US Federal Aviation Administration believes Boeing 737 Max 8 is airworthy

The crash site

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has told airlines that it believes Boeing’s 737 Max 8 model to be airworthy, after two fatal crashes inside six months, the latest being the Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed six minutes after take-off on Sunday that was en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, killing all 157 people on board.

The previous one was a Lion Air 737 Max 8 that crashed in October that killed 189 and after the Ethiopian Airlines incident, some in the aviation community have called for the aircraft to be grounded pending a full investigation, prompting China, Indonesia, and Ethiopia to order their airlines to ground the jet on Monday.

Aerolineas of Argentina, Mexico’s Aeromexico and Brazil’s Gol have also suspended flights of the aircraft, but late on same Monday, the FAA issued a “continued airworthiness notification” saying the plane was safe to fly.

But other airlines kept flying the 737 Max 8 after Boeing said it was safe.

The BBC quotes US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao the FAA would “take immediate and appropriate action” if a defect was found in the plane.

But Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights.org and a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, called for the plane to be grounded, saying: “The FAA’s ‘wait and see’ attitude risks lives as well as the safety reputation of the US aviation industry.”

The Ethiopian Airlines aircraft came down near the town of Bishoftu, 60km south-east of the capital, Addis Ababa. The cause of the disaster is not clear, but the pilot had reported difficulties and asked to return to the airport.

According to reports, visibility around the airport was said to be good but air traffic monitor Flightradar24 reported that the plane’s “vertical speed was unstable after take-off”. 

The pilot was named as Senior Capt Yared Getachew, who Ethiopian Airlines said had a “commendable performance” over more than 8,000 hours in the air.

Several witnesses who worked in the farmland below the plane’s flight path told the Reuters news agency they heard loud rattling noises coming from the aircraft.

“When it was hovering, fire was following its tail, then it tried to lift its nose,” said one witness, Gadisa Benti. “When it passed over our house, the nose pointed down and the tail raised up. It went straight to the ground with its nose, it then exploded.”

Meanwhile, investigators have found the cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder  but it will be a while before the findings are made public.

The Max 8 was rolled out in 2017 and is the latest iteration of the 737 line. By the end of January, Boeing had delivered 350 of the model of 5,011 orders.

The plane that crashed was among six of 30 that Ethiopian Airlines had ordered as part of its expansion. It underwent a “rigorous first check maintenance” on 4 February, the airline said.

Following last October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia, investigators said the pilots had appeared to struggle with an automated system designed to keep the plane from stalling, a new feature of the jet.

The anti-stall system repeatedly forced the plane’s nose down, despite efforts by pilots to correct this, preliminary findings suggested. The Lion Air plane was also new and the accident happened soon after take-off.

After that accident, Boeing sent an emergency notice to airlines warning them of a problem with the anti-stall system. Boeing is expected to release a software patch to the system to deal with the issue, Reuters reports.

It is not yet clear whether the anti-stall system was the cause of Sunday’s crash. Aviation experts say other technical issues or human error cannot be discounted.

There were more than 30 nationalities on the flight, including 32 Kenyans, 18 Canadians, nine Ethiopians and nine Britons (two of whom were dual nationals travelling on non-British passports).

Among the Canadians was a family of six, originally from India. Kosha Vaidya, 37, and her husband Prerit Dixit, 45 were taking their 14-year-old daughter Ashka and 13-year-old daughter Anushka to Nairobi – where Kosha was born – along with her parents, Pannagesh Vaidya, 73, and Hansini Vaidya, 67.

There were also eight Italians, eight Chinese, eight Americans, seven French citizens, six Egyptians, five Germans, four Indians and four people from Slovakia on board.

At least 21 passengers were affiliated with the UN and were travelling to a session of its Environment Assembly in Nairobi.