Investigators in France on Friday examined the black boxes of a Boeing 737 MAX that crashed in Ethiopia as a spooked global airline industry waited to see if the cause was similar to a disaster in Indonesia months before.
Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed soon after take-off from Addis Ababa last weekend, killing 157 people, in the second such calamity involving Boeing’s flagship new model after a jet came down off Indonesia in October with 189 people on board.
Regulators have grounded the 737 MAX around the world, while the U.S. planemaker has halted next deliveries of the several thousand planes on order for a model intended to be the future industry workhorse.
Parallels between the twin disasters have frightened passengers worldwide and wiped more than $26 billion off Boeing’s share price.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said information from the wreckage in Ethiopia plus newly-refined data about its flight path indicated some similarities.
According to two sources, investigators found a piece of a stabilizer in the wreckage of the Ethiopian jet set in an unusual position similar to that of the Lion Air plane in Indonesia. The stabilizer on the tail section pitches the nose up and down.
The FAA and Boeing declined to comment.
The Ethiopian pilot had reported internal problems and asked to return to Addis Ababa in his last communications.
Pilots worldwide were waiting anxiously for the outcome of the investigation, Paul Gichinga, former head of the Kenya Airline Pilots Association, told Reuters.
“Looking at the crash site photos, the aircraft appears to have nose-dived … It looks that they were not in control of the aircraft at impact,” he said.
“The pilot must have gotten some sort of indication that maybe the airspeed was unreliable or something and decided, instead of climbing and going to sort out the problem up there, the best thing was to return to have it sorted.”
Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker, has said the 737 MAX is safe. It continued to produce at full speed at its factory near Seattle but paused shipments.
France’s Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) has possession of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, though Ethiopia is formally leading the investigation and U.S. experts are in Paris and Addis Ababa too.
FAMILIES “STUCK, EMOTIONAL”
U.S. lawmakers said on Thursday the 737 Max fleet would be grounded for weeks if not longer until a software upgrade could be tested and installed. Boeing has said it would roll out the improvement in the coming weeks.
The New York Times cited a person who reviewed air traffic communications as saying the Ethiopian captain had reported a “flight control” problem a minute after departure as the jet was well below the minimum safe height from the ground during a climb. Three minutes in, he requested permission to return as the plane accelerated to abnormal speed.
After being cleared by the control room to turn back, the jet climbed to an unusually high altitude and disappeared from the radar over a restricted military zone, the person cited by the newspaper added. Contact with air controllers was lost five minutes after take-off, it said.
In Ethiopia, grieving relatives have been visiting the charred and debris-strewn field where the jet came down to pay last respects. Only fragments remain, meaning it may take weeks or months to identify all the victims who came from 35 nations.
Some families stormed out of a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday complaining about a lack of information.
Israeli national Ilan Matsliah flew to Ethiopia hours after confirming his older brother was a passenger, thinking it would not take beyond 24 hours to find any remains for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.
“More than 24 hours is a problem for us. But I have been here for more than 96 hours,” the 46-year old told Reuters.
“We are now stuck in the same place, the same as Monday. We are very emotional.”
With heightened global scrutiny, the head of Indonesia’s transport safety committee said a report into the Lion Air crash would be speeded up so it could be released in July to August, months earlier than originally expected.
A software fix for the 737 MAX that Boeing has been working on since the Lion Air crash will take months to complete, the FAA said on Wednesday.
A November preliminary report, before the retrieval of the cockpit voice recorder, focused on maintenance and training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor but gave no reason for the crash.