737 MAX crash probe focuses on flight angle

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An American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft approaches to land at Washington Reagan National Airport on March 13. Xinhua

ADDIS ABABA/PARIS (Reuters) – Investigators into the Boeing Co 737 MAX crash in Ethiopia have found striking similarities in a vital flight angle with an airplane that came down off Indonesia, a source said, piling pressure on the world’s biggest planemaker.

The Ethiopian Airlines disaster eight days ago killed 157 people, led to the grounding of Boeing’s marquee MAX fleet globally and sparked a high-stakes inquiry for the aviation industry.

Analysis of the cockpit recorder showed its “angle of attack” data was “very, very similar” to that of the Lion Air jet that went down off Jakarta in October, killing 189 people, a person familiar with the investigation said.

The angle of attack is a fundamental parameter of flight, measuring the degrees between the air flow and the wing. If it is too high, it can throw the plane into an aerodynamic stall.

“If that’s the case, that does raise the possibility that there is a similar occurrence between the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents,” said Clint Balog, a Montana-based professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Even then, it was too early to draw firm conclusions, he added.

A flight deck computer’s response to an apparently faulty angle-of-attack sensor is at the heart of the ongoing investigation into the Lion Air crash.

Ethiopia’s Transport Ministry, France’s BEA air accident authority and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have all pointed to similarities between the two disasters, but safety officials stress the probe is at an early stage.

Both planes were 737 MAX 8s and crashed minutes after takeoff with pilots reporting flight control problems.

Under scrutiny is a new automated system in the 737 MAX model that guides the nose lower to avoid stalling, while Boeing has raised questions in the Lion Air case about whether crew used the correct procedures.

Lawmakers and safety experts are asking how thoroughly regulators vetted the system and how well pilots around the world were trained for it when their airlines bought new planes.

With the prestige of one of the United States’ biggest exporters at stake, Boeing has said the MAX series is safe, although it plans to roll out new software upgrades.

Canada is re-examining the validation it gave Boeing’s 737 MAX jets, following reports of a US probe into the aircraft’s certification by the FAA, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said on Monday.

The FAA finds itself in the hot seat, especially over its decision to certify the 737 MAX without demanding additional training. FAA and Boeing will face congressional questions about why the software upgrade took so long to complete and whether Boeing had too great a role in the certification process.

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