Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ethiopian Officials Release Preliminary Report


What went wrong in the crash of a Boeing 737 Max plane in Ethiopia that killed all 157 people on board? We have some answers this morning. Safety investigators in Ethiopia released their report today, and they concluded that the pilots didn't do anything wrong. They followed the instructions from Boeing on how to operate the plane, although they still couldn't control the aircraft when it started to go down. This was the second crash involving that line of Boeing planes in five months, and it prompted countries around the world to ground all 737 Max planes.

NPR's Russell Lewis has been covering the story and joins us now. Russell, Boeing had been suggesting recently that, at least in part, the reason for the crash could have been user error. This report by Ethiopian investigators seems to clear the pilots of any wrongdoing. Right?

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: On the surface, yes. It is a preliminary report. We don't expect the final report to be released perhaps for another year. So obviously, there are still some findings that will change. There are still some analyses that obviously still need to happen. But this is the preliminary report. And essentially, it said that the takeoff - it appeared very normal. But what happened not long afterwards was that the nose of the plane pitched down violently towards the earth.

And really, here is the key part, which Ethiopian Airlines actually tweeted out in response as this news conference was still going on. And it was this - that the pilots had been following the recommendations that Boeing had put in the checklists and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. But it was still not enough to prevent this plane from crashing.

MARTIN: So a lot of the focus in the past few weeks has been on this new flight control software that was in these planes. Does the report mention this at all?

LEWIS: Not really. And in fact, it didn't really quite come out, you know, in this report. Reporters at this news conference in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, did ask about it today. But it was sort of a bit beyond the scope of what they were talking about. But what, you know, you're seeing in some of the statements that are coming out is that this plane was - had a persistence of nose-diving when it - before it crashed and that the crew was following the recommendations that Boeing had put in place.

And I think, you know, that this certainly increases the pressure on Boeing. And I think it also calls into question, though, why wasn't the Boeing 737 Max fleet grounded after that first crash - the Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October? I mean...

MARTIN: And then it took the United States several days to ground these planes while other countries went ahead with it.

LEWIS: Yeah, that's right. You know? And clearly, Boeing knows it has a problem. It was working on the software fix to try to fix what went wrong in the Indonesia crash in October. And on the surface, it seemingly appears as the same thing that happened last month in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, you know, a crash that killed 157 people. And as we say, it puts the pressure firmly back on Boeing and, you know, by default, on the Federal Aviation Administration, you know, the regulator in the United States.

MARTIN: Russell, stay with us. I want to bring in another voice to the conversation, Peter Goelz, who will have a view on the federal government's role here. He's the former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Mr. Goelz, thanks for being with us.

PETER GOELZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What do you see as the single most important finding in this report?

GOELZ: Well, that the pilots followed the procedures as outlined by Boeing and confirmed by the FAA following Lion Air. I mean, it was kind of an arrogant directive, I think, that Boeing put out after the accident, which essentially said, read the manual and fly it and you should be OK. Well, apparently you're not. And that is a big deal, not only for Boeing but for the FAA that signed off on it.

MARTIN: Right. So does this mean that responsibility for at least the Ethiopian Airlines crash, based on this report, lies squarely at the feet of Boeing?

GOELZ: Well, we don't know that yet because, as was indicated, the report was very preliminary. And I think - there are a couple of other interesting things. One is they discounted the idea that there was a bird-strike that threw the angle of attack indicator off. And they discounted that the takeoff was in any way unusual. But clearly, the spotlight is turned on ever brighter on both Boeing and the certification procedures.

MARTIN: But like Russell mentioned, they had already been working on this software glitch. I mean, do you see that as something that's a far bigger problem than Boeing is actually acknowledging?

GOELZ: Well, I think that the FAA just announced that they're going to have a certification commission that's going to review process. This plane is not going to get back in the air right away. And the fix, I think, is going to be reviewed extensively before anything is approved. I think we've got a ways to go.

MARTIN: I mean, the hard thing is - and I'll put this to both of you - there are a lot of different factors that go into trying to explain why an airplane crash happens, right? Russell?

GOELZ: It's off - yeah, Russell.

LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. You know, in any aviation accident, it is not one thing that causes a crash; it is many small things that cause a crash. And it all sort of comes together. And so you look at pilot training. You look at, you know, how the pilots were - you know, during that flight. Were they overly fatigued? Did they get enough rest the night before? They look at the aircraft. They look at the air traffic controllers.

There are many things that sort of play into it. And it is not one thing. It is many, many things, you know, that play into it, which is why these investigations take so long. But clearly, many questions about Boeing and about its fleet, you know, continue to bubble up.

MARTIN: What kind of long-term damage has this done to Boeing, do you think, Peter?

GOELZ: I think Boeing is in a very difficult position. You know, it is in a highly competitive situation with Airbus. They brought the 737 Max to the market on a very expedited basis. This has damaged their reputation, and they are going to have to work hard to regain their position. And it's also damaged the FAA, frankly. And they are going to have to work hard to regain their gold standard as the regulatory agency of record for the world.

MARTIN: And you say damaged the FAA because there have been questions about whether the FAA delegated too much to Boeing to do its own safety checks.

GOELZ: Absolutely. There's numerous investigations that are going to go on to see whether Boeing had the capability internally to do a rigorous review of this complex system. And it's not clear that they did.

MARTIN: Just real quick - Russell, has Boeing given a response to this report yet?

LEWIS: Yeah. In fact, I reached out to Boeing this morning to sort of get their take on it. And I got a terse six-word answer for them. And it was this - we are reviewing the preliminary findings. That was it.

MARTIN: NPR's Russell Lewis. We also were in conversation with Peter Goelz, former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Thanks to both of you. We appreciate it.

LEWIS: You're welcome.

GOELZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.