Addis Ababa/Jakarta: The world's biggest planemaker Boeing faced growing obstacles to returning its grounded 737 MAX fleet to the skies on Wednesday, while chilling details emerged of an Indonesian crash with similarities to the Ethiopian disaster.
Experts suspect an automated system, meant to stop stalling by dipping the nose, may be involved in both cases, with pilots unable to override it as their jets plunged downwards.
The 10 March Ethiopian Airlines crash has shaken the global aviation industry and cast a shadow over the flagship Boeing model intended to be a standard for decades to come, given parallels with the Lion Air calamity off Jakarta in October.
Chicago-headquartered Boeing has promised a swift update of the automatic flight software for the craft but major regulators in Europe and Canada want to be sure themselves, rather than rely on US vetting.
As Ethiopian investigators pored over black box data from their crash, sources with knowledge of the doomed Lion Air cockpit voice recorder revealed how pilots scoured a manual in a losing battle to figure out why they were hurtling down to sea.
Investigators examining the Indonesian crash want to know how a computer ordered the plane to dive in response to data from a faulty sensor and whether pilots had enough training to respond appropriately to the emergency.
Communications showed that in the final moments, the captain tried in vain to find the right procedure in the handbook, while the first officer was unable to control the plane. "It is like a test where there are 100 questions and when the time is up you have only answered 75," said one of the sources with knowledge of the cockpit recording that has not been made public. "So you panic. It is a time-out condition."
At the end, the sources told Reuters, the Indian-born captain, 31, was quiet, while the Indonesian officer, 41, said: "Allahu Akbar" ("God is greatest") " an Arabic phrase to express excitement, shock, praise or distress. The plane then hit water.
US "credibility damaged"
Boeing has said there was a documented procedure to handle the situation. A different crew on the same plane the evening before had the same problem but solved it after running through three checklists, though they did not pass on all that information to the doomed crew, the preliminary report by investigators released in November said.
Rowing back from previous reliance on US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) vetting, Canada and the European Union will now seek their own guarantees over the MAX planes, complicating Boeing's hopes to get them flying worldwide again.
Regulators want to be absolutely sure of Boeing's new automated flight control system, known as MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), and that pilots are fully trained to handle it.
"Our credibility as leaders in aviation is being damaged," wrote Chesley Sullenberger, a US pilot famed for landing a jet on the Hudson River saving all 155 people on board a decade ago. "Boeing and the FAA have been found wanting in this ugly saga that began years ago but has come home to roost with two terrible fatal crashes, with no survivors, in less than five months, on a new airplane type, the Boeing 737 Max 8, something that is unprecedented in modern aviation history," he added in a scathing article on marketwatch.com
Facing such high-profile scrutiny, Boeing, one of the United States' most prestigious exporters, reshuffled executives in its commercial airplanes unit to focus on the crash fallout.
The FAA noted in a statement that its "robust processes" and "full collaboration with the aviation community" were key to safety worldwide. The regulator is due to have a new head soon, likely to be former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson.
US president Donald Trump had apparently been considering his longtime personal pilot, John Dunkin, before leaning towards Dickson who had a 27-year career at Delta.
In Ethiopia, which is leading the investigation, experts were poring over the in-flight recording of Captain Yared Getachew and First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed's voices.
As with the Indonesia flight, they radioed control problems shortly after take-off and sought to turn back, struggling to get their plane on track before it hit a field. However, there is no proven link and experts emphasize that every accident is a unique chain of human and technical factors.
For now, though, more than 300 MAX aircraft are grounded round the world, and deliveries of nearly 5,000 more - worth well over $500 billion - are on hold.
Development of the 737 MAX, which offers cost savings of about 15 percent on fuel, began in 2011 after the successful launch by its main rival of the Airbus A320neo. The 737 MAX entered service in 2017 after six years of preparation.