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Boeing 737 Max black-box analysis gets underway in Ethiopia

  • Author: Tara Patel, Nizar Manek, Bloomberg News
  • Updated: March 21
  • Published March 21

Air-crash experts are gathering in Ethiopia to analyze black-box data from a Boeing 737 Max jetliner as controversy over the model's safety intensifies following two fatal disasters in less than five months.

Experts from Ethiopia, the U.S., France and the European Union will take part in the analysis of cockpit voice and flight data recorders, the Ethiopian Transport Ministry said Thursday in an emailed statement. A preliminary report will be prepared following standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, it said.

Ethiopian Airlines said Thursday that the plane's pilots completed training recommended by the manufacturer and approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority before the Max fleet was phased in.

While a flight simulator for the aircraft isn't designed to mimic problems with an anti-stall system at the center of probes, pilots were "made aware and well briefed" on a directive issued by the FAA following a 737 Max crash in Indonesia last October, the airline said in a statement on Twitter.

The Ethiopian jet came down shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa on March 10, killing 157 people. In the Indonesia incident, a Max operated by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea, claiming 189 lives. Ethiopian, U.S. and Canadian authorities say there are clear similarities between the disasters. Attention is focused on a stall-prevention system thought to have taken over the Lion Air flight amid erroneous sensor readings, and which the pilots couldn't turn off.

While Ethiopia is leading the investigation, a spokesman for France's Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses safety authority said last week that three of its experts would travel to Ethiopia to participate after the agency downloaded the flight-data and cockpit-audio recordings in Paris. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, FAA and Boeing were also invited, he said.

Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee has also offered to aid Ethiopian authorities, Chairman Soerjanto Tjahjono said at a press briefing in Jakarta on developments in its investigation into the Lion Air crash.

With pressure mounting on Boeing over the troubled jet's certification process, establishing the cause of the Ethiopian tragedy has become critical. Airlines and aviation regulators around the world have grounded Max fleets, leaving the immediate future of the planemaker's best-selling aircraft in the balance.

Ethiopian Airlines' comments on pilot training came after the New York Times reported that the pilot of the downed 737 hadn't used a simulator that the carrier installed in January. Boeing has said that experienced 737 pilots need little training for the new aircraft, the newspaper reported.

In the case of the doomed Lion Air jet, the same aircraft was saved from disaster the previous day only when an off-duty pilot told the crew how to disable the stall-prevention software, know as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, Bloomberg has reported. Indonesia confirmed that a third airman was in the cockpit.

The U.S. Transportation Department has meanwhile ordered a full audit of the Max's 2017 certification. The Justice Department is also using a grand jury to help gather information. Investigators representing the two departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began digging into a range of matters related to MCAS within weeks of the Lion Air loss, Bloomberg reported.

Boeing has said it will soon release a software update and further pilot training guidelines for the Max that will address concerns. The New York Times said the manufacturer will stop charging for a safety feature called the disagree light, activated if a plane's sensors -- which can trigger the MCAS -- are at odds.

Ethiopian Airlines had said the initial decision to send the black boxes to France for decoding was strategic after the FAA was left isolated in the days after the crash, arguing that the Max should continue flying after other authorities had already grounded it.

The French BEA has handled other major disasters in the past, including Air France Flight 447, which was lost in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, and Germanwings Flight 9525, flown into the mountain in 2015 by its co-pilot.

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Bloomberg’s Ryan Beene, Ville Heiskanen and David Malingha contributed.

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