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Today started with some incredibly sad news. At around 8:44 local time, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed this morning shortly after takeoff. It had been in the air all of six minutes. None of the 149 passengers or 8 crew survived. A minister of the Slovakian parliament confirmed that his wife and two children were aboard.
Coincidence? Or underlying problem?
While there will surely be a full investigation into the cause of the crash, what we do know already is a bit disturbing. The aircraft was a very new Boeing 737 MAX 8, just a matter of months old. This is the same plane that was involved in a fatal Lion Air crash just a few months back, which was the first total loss of a 737 MAX aircraft. All 189 passengers and crew died in that incident as well.
In the case of both Ethiopian 302 and Lion Air 610, the aircraft appear to have struggles to maintain a constant and controlled vertical speed, according to the radar tracking. The Lion Air flight suffered problems on the inbound flight to Jakarta, where passengers called the experience a “roller coaster ride”. Tragically, even after addressing the problem according to maintenance manuals, the aircraft suffered similar problems the following day and crashed into the Java Sea.
The investigation into the Lion Air crash revealed that the pilots struggled with an anti-stalling system that is new to the 737 series on their MAX aircraft. This system kept forcing the nose of the plane down, which the pilots attempted to correct.
Ethiopian flight 302 appears similar, but we admittedly have no real data from which to make determinations. A look at flightradar24 for the flight shows the plane leveling off at 7,500 feet, which isn’t normal. It begins to climb again before the radar log ends. The pilot reported having difficulties and requested clearance to return to Addis Ababa. The cockpit recorder will hopefully shed some more light on the situation.
In neither case does weather appear to be an issue.
Should the 737 MAX 8 be avoided?
Air travel in this day and age is incredibly safe, far safer than traveling by automobile. The number of fatal passenger crashes has been declining for years, and 2017 was the safest year on record, with only 44 fatalities around the globe. The following year saw more fatalities, including the Lion Air crash mentioned previously, which was the worst of the year.
However, the timing and nature of these crashes admittedly now makes me uneasy about flying on one of the new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. A total of 350 deliveries have been made since the plane debuted in 2017. Two major fatal crashes in just a few months with a fairly low number of operating aircraft is not a good sign. Contrast this with the 777, another Boeing plane, which has only seen 541 passenger fatalities in its 23 year history. Of these, 239 were aboard missing Malaysia flight 270, the most mysterious incident in commercial aviation history, and 298 were aboard Malaysia flight 17, which was downed by an anti-aircraft missile. Both of these were far from routine situations.
Personally, I will be avoiding the MAX 8 until more details about this crash and the Lion Air crash are known, and Boeing weighs in on the situation. Our guide at the aircraft company’s Everett facility reiterated the famous phrase, “if it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going” at the end of our tour. But I can’t take that to heart. This crash raises too many questions.