Investigators Look Into What Caused Ethiopian Airlines Flight To Crash
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Six minutes after the Ethiopian Airlines plane took off Sunday, it lost contact with air traffic controllers and it plummeted to the ground. Investigators may not know for some time why this happened, but they do know it was the second deadly crash in five months involving one type of aircraft - the Boeing 737 MAX 8. We have two colleagues covering this for us this morning. NPR transportation correspondent David Schaper is with us. Hi, David.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: And we also have NPR's Eyder Peralta on the line from Nairobi. And, Eyder, I want to start with you. Just bring us up to date on what we know at this point about this crash.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: So we know the basics. We know that this was a regularly scheduled morning flight. It was supposed to be going from Addis Ababa to Nairobi here in Kenya. And we know that shortly after the plane took off, the pilot called the control tower and asked them if he could return to the airport because the plane was having technical difficulties.
Flight tracking data from the website Flightradar24 tells us that the plane was seesawing. It was gaining altitude and then dropping, gaining altitude and then dropping again. And six minutes after it took off, the plane lost contact and crashed. Ethiopian Airlines says that the pilot of this plane was a veteran with a great record. They say the plane - as you said, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 - was brand new, just delivered in November. And they say they had gotten no indications that there was anything wrong with it.
GREENE: Well, I want to dig into the plane and what may have gone wrong. But let me just ask you. I mean, 157 people on board - it doesn't look like there are any survivors. I know we don't have names yet of passengers who died. What do we know about them?
PERALTA: So we know that they come from 35 different countries. The United Nations says that they believe that at least 19 of their staff were on board. We know Georgetown University says that they lost a third-year law student.
The Nigerian author Pius Adesanmi was on board, and he was considered one of the best analysts of post-colonial Africa. Friends say he was funny and always generous. On board, you really had a wide array of people. You had humanitarians, artists, academics, diplomats and, of course, mothers and fathers. And what we know is that families are now having to deal with this terrible loss.
GREENE: Yeah. David, let me bring you into this to talk about how this may have happened. I mean, Eyder's describing this plane gaining altitude, losing altitude - I mean, this irregular, erratic flight pattern. How similar, if at all, is this to that Lion Air plane that crashed after taking off from Jakarta back in the fall in October?
SCHAPER: Well, it is somewhat similar. Both of these were new planes, and that's highly unusual in and of itself that new planes like this would be crashing. They both crashed shortly after taking off. And data from both flights shows that these irregular speeds and the seesawing that you and Eyder just described - that after going up, after rapidly ascending, there were a couple of rapid descents. And both planes appear to have crashed after going into nosedives as pilots of both those planes appear to have been struggling to control the aircraft.
There is one key difference, though, and that is that the pilots had reported earlier problems with the Lion Air 737 MAX 8 plane. And there were no such complaints or concerns about this Ethiopian plane before the crash. Indonesian investigators still have not determined a cause for that Lion Air crash, and experts caution it's still too soon to say if there's any relationship with this one. But because of the similarities, Indonesian aviation authorities and Chinese aviation authorities both have ordered that all of these 737 MAX planes be taken out of service, be grounded until they can be checked out.
And even here in the U.S., some are raising concerns about these Boeing planes, too. New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate's minority leader, also wants federal regulators here in the U.S. to take a closer look at these 737 MAX 8 planes.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: I think there has to be a thorough investigation by the FAA and the NTSB as to whether these planes are safe 'cause there are just too many coincidences.
SCHAPER: But other experts do caution that there's just really so much that is not known about this crash in particular to start making any definitive links between these two incidents.
GREENE: But still a lot of questions for Boeing, clearly. And I mean, I flew one of these planes last night, actually, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. So the planes are still flying in the United States. Could they be grounded here at some point?
SCHAPER: Well, you know, the FAA has taken action like this before with Boeing with its 787, the Dreamliner. A few years ago, there was a problem with the lithium-ion batteries of those planes catching fire. Although there were no crashes and certainly no fatal incidents involved, the FAA did ground those planes for just a couple of months while other safety precautions were taken.
So it could happen again here. It's just Boeing is saying that they don't have any new warnings to issue to airlines. They don't have any new information yet. It's just very early on in this investigation.
GREENE: Yeah, Eyder, really early on. So what's next?
PERALTA: So the National Transportation Safety Board says it's sending a team to help Ethiopia, which has already started an investigation.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi and NPR's David Schaper in Chicago. Thanks to you both.
PERALTA: Thank you.
SCHAPER: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.