How Safe is the Boeing 737Max?
This is a question that has more than liberally been tossed around since the second fatal crash of this type in less than five months.
It’s way too soon to jump to any conclusions but the similarities between the crashes are going to put additional focus on the popular jet that is now flown by more than 40 airlines around the world, including South Africa’s Comair who only received it's Max last week and has seven more on order.
On October 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea just off the coast of Indonesia, killing all 189 on board. Investigators have issued a preliminary report on that crash, but the final report is still pending.
On Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed minutes after take-off killing all 157 passengers and crew on board. It’s likely to be weeks before even a preliminary report is issued about the cause.
Here are some striking similarities based on what we know so far about the two crashes.
Both aircraft were Boeing 737 Max 8’s
As of January 31, Boeing had more than 5,000 confirmed orders for 737 Max aircraft. Now that two of just 350 delivered have crashed, questions might arise on future, or in some cases even existing, orders.
After initial reports revealed that Boeing failed to inform aircraft operators about a new system that may have played a part in the Lion Air crash, the Lion Air founder publicly stated that he wants to cancel all existing Boeing orders.
Both crashes happened shortly after take-off
Lion Air flight 610 crashed just 13 minutes after take-off while Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 disappeared from radar only six minutes after take-off. It’s worth noting that take-offs and landings are the riskiest parts of any flight and where most accidents occur.
Both pilots struggled to maintain a steady climb
While we are still waiting for the final report from the Lion Air crash, it seems that a malfunction in the aircraft’s angle of attack sensor mistook the normal take-off climb as dangerous and forced the plane to pitch downward twenty-six different times.
It’s unclear at this time if this system played any part in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Investigators are likely to focus on the angle of attack sensor and the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which forces the plane’s nose down if it detects what it deems an unsafe angle of attack, as a potential cause. Initial data released by flight tracking website FlightRadar24 indicates that the pilots of flight 302 also struggled to initiate a normal climb after take-off from Addis Ababa.
First flights of the day
It’s unlikely that this is relevant to the cause of either crash, but it’s interesting that both crashes involved the aircraft’s first flight of the day. Lion Air flight 610 took off at 6:20am and lost contact at 6:33am. Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 lifted off at 8:38am before losing contact at 8:44am.
However, Lion Air’s 737 MAX sat overnight in Jakarta for around seven hours before its flight. The Ethiopian aircraft had just arrived a couple of hours earlier from a red-eye flight from Johannesburg.
Weather does not seem to be a factor
In both the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes, weather doesn’t seem to have played any role. Indonesian meteorologists reported clear weather, light winds and good visibility in the area when the doomed Lion Air aircraft passed through. The same seems to be the case in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The Meteorological Aerodrome Report (METAR) for Addis Ababa airport indicated light winds, good visibility and scattered clouds.
Does this answer the question? Not at all!
As of this being published Boeing have not issued a directive grounding the 737Max but many countries around the world have placed a ban on the type entering their airspace, these include China, Australia and France. Comair have elected to remove their brand new B737Max from the flight schedule although the SACAA haven’t requested any action at this point.
I for one would not feel safe flying in a B737Max until definitive reasons for each crash have been identified and if necessary rectified.