French Investigators Begin Analysis Of Black Boxes From Ethiopian Airlines Plane

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Debris lays piled up just outside the impact crater after being gathered by workers during the continuing recovery efforts at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines flight on March 11, 2019 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia.  (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Debris lays piled up just outside the impact crater after being gathered by workers during the continuing recovery efforts at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines flight on March 11, 2019 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Investigators in France are set to begin their investigation into the two black boxes from the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed just minutes after takeoff last Sunday, killing all 157 passengers onboard.

All Boeing 737 Max 8 jets around the world have been grounded due to caution there may be a link between Sunday’s crash and the Lion Air disaster in the Java Sea last October. Information from the black boxes could help investigations get one step closer to figuring that out.

The start of the analysis has been delayed since investigators first recovered the black boxes from the crash site earlier this week. Jeff Guzzetti, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator and Federal Aviation Administration safety manager, says “the delay is inexcusable.”

“The international standards for accident investigation calls for getting those black boxes read out as soon as possible, and a three to four day delay is simply inexcusable,” Guzzetti tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

“I think that the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority just didn't act promptly, perhaps, because they didn't know which country would be politically expedient to allow the download,” he adds. “I don't think Ethiopia has the laboratory facilities to do such modern flight data recorder downloads, so they needed to find another country. But still, those talks should have occurred as soon as the accident happened, even before they found the recorders.”

The process of downloading the information from the flight data recorders is “tedious, but it’s not difficult,” Guzzetti says. As long as the solid-state circuit chips, which are found inside a protective container within the black box, are intact, investigators can pretty easily recover the information, he says. In this case, the chips were intact.

“Then once you download it, which is pretty quick, it takes time to analyze and to make sure you're looking at the proper parameters and then you've got the right thing,” Guzzetti says.

Interview Highlights

On what investigators will learn when they examine the data

“They're going to learn a lot. So the the flight data recorder will have over 1,000 different parameters at varying sample range. You have ailerons, elevators, the rudder, we know what the radio was tuned to, certain switch positions. It's just [a] voluminous amount of data, that half the battle's picking which parameters you want to concentrate on and then turn into a graph. And then you marry that up with the cockpit voice recorder. So there's like four channels of sound being recorded on that cockpit voice recorder, and it can tell you what the pilots were worried about, any grunts or groans by the crew if they were struggling with flight controls, those kinds of things.”

On what he would be looking for if he were investigating this crash

“The first thing I would do is look at the primary flight controls and the secondary trim flight controls, specifically the pitch. In other words, any of the flight controls that make the airplane go nose up or nose down. I'd also zero-in on which mode the autopilot was in. And then I would listen to what the crew was discussing just before the takeoff and then right at the takeoff and during the climb out to see what checklist they perhaps were referring to. That would really zero-in on the systems that may have been giving the flight crew a problem.”

On the possible link between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Lion Air accident

“Well, I guess I'm a little bit hesitant to speculate. We know a lot about the Lion Air accident because the Indonesians put out a public preliminary report, and it mirrors [an] issue that has been discovered with regards to this automatic trim system to help the pilot keep the nose down instead of going up so that the pilot doesn't aerodynamically stall the airplane. That system is supposed to really fire just once to give the pilot a little reminder. It appears in the Lion Air accident it fired again and again and again, which confused the crew, but still mirrored typical the stabilizer trim, pitch trim runaway that has a checklist that says you just shuttle all of your systems off.

“I don't know if that's what happened in this case. It may have been related to that, or it might be a completely different type of malfunction. There's reports that the airplane began to pitch up and down as soon as it took off from Ethiopia. So there might be, perhaps, a completely different problem with the flight controls and with the crew than there was in the Indonesian accident.”

On if the 737 Max 8’s larger engine could have played a role in both crashes

“It may have. Certainly, the engines are bigger. They're more powerful, and not only that, they're under slung in a different manner, in a different location relative to the wing and the fuselage as their predecessor models. And that provides a different type of lever action or moment arm whenever the thrust is coming from that different position. That's why Boeing appears to have added this flight control computer software augmentation, and perhaps, that could explain Ethiopia. We don't know.”

On the FAA’s delayed decision to ground all 737 Max 8 planes

“I think that they made the right decision. I know the optics of it might not look good, but the U.S. did it for good reason because they had additional data. They had synthesized newly analyzed satellite data that apparently is very similar or has some similarities to the Lion Air flight data recorder, and then they observed physical settings of the configuration of the airplane in the wreckage. So those two things are new information that gave them the confidence to say, 'You know what? We have to ground the airplane.'

"Absent that, I think that they should not have grounded the airplane at the same time as the other countries, and the FAA was sticking to its robust risk assessment processes. But to have a national airworthiness authority, the government, make a decision like that based on no evidence from a purely aeronautical engineering standpoint is wrong. It sets a bad precedent. It erodes the confidence in our system and it actually, I think, could create a hazard because it distracts the investigators from looking into the immediate problem because now they're racing all around getting briefings to politicians and talking to the press and trying to explain when they don't have any evidence to do it.”

On when we might expect a comprehensive report on the Ethiopian Airlines crash

“The international rules indicate that a country has to put out what they call a preliminary report. That will be published in two or three weeks, and then a final report, which will be at least a year, if not more.”

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this story for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 15, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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