Frequent flyers understand that air travel in the 21st century is inherently safe. Planes are sophisticated and accidents are anomalies. The last crash involving major loss of life on a U.S. passenger airline jet — Colgan Air Flight 3407, 50 dead — happened in 2009. That was the same year Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger of US Airways made a perfect landing in the Hudson River.
This is what’s so concerning about Sunday’s crash in Africa of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max jet — designed and built by Chicago-based Boeing. The mysterious incident calls into question the airworthiness of Boeing’s newly redesigned plane, which is flown around the world. The Ethiopian 737 Max disappeared from radar six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, just after the pilot reported trouble and requested permission to return to the airport. The plane plunged into the ground, killing all 157 people aboard.
Sunday’s tragedy is the second cataclysmic accident in less than five months for the Boeing 737 Max, an advanced version of the company’s workhorse single-aisle airplane. Last October, a 737 Max operated by Lion Air of Indonesia plummeted into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew. In both the Lion and Ethiopian incidents, the pilots reported problems soon after departure, sought to return to the airport but didn’t make it. The cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash is under investigation. The weather was good, though flight data appeared to show the aircraft failed to maintain a steady rate of ascent — then crashed.
That said, the two crashes may stem from completely separate causes; early theories about air disasters are notoriously unreliable. But similarities between the two incidents provoked speculation on a possible problem with the computerized flight controls of the 737 Max. By Monday, carriers in China, Indonesia and elsewhere had grounded their 737 Max fleets, an unusual response given that major airline crashes aren’t typically associated with fear of design flaws. What usually gets the blame is a one-off event, such as a pilot error, bad weather or foul play. As of Monday, carriers in the U.S., including American and Southwest, were keeping their 737 Max planes in operation.
While a final report on the Lion Air crash isn’t completed, the most likely cause was related to a new safety feature designed to protect the plane from a mid-flight stall. If sensors or flight systems misinterpret data and pilots don’t react swiftly, the plane can send itself into a nosedive. After the Lion Air crash, some U.S. pilots expressed concern that training to fly the 737 Max didn’t emphasize the need to be aware of potential nose over-correction. According to The New York Times, Boeing has said the Lion Air pilots should have known how to manage an emergency situation, but Boeing is working on software upgrades.
Two new Boeing aircraft of the same sophisticated design. They crash under seemingly similar conditions — good weather included — in different parts of the world. Air travel is safe, yes, but what happened to Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302? The sooner the flying public understands, the better.
— Chicago Tribune