China and 3 other nations suspend Boeing 737 MAX flights after crash in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Airlines accident scene
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam visits the accident scene. (Ethiopian Airlines Photo via Twitter)

Update for 9:27 a.m. PT March 11: Airlines in China and three other countries have suspended flights of their Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets in light of Sunday’s catastrophic crash in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Airlines reported today that both of the “black boxes” from the 737-8 that crashed — the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder — have been recovered. However, The Associated Press quoted an unnamed airline official as saying that one of the recorders was partially damaged. “We will see what we can retrieve from it,” the official told AP.

Sunday’s crash killed all 157 people aboard the plane, including at least 21 U.N. workers. Many of those workers were heading to an environmental conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

It was the second fatal accident involving the 737-8 model in less than five months. The earlier crash killed 189 people on a Lion Air flight in Indonesia.

In a statement, China’s Civil Aviation Administration said it was issuing its suspension notice “in view of the fact that the two air crashes were newly delivered Boeing 737-8 aircraft, and they all occurred in the takeoff phase.”

The agency said it would consult with Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and let Chinese airlines know when flights can be resumed.

Separately, Ethiopian Airlines, which has four 737 MAX 8’s remaining after Sunday’s crash, said it would “ground all B-737-MAX fleet … until further notice.” Indonesia grounded all of its 737-8 jets for inspections. And Cayman Airlines said it was suspending operations of its two 737 MAX 8 planes “until more information is received.”

Boeing is participating in the Ethiopia crash investigation but said it had no new guidance for airplane operators:

The crash forced the postponement of Wednesday’s rollout ceremony for Boeing’s widebody 777X model at its factory in Everett, Wash.

“Boeing is deeply saddened by the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accident and our focus is on supporting our customer,” company spokesman Paul Bergman said in an email. “In light of this, we are postponing the 777X external debut on March 13 and the related media events.  We will look for an opportunity to mark the new plane with the world in the near future.”

Boeing’s share price was down more than 7 percent in midday trading.

Previously: Ethiopian Airlines said one of its Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets crashed Sunday, just minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa’s airport en route to Nairobi, Kenya, killing all 157 people aboard.

It was the second fatal crash involving a recently delivered 737 MAX 8, following the loss of a Lion Air jet with 189 aboard last Oct. 29.

Although it’s too early to speculate about the cause, the fact that two recently delivered 737 MAX 8 jets have been involved in catastrophic accidents during an early phase of flight is drawing attention from analysts.

Leeham News and Analysis noted that the crash “is raising more intense questions — and speculation than usual after a crash because it comes in the wake of the Lion Air 737-8 crash last year.”

“But be cautious about drawing conclusions at this stage,” Leeham’s Scott Hamilton wrote. “Until the black boxes are recovered, information is limited.”

At a news conference in Ethiopia, Tewolde GebreMariam, the group CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, also counseled caution. He said Boeing and Ethiopia’s Accident Investigation Bureau would take part in the crash investigation. The U.S. National Transportation Board said it was sending four investigators to support their Ethiopian counterparts, with assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration and GE. Kenyan investigators were on their way as well.

In a statement, Boeing said it was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew,” extended its sympathy and confirmed that it would send a technical team to assist in the investigation.

Ethiopian Airlines said Flight 302 was carrying 149 passengers and eight crew members, representing 35 nationalities. Eight Americans were said to be aboard.

The airline said the flight had arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, earlier in the day from Johannesburg, South Africa, and headed out for Nairobi at 8:38 a.m. local time, flown by a senior captain with more than 8,000 cumulative flight hours.

GebreMariam said the pilot reported difficulties just after takeoff from Bole International Airport. The pilot reportedly sought, and was given, permission to return to the airport — but contact was lost at 8:44 a.m., six minutes into the flight.

The plane smashed into the ground violently in an area about 20 miles to the southeast, near the town of Bishoftu. A photo from Ethiopian Airlines showed GebreMariam at the crash scene, surrounded by wreckage and disturbed earth.

At first blush, the circumstances seem similar to those of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia. In that case, pilots reported difficulties maintaining level flight on their 737 MAX 8 just minutes after takeoff. Soon afterward, the plane took a high-speed, catastrophic dive into the Java Sea.

The preliminary results of the Lion Air investigation suggest that an automatic flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, may have played a role in that incident. The MCAS system is a safeguard that’s meant to keep the 737 MAX from stalling under extreme aerodynamic conditions, but investigators surmised that the system was getting spurious data from sensors that measure air flow over the wings.

Boeing says pilots have a procedure that can quickly resolve such an issue, but that procedure was not followed by the Lion Air pilots. The Lion Air accident focused heightened attention on the MCAS system, raising pilots’ awareness about the control issue and how to resolve it.

Records show that the plane involved in Sunday’s crash had its first flight last October and was added to Ethiopian Airlines’ fleet in November. It was among five 737 MAX 8’s that Boeing has delivered to the airline, out of a batch of 30 ordered in 2014. The airline said the plane “underwent a rigorous first check maintenance” in February.

In his cautionary posting on Leeham’s News and Analysis, Hamilton said investigators are likely to consider a wide range of factors, including the MCAS issue plus mechanical failure, human error, weather conditions and potential sabotage.

“It should be noted that Ethiopian is considered one of the best airlines in the world and the best in Africa,” he wrote. “It’s got a good safety record and service is considered very good. This is in contrast to the spotty safety record of Lion Air.”

This is an updated version of a report that was first published at 12:47 p.m. PT March 10.