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Dozens of Boeing 737 Max jets grounded as Ethiopian Airlines jet's "black boxes" found

New questions of Boeing 737 Max 8 jet safety

Beijing -- Ethiopian Airlines temporarily grounded its fleet of Boeing 737 Max 8 planes Monday, a day after one of them crashed shortly after takeoff, carving a gash in the earth and killing all 157 people on board. Thirty-five countries had someone among the dead, including the United States. There were at least eight Americans on the aircraft.

There was no immediate indication why the plane went down in clear weather while on a flight to Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, but the crash was strikingly similar to that of a Lion Air jet that went down in the sea off Indonesian last year, killing 189. Both accidents involved Max 8s.

Ethiopian Airlines confirmed in a tweet that both of the plane's "black boxes," the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, had been found. 

An airline official, however, told The Associated Press that at least one of the recording devices -- which can provide key insight to accident investigators -- was partially damaged and, "we will see what we can retrieve from it."

Who's grounding Boeing 737 Max jets?

Ethiopian Airlines said, "Although we don't yet know the cause of the accident, we had to decide to ground the particular fleet as (an) extra safety precaution."  

Indonesia grounded all Boeing 737 Max 8 planes for inspections following the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Director General of Air Transportation Polana B. Pramesti said the grounding was taken to ensure flight safety in Indonesia. He said the inspections would ensure the planes are airworthy. There are currently 11 Max 8 planes operated by airlines in Indonesia including 10 by Lion Air and 1 by national carrier Garuda.

China's civilian aviation authority ordered all Chinese airlines to temporarily ground their Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. China issued the order at 9 a.m. Beijing time (9 p.m. EDT), for at least nine hours, and said it would consult with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing during that time. Eight Chinese nationals were on the Ethiopian Airlines plane.  

Ethiopian Airlines crash: 8 Americans among 157 killed

Cayman Airways said Monday it was temporarily grounding both of the 737 Max 8s it operates. Fabian Whorms, CEO of Cayman, a Caribbean regional carrier based in the Cayman Islands, said the airline had "taken the decision to suspend operations of both our new Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, effective from Monday March 11, 2019, until more information is received."

The crash in Ethiopia renewed safety questions about the newest version of Boeing's popular 737 airliner since the plane was new and the weather was clear at the time. Finding something wrong, the pilots tried to return to the airport but never made it.

But safety experts cautioned against quickly drawing too many parallels between the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes.

Hunt for clues

William Waldock, an aviation-safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said suspicion would be raised because the same type of plane appeared to crash the same way -- a fatal nosedive that left wreckage in tiny pieces.

Members of the search and rescue mission look for dead bodies of passengers at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu
Searchers look for bodies of passengers at scene of Ethiopian Airlines crash southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 10, 2019. Reuters

"Investigators are not big believers in coincidence," he said.

Waldock said Boeing would look more closely at the flight-management system and automation on the Max. But he noted that it is very early, and more will be known after investigators find and analyze the Ethiopian plane's "black boxes."

Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the similarities included both crews encountering a problem shortly after takeoff, and reports of large variations in vertical speed during ascent "clearly suggesting a potential controllability problem" with the Ethiopian jetliner.

But there are many possible explanations, Diehl said, including engine problems, pilot error, weight load, sabotage or bird strikes.

He said Ethiopian has a good reputation, but investigators will look into the plane's maintenance, especially since that may have been an issue in the Lion Air investigation.

By contrast, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO told reporters a maintenance check-up didn't find any problems with the plane before Sunday's flight.

As a result, said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide, "It is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet.

"I do hope though that people will wait for the first results of the investigation instead of jumping to conclusions based on the very little facts that we know so far," he said.

Boeing reacts

Boeing tweeted that it was "deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew" on the Ethiopian Airlines Max airplane. The Chicago-based company said it would send a technical team to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators.

The U.S. aerospace giant said it would delay the ceremonial debut of its brand new 777X plane, which had been scheduled for Wednesday in Seattle, to focus on "supporting" Ethiopian Airlines in the wake of the weekend crash. "We will look for an opportunity to mark the new plane with the world in the near future," Boeing said in a statement, according to Reuters.

The 737 is the best-selling airliner in history, and the Max is its newest version, with more fuel-efficient engines. The Max is a central part of Boeing's strategy to compete with European rival Airbus.

Boeing has delivered about 350 737 Max planes and has orders for more than 5,000. It's already being used by many carriers including American, United and Southwest.

The Lion Air incident doesn't seem to have harmed Boeing's ability to sell the Max. Boeing's stock fell nearly 7 percent on the day of the Lion Air crash. Since then, it had soared 26 percent, compared with a 4 percent gain in the Standard & Poor's 500 index, but in early trading on Monday morning shares in the Chicago-based company were down 9 percent.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said the U.S. agency was sending a team of four to assist Ethiopian authorities. Boeing and the U.S. investigative agency are also involved in the Lion Air probe.

The head of Indonesia's national transport safety agency said Monday it would offer to assist in the Ethiopian investigation.

A shoe of a passenger is seen at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa
A shoe of a passenger is seen at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 crash southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 10, 2019. Reuters

Indonesian investigators haven't stated a cause for the Lion Air crash but are examining whether faulty readings from a sensor might have triggered an automatic nose-down command to the plane, which the Lion Air pilots fought unsuccessfully to overcome. The automated system kicks in if sensors indicate a plane is about to lose lift or go into an aerodynamic stall. Gaining speed by diving can prevent a stall.

The Lion Air plane's flight data recorder showed problems with an airspeed indicator on four flights, although the airline initially said the problem was fixed.

Days after the Oct. 29 accident, Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down. The notice reminded pilots of the procedure for handling such a situation, which is to disable the system causing the automatic nose-down movements.

Pilots at some airlines, however, including American and Southwest, protested that they weren't fully informed about the new system. Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in December that the Max is a safe plane, and that Boeing didn't withhold operating details from airlines and pilots.

Diehl, the former NTSB investigator, said the Ethiopian Airlines pilots should have been aware of that issue from press coverage of the Lion Air crash.

The Ethiopian crash shattered more than two years of relative calm in African skies, where travel had long been chaotic. It also was a serious blow to state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, which has expanded to become the continent's largest and best-managed carrier and turned Addis Ababa into the gateway to Africa.

"Ethiopian Airlines is one of the safest airlines in the world. At this stage we cannot rule out anything," CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told reporters. He visited the crash site, standing in the gaping crater flecked with debris.

Black body bags were spread out nearby while Red Cross and other workers looked for remains. As the sun set, the airline's chief operating officer said the plane's flight data recorder hadn't yet been found.

Around the world, families were gripped by grief. At the Addis Ababa airport, a woman called a mobile number in vain. "Where are you, my son?" she said, in tears. Others cried as they approached the terminal.

Shocked leaders of the United Nations, the U.N. refugee agency and the World Food Program announced that colleagues had been on the plane. The U.N. migration agency estimated some 19 U.N.-affiliated employees were killed. Both Addis Ababa and Nairobi are major hubs for humanitarian workers, and many people were on their way to a large U.N. environmental conference set to begin Monday in Nairobi.

The Addis Ababa-Nairobi route links East Africa's two largest economic powers. Sunburned travelers and tour groups crowd the Addis Ababa airport's waiting areas, along with businessmen from China, Gulf nations and elsewhere.

A list of the dead released by Ethiopian Airlines included passengers from China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Israel, India and Somalia. Kenya lost 32 citizens. Canada, 18. Several countries including the United States lost four or more people.

Ethiopian officials declared Monday a day of mourning.

At the Nairobi airport, hopes quickly dimmed for loved ones. "I just pray that he is safe or he was not on it," said Agnes Muilu, who had come to pick up her brother.