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Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 renews scrutiny on Boeing 737 MAX; U.S. authorities to assist in investigation

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U.S. air safety officials are assisting in the investigation into the crash of an Ethio­pian Airlines plane bound for Nairobi that went down Sunday, killing all 157 people on board, including eight Americans.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will take part in the probe, officials said, and U.S. airlines are keeping an eye on the investigation to determine how it could affect their fleets, several of which contain the same 737 MAX 8 model aircraft that crashed in Ethi­o­pia.

It was the second fatal crash recently involving a Boeing 737 Max 8 model. In October, a Lion Air plane crashed into the waters off the coast of Java, killing all 189 passengers and crew on board. Though Sunday’s flight did not originate in the United States, U.S. authorities were assisting in an advisory capacity because Boeing is based in Chicago.

A new Ethio­pian airlines plane bound for Nairobi crashed March 10, killing all 157 people on board. (Video: Reuters)

Although it was too soon to determine the exact cause of the Ethio­pian Air crash, the plane, which was brand new, showed a similar flight path to the one in the Indonesia crash.

An NTSB spokesman said the investigative agency is sending a team of four to assist Ethio­pian authorities. An accident investigator and others providing technical expertise will serve as the response team. The crews have expertise in systems, structures, power plants and operations, according to the safety body. NTSB says it is an “accredited representative” to the investigation, which is being handled by Ethio­pian authorities.

Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Nairobi crashes, all 157 on board killed

The group that will be sent to Ethi­o­pia is smaller than a “go team” that would be sent to a crash on U.S. soil, which could consist of a dozen to 25 people, but Ethio­pian authorities are conducting a sweeping investigation of the crash.

People gathered at the scene of the deadly Ethiopian Airlines plane crash, about 38 miles southeast of Bole International Airport on March 10. (Video: Reuters)

The pilot, who was identified by relatives as senior Captain Yared Getachew, 28, of Addis Ababa, had family who reside in Northern Virginia and Texas. The airline confirmed Getachew was the pilot.

“We are deeply saddened by the news of the passing of our dear Yared,” the family said in a statement. “With his impeccable record as a pilot, he was one of the youngest in Ethiopian Airlines history to captain a Boeing 737. As a confident captain, his seniority at Ethiopian Airlines comes with an accomplished record of 8,000 hours flight time, and has made us incredibly proud of his achievements.”

The crash brought new scrutiny to Boeing’s 737 MAX family of aircraft, the latest generation of what the company describes as the “most popular jet aircraft of all time.” Boeing boasts the new model has an improved cabin and more advanced flying technology — including, for example, a sensor system meant to take over and correct the plane’s angle if it is pointed too far upward. But experts have warned that faulty sensors can put the aircraft at risk by sending it plummeting while in a climb.

Boeing issued an emergency notice after the Lion Air crash that said a malfunctioning sensor could “cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane,” leading to “possible impact with terrain.”

The MAX 8, the variant that seats up to 210, has been involved in the two most catastrophic airline crashes in recent history.

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Southwest Airlines, which has 34 of the 737 MAX 8 planes in service, said it has been in touch with Boeing and plans to follow the investigation closely. It had not made any changes to its operations or inspection protocol Sunday, the airline said.

“We remain confident in the safety and airworthiness of our fleet of more than 750 Boeing aircraft,” Southwest said. American Airlines said it was closely monitoring the investigation but remained confident in the safety of its aircraft.

It was too early to know what could come of the Ethio­pian Airlines investigation, including what safety directives might be issued for the aircraft involved in the crash, officials said. Experts urged caution, because while the crashes — shortly after takeoff, at relatively low altitudes with erratic flight patterns — draw similarities, the data is insufficient to conclude the same systems were at fault.

It was unclear, for example, whether the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) that was the subject of scrutiny in the Lion Air crash was a potential factor in Sunday’s Ethio­pian Airlines crash.

“Because of the apparent similarities between and this and the Lion Air crash, the questions naturally arise: Is this a similar crash? And is MCAS the culprit?” said aviation consultant Scott Hamilton, managing director of Leeham Company, which provides aviation expertise and marketing analysis. “It may well turn out that there is a connection, but we don’t know that today.”

Hamilton said the cockpit voice recorders and flight-data recorders would provide critical information on what transpired in the six minutes between the flight’s takeoff and the crash. Not enough was known Sunday to draw parallels between the two crashes.

“It’s highly unusual for a new model airplane to have one accident let alone two in such a short period of time,” he said. “And of course investigators are going to look at the flight-tracker radar pattern, the circumstances, and one of the first things they’re going to zero in on when they get the [flight-data recorders] and the [cockpit voice recorders] . . . they’re going to look at MCAS performance. That’s going be a natural thing for them to do.”

The results of the probes could have major consequences because the 737 MAX is being rolled out widely across the aviation industry. Boeing says it was the fastest-selling airplane in its history and nearly 5,000 orders have been placed. Several hundred are in service, including with U.S. carriers Southwest and American Airlines. Southwest’s fleet is made up entirely of 737s, and the airline had received 31 out of an order of 280 MAX 8 aircraft by January, according to Boeing. American had received 22 out of an order of 100.

A faulty sensor was cited in the Lion Air crash, though authorities have not yet completed their investigation.

Officials said the “angle of attack” sensor was the component involved in that incident, causing the plane to dip whenever pilots attempted to adjust the plane’s pitch. The sensor repeatedly read that the plane was too high, even when it wasn’t, and sent it plummeting during repeated attempts to correct its course. The aircraft eventually crashed into the Java Sea. Preliminary data showed the Ethio­pian Airlines flight following a similar flight path.

Pilots unable to correct for faulty sensor that sent Indonesian flight plunging into the sea, report says

Ethio­pian Airlines said its investigators, the Ethio­pian Civil Aviation Authority and the Ethio­pian Transport Authority will conduct the investigation “in collaboration with all stakeholders including the aircraft manufacturer Boeing” to determine the cause of the crash.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a brief statement saying it was planning to assist in the investigation of the crash, which killed eight Americans and 18 Canadians.

“The FAA is closely monitoring developments in the Ethiopian Flight 302 crash early this morning,” the agency said in a statement. “We are in contact with the State Department and plan to join the NTSB in its assistance with Ethiopian civil aviation authorities to investigate the crash.”

Boeing declined Sunday to say whether the crash would prompt immediate action concerning the safety of the 737 MAX aircraft, as some pushed for answers on whether a second catastrophic crash will lead the manufacturer to ground its new planes or issue a new safety directive. More than a week after the Lion Air crash, Boeing issued a bulletin detailing the process for pilots to override the safety system cited in the crash.

The manufacturer said in a statement that it is “deeply saddened” by the deaths of the 157 on board Sunday.

“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethio­pian Airlines team,” Boeing said.

The company said it is sending a technical team to the crash site to assist U.S. and Ethio­pian authorities in their investigation.

Paul Schemm and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.