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The Striking Similarities Between Lion Air and Ethiopian 737 MAX Crashes

March 10, 2019
5 min read
The Striking Similarities Between Lion Air and Ethiopian 737 MAX Crashes

The Boeing 737 MAX is the latest mass-market jet, meant to easily transport passengers around the world.

And that’s what it has been doing — safely — since its debut in 2017.

However, Sunday’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX is the second fatal incident involving the aircraft type in just five months. It’s way too soon to jump to any conclusions. But the similarities between the crashes are going to put additional focus on the popular jet that is now flown by more than 40 airlines around the world, including Southwest, American Airlines and United.

On October 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea just off of the coast of Indonesia, killing all 189 on board. Investigators have issued a preliminary report on that crash, but the final report is still pending.

On Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed minutes after takeoff killing all 157 passengers and crew on board. It's likely to be weeks before even a preliminary report is issued about the cause.

Here are some striking similarities based on what we know so far about the two crashes.

Both Aircraft Were Boeing 737 MAX 8s

Boeing's newest version in its 52-year series of 737 aircraft is the 737 MAX family, which consists of four different types of aircraft: MAX 7, MAX 8, MAX 9 and MAX 10, in order of size. More than 320 of the 350 Boeing MAX aircraft delivered through January 31, 2019, are of the MAX 8 variety; the rest are MAX 9s. The MAX 7 and 10 have not entered service yet. Both Boeing 737 MAX crashes have involved MAX 8 aircraft.

As of January 31, Boeing had more than 5,000 confirmed orders for 737 MAX aircraft. Now that two of just 350 delivered have crashed, questions might arise on future, or in some cases even existing, orders.

After initial reports revealed that Boeing failed to inform aircraft operators about a new system that may have played a part in the Lion Air crash, the Lion Air founder publicly stated that he wants to cancel all existing Boeing orders.

At the top of the list of 737 MAX operators are two US airlines: Southwest currently operates 34 Boeing 737 MAX 8s and American Airlines operates 22.

Both Crashes Happened Shortly After Takeoff

Lion Air flight 610 crashed just 13 minutes after takeoff while Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 disappeared from radar only six minutes after takeoff. It's worth noting that takeoffs and landings are the riskiest parts of any flight and where the majority of accidents occur.

Pilots Struggled to Maintain A Steady Climb

While we are still waiting for the final report from the Lion Air crash, it seems that a malfunction in the aircraft's angle of attack sensor mistook the normal takeoff climb as dangerous and forced the plane to pitch downward 26 different times.

Granular FlightRadar24 data showing the elevation and vertical speed of Lion Air flight 610 until its final moments.
Granular FlightRadar24 data showing the elevation and vertical speed of Lion Air flight 610 until its final moments.

It's unclear at this time if this system played any part in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Investigators are likely to focus on the angle of attack sensor and the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) -- which forces the plane's nose down if it detects what it deems an unsafe angle with the ground -- as a potential cause. Initial data released by flight tracking website FlightRadar24 indicates that the pilots of flight 302 also struggled to initiate a normal climb after takeoff from Addis Ababa.

Credit: FlightRadar24.
Credit: FlightRadar24.

First Flights of the Day

It's unlikely that this is relevant to the cause of either crash, but it's interesting that both crashes involved the aircraft's first flight of the day. Lion Air flight 610 took off at 6:20am and lost contact at 6:33am. Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 lifted off at 8:38am before losing contact at 8:44am.

However, Lion Air's 737 MAX (registration PK-LQP) sat overnight in Jakarta for around seven hours before its flight. The Ethiopian aircraft had just arrived a couple of hours earlier from a red-eye flight from Johannesburg (JNB).

Weather Does NOT Seem To Be a Factor

In both the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes, weather doesn't seem to have played any role. Indonesian meteorologists reported clear weather, light winds and good visibility in the area when the doomed Lion Air aircraft passed through. The same seems to be the case in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The METeorological Aerodrome Report (METAR) for Addis Ababa airport indicated light winds, good visibility and scattered clouds.

For more information, read TPG's full coverage of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crash and aftermath:

Featured image by Stephen Brashear