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Crash Wreckage Yields Clue as Work Begins on 737’s Black Boxes

By Bloomberg 15 March 2019
Caption
Investigators with the U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) look over debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 on March 12, 2019 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Photographer: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

A screw-like device found in the wreckage of the Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 that crashed Sunday in Ethiopia has provided investigators with an early clue into what happened, as work begins in France to decode the black boxes recovered from the scene.

The so-called jackscrew, used to set the trim that raises and lowers the plane’s nose, indicates the jet was configured to dive, based on a preliminary review, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The evidence helped persuade U.S. regulators to ground the model, said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss the inquiry.

France’s aviation safety agency BEA received the cockpit voice and data recorders on Thursday for decoding, while investigators on the scene near Addis Ababa continue to sift through the plane’s wreckage. The second crash in five months has thrown Boeing into a crisis, sending the shares plunging and raising questions about the future of its best-selling jet.

Separately, the New York Times reported that doomed Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 to Nairobi was in trouble almost immediately after takeoff as it lurched up and down by hundreds of feet at a time. The captain asked in a panicky voice to turn back only three minutes into the flight as the plane accelerated to abnormal speeds, the newspaper reported, citing a person who reviewed the jet’s air traffic communications.

“Break break, request back to home,” he told air traffic controllers as they scrambled to divert two other flights approaching the airport. The aircraft had accelerated far beyond what is considered standard practice. All contact between air controllers and the aircraft was lost five minutes after it took off, the report said.

Read: Black Box Politics: How National Pride Intrudes on Crash Probes

Federal Aviation Administration chief Daniel Elwell on Wednesday cited unspecified evidence found at the crash scene as part of the justification for the agency to reverse course and temporarily halt flights of Boeing’s largest selling aircraft. Up until then, American regulators had held off even as nation after nation had grounded the model.

Boeing shares have lost 12 percent, or $28 billion in market value, since Ethiopian flight 302 went down on March 10. The shares were trading at $372.20 in early U.S. trading Friday, little changed from Thursday’s close.

Read more: Chart on Boeing’s drop in market value

The jackscrew, combined with a newly obtained satellite flight track of the plane, convinced the FAA that there were similarities to the Oct. 29 crash of the same Max model off the coast of Indonesia. In the earlier accident, a safety feature on the Boeing aircraft was repeatedly trying to put the plane into a dive as a result of a malfunction.

Read More: Black Box Politics: How National Pride Intrudes on Crash Probes

All 157 people aboard died after the plane crashed near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The jet’s flight recorders are in France, where they are being analyzed at the BEA’s laboratories. The agency posted a photo of the mangled hardware and has yet to comment on any progress on getting the data. “The investigation process has started in Paris,” Ethiopian Airlines said in a Twitter post on Friday.

The discovery of the jackscrew was earlier reported by NBC News. DM

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