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After 2nd deadly crash, questions raised about the safety of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 planes

Investigators are combing the debris from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa Sunday, killing all 157 people aboard. The plane’s black box recorders have been found, but many questions remain about this second crash of a Boeing 737 MAX-8 within a few months. Neil Connery of Independent Television News and science correspondent Miles O’Brien report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The ripple effects of an air disaster on the African content have reached around the globe tonight. The Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday killed all 157 people on board. Now several countries and a dozens of airlines have grounded their models of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.

    Neil Connery of Independent Television News reports from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

  • Neil Connery:

    Scattered across a field, the sorry wreckage of a plane that was the pride of its fleet and the heartbreaking reminders of 157 people entrusted to its care.

    There are clothes, pieces of the cabin's interior, even a book marked with notes for a conference that was never reached. The emergency teams are digging down because part of the fuselage is buried in the earth. From the air, it's clear there is a huge crater, possibly an indication that the plane came down almost vertically and at great speed.

    But why an aircraft just a few months old should fail so catastrophically just minutes after leaving Addis Ababa is a question the aviation world needs answering. What remains of flight ET-302 lies strewn over a wide area. Six minutes after taking off, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft fell from the skies above.

    Investigators are now trying to piece together exactly what happened. The safety of this particular aircraft is now under intense scrutiny. Last October, a similar passenger plane operated by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia. Many of those on board yesterday's Ethiopian Airlines flight had been U.N. officials, environmentalists, and charity workers heading for a conference in Kenya.

    Today, at that conference, delegates observed a minute's silence for their colleagues who never arrived to join them. Ethiopian Airlines' staff also held a vigil, remembering their lost crew.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Investigators in Ethiopia did find the plane's two black box recorders today. And there are now many questions being asked about the engineering of this plane and its software.

    Our Miles O'Brien, who watches the aviation business, joins us from Boston.

    Miles, hello.

    So from what we know about this airplane and what we know about not only this crash, but the one of a very similar model, the same model that occurred last October, what does it point to in terms of possible causes?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, you have to be careful connecting the dots this early, of course, Judy.

    But a modern airliner such as the 737 MAX 8 simply just doesn't fall from out of the clear blue sky. And you have had in a matter of months two of these aircraft, practically brand-new, doing just said almost in the exact same phase of flight.

    And so that raises all kinds of alarm bells. But until those black boxes, that flight data recorder and that cockpit voice recorder, are analyzed, we can't say for certain.

    In the meantime, though, there is what I would say a prudent response in some cases to ground these aircraft until it is known one way or another if there's some endemic, fundamental flaw in this aircraft design.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is it about? We know that Boeing changed the design to a degree when they designed this MAX 8. What was changed?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The key was, they wanted to make it longer-range and more fuel-efficient. So it meant putting a bigger engine on it, heavier and wider in diameter.

    So, in order for it to fit under the wings and still have ground clearance, they had to move the engine up and forward. What that did was, every time the aircraft in particular was in full thrust scenario, which would be the case on takeoff, it tended to have — make the nose point a little higher a little faster than 737 pilots were used to.

    So, instead of redesigning the wing and increasing the height of the landing gear, as you might expect, what Boeing did was change the computer, which is in between the flight controls and the human and the controls themselves, and put in some software which detected this nose high attitude.

    And the computer commands the aircraft to go down if the pilot gets it too high. If it goes too high, the plane will fall out of the sky. That was the intent. But the theory that many are worried about here is that somehow that software is either overreacting or the sensors themselves gave bad data to the computer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is there an issue potentially, Miles, with regard to the training of pilots to fly this aircraft?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, pilots were not fully briefed on this system, didn't know exactly what was going on in the computers. And this is where you get into all kinds of discussions about where the line is drawn between human control and automation in all kinds of complex systems.

    So now they know. And the FAA has issued an airworthiness directive that came after the last crash, the Lion Air crash in November, which mandates a look at the computer software, a look at the sensors, and some additional training so pilots can understand how to disconnect this system.

    Now, any pilot flying this aircraft would have known about the Lion Air crash and known how to disconnect this system. The question is, in a situation where you're nose down very quickly and going very fast toward the ground at a relatively low altitude, is there enough time?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as you pointed out, Miles, the FAA is saying that these planes are airworthy.

    And yet flight attendant associations, some of them are saying their attendants are right to ask questions, perhaps to say they won't fly these airlines. How significant is all that?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    I think it's reasonable to ask these questions, as should passengers.

    Now, the FAA just this afternoon issued something I have never heard of before, a continued airworthiness notification. That is not an official legal document. It's more on the order of a memo to the world saying, here's what we did in November. We introduced this airworthiness directive. We gave the airlines until April to do this, to fix this, figure out the problem and fix it. In the meantime, we're just going to wait and watch.

    I think all options remain on the table, but they're watching very closely to see what those flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorders hold in store for them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you are saying, a number of questions still very much top of mind.

    Miles O'Brien, thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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