In a war or disaster, the first reports are often wrong or conflicting.
In the case of the Ethiopian Airlines crash of the 737 Max 8, there are two very different reports. The first is that the loss of control that crashed the plane and killed all onboard was related to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”) system that tragically appears to have caused the Lion Air crash last year. Indeed, early analysis indicates a similar pattern to the Lion crash indicating a struggle between the aircraft and crew.
Yet the other report is the statements of several witnesses on the ground, as reported by Reuters, who reported loud noises, smoke streaming from the aircraft, as well as clothing and papers escaping from the plane before it crashed.
From the Reuters story: “Half a dozen witnesses interviewed by Reuters in the farmland where the plane came down reported smoke billowing out behind, while four of them also described a loud sound. “It was a loud rattling sound. Like straining and shaking metal,” said Turn Buzuna, a 26-year-old housewife and farmer who lives about 300 meters (328 yards) from the crash site.
“Everyone says they have never heard that kind of sound from a plane and they are under a flight path,” she added. Malka Galato, 47, a barley and wheat farmer whose field the plane crashed in, also described smoke and sparks from the back. “The plane was very close to the ground and it made a turn… Cows that were grazing in the fields ran in panic,” he said.
Tamirat Abera, 25, was walking past the field at the time. He said the plane turned sharply, trailing white smoke and items like clothes and papers, then crashed about 300 meters away.”
These two reports are entirely inconsistent.
In the event of a MCAS or other-caused loss of control of the aircraft by the pilots, the plane would make no explosive-like sounds, nor would there be smoke and debris escaping from the aircraft. Ground witnesses would have observed an intact airplane dive steeply into the ground without explosive-like sounds.
The statements of the ground witnesses appear consistent with a bomb or other explosion that opened the fuselage. A fire that caused an explosion or a bomb could plausibly damage data cabling, instrumentation and other electronics, making the cockpit controls inoperative or partially compromised–perhaps approximating the symptoms of a MCAS-like failure.
One way to reconcile the two reports, assuming the witnesses were correct in observing an explosion, is that the explosion could have triggered a MCAS failure-event by damaging a crucial sensor.
The probability of both separate MCAS and explosive events happening simultaneously and without connection seems slim, however if the statements by the ground witnesses hold up to forensics investigations, and if further analysis shows there was a MCAS-related loss of control, then this coincidence or connection must not be ruled out.
Normally, such great conflict in scenarios would be mere speculation and the cause would be routinely settled when the data from the flight recorders has been analyzed, and the wreckage investigated for any clues related to an explosion.
However, in this case, following the apparently-similar Lion crash, many countries immediately grounded the Max versions. If it were an explosion that damaged the airplane initially, fleet-wide grounding might not have been as essential.
Not to be missed is China, which wants a worldwide market for their ‘737-killer’ Comac C-919, and would profit immensely from any tarnishing of Boeing’s reputation, and they helped lead the cry to ground the planes.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, these reports of an explosion add a very different element to the investigation than was the case in the Lion Air crash.
Art Harman is the Director of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration. He was the Legislative Director and foreign policy advisor for Rep. Stockman (R-Texas) in the 113th Congress, and is a veteran policy analyst and grass-roots political expert. His expertise includes foreign relations, border security/amnesty, national security, transportation, foreign broadcasting and NASA/space policy.
Mr. Harman developed the strategy to kill the 2013 Senate “gang of eight” amnesty bill as violating the Origination Clause, and provided policy advice to the Trump campaign, transition. and White House. He wrote what became the ‘bible’ of post-Brexit trade relations which was introduced in 2016 by Sen. Mike Lee as S. 3123, the United Kingdom Trade Continuity Act. Harman is a frequent guest on radio shows on key policy issues, and is an expert photographer.