original pilot training manual that accompanies every aircraft sold. And though Boeing eventually sent a secular to all airlines operating the MAX 8 with a recommendation for proper training of pilots on the new dynamics, two aircrafts crashing in such a short span has seriously damaged the reputation of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.
With several MAX 8 aircrafts grounded around the world, it does not help that by the time the Ethiopian Airlines plane went down Boeing was close to conducting a software upgrade that would eliminate the challenges relating to the model's self-correcting anti-stall mechanism.