A month after faulty sensor data triggered the crash of Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia, Boeing officials downplayed the possibility that a bird strike could trigger a similar chain of events on another 737 Max 8 jet, inside sources told the Wall Street Journal.
Five months later, pilots on Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 battled the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight controls, which repeatedly forced the plane into a dive in the same way it did with the Lion Air flight.
Now U.S. crash investigators believe a bird strike may have been to blame for the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
Bird strikes are an unfortunate fact of life in the world of aviation, occurring about 13,000 every year in the U.S. alone. But while they can cause minor damage to an aircraft, they almost never result in a deadly crash.
Investigations of both 737 Max crashes are ongoing, but officials have honed in on the MCAS anti-stall system and the angle-of-attack (AOA) sensor that informs it as likely contributors. Boeing installed MCAS to counter the plane’s tendency to drift upward at the nose, a problem introduced to the 737 Max when engineers installed larger engines at a higher position on the wings.
For unknown reasons, however, Boeing designed the MCAS so that it received positioning data from just one of the two AOA sensors mounted on the plane’s exterior, leaving the system without a redundant safety check. This configuration is especially troubling given that AOA sensors are prone to damage and failure.
In a meeting between Boeing’s vice-president of product strategy and American Airlines pilots after the Lion Air crash, the Boeing executive dismissed the possibility that a bird strike could cause another version of the Lion Air disaster and said he felt absolutely confident that better pilot training and awareness of the potential dangers were adequate to prevent another disaster from occurring.
Ethiopian Airlines officials dispute any assertion flight 302 pilots could have been better trained. A big selling point for Boeing was that the 737 Max flew the same as the older 737s and required little additional training. In fact, 737 Max pilots were trained on an iPad for 90 minutes, and neither the iPad training nor Boeing’s 737 Max pilot training simulators covered the MCAS and what pilots should do in the event faulty sensor readings caused the flight controls to go haywire.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Mike will represent the family of an Ethiopian Airlines crash victim, and is investigating both deadly Boeing crashes on behalf of families. He also has written a book on the subject to assist other aviation lawyers, “Aviation Litigation & Accident Investigation.” The book offers an overview to the practitioner about the complexities of aviation crash investigation and litigation.