Something seems terribly wrong with the story of Ethiopian flight 302. I blogged about this last week, after having a few emails from various people suggesting that perhaps the MCAS artificial intelligence system on the craft was either deficient, or perhaps had even been hacked. Thus far, the consensus on the story seems to be that this system is opaque and not intuitive, and that there are deficiencies in the pilot's manual.
What concerns me however are the strangeness of airline accidents lately. The disappearance of Malaysia Air flight 370 continues to daunt any explanation (and search), and was followed by the apparent downing of Malaysia air flight 17 over the Ukraine. Then came the crash of Lyon Air flight 610 in Indonesia, the first of the Boeing 737-Max 8's to crash, followed now by Ethiopian Air's flight 302. As most readers here are probably aware, the aircraft has now been grounded, and reportedly Boeing is working on a "fix" to its MCAS system, which is supposed to automatically adjust the trim of the aircraft due to unusually forward-mounted engines on its wings... or... something like that.
But there's two articles that make me wonder if we're getting the full story. I'm not a pilot, of course, and I know nothing about flying (other than that I don't like it and won't do it), however these two articles, taken together, give me pause and make me wonder if there is something more going on than meets the eye. This is one of those "you tell me stories," because to my amateur's eye, something is quite amiss. The first article was sent by Mr. E.G., and the graphs alone make one rather sick to the stomach, imagining what those poor people on that doomed flight were experiencing:
If one looks at the graphs of the vertical speed of the Lyon flight and the Ethiopian Air flight, they are quite similar in that the speed increases and decreases seem all out of whack. But what's interesting is that we're not being shown the data for the last half of Ethtiopian flight 302's short flight into disaster. The flight appears to have been on some kind of roller coaster ride:
According to officials with Ethiopian Airlines, the crew of flight 302 told air traffic control they they were experiencing "flight control" problems just a few minutes before contact was lost. Pilot Yared Getachew - who had more than 8,000 hours of flying experience, reported the initial "flight control" problem in a calm voice within one minute of departure.
According to the radar, the aircraft was flying far below the minimum safe altitude recommended during takeoff. Within two minutes, the plane had climbed to a safer altitude, and the pilot reported that he wanted to remain on a straight course to 14,000 feet.
The plane then proceeded to rapidly climb and fall by hundreds of feet while flying unusually fast, according to the Times. Air traffic controllers "started wondering out loud what the flight was doing."
The plane's trajectory was so erratic that two other Ethiopian flights - 613 and 629, where ordered to remain at higher altitudes.
While the controllers were instructing the other planes to keep their distance, a panicked Captain Getachew interrupted just three minutes into their flight and requested to turn back as the plane accelerated to even higher speeds well beyond the plane's safety limits.
So far, so bad. As the story goes, all of this information seems to support the "problems-in-the-AI-MCAS" system hypothesis. But then there's this tidbit of information:
A minute later, it disappeared from the radar while flying over a restricted military zone.
Ordinarily this bit of information wouldn't make me think twice. But then one turns to the second article, shared by Mr. S.D.:
In this article, there is reference to a statement by an eyewitness, who shortly before the actual crash saw something very strange:
The Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft went down in clear weather just minutes after takeoff. It “rotated two times in the air” with smoke coming from the back before crashing, said witness Tamrat Abera. (Emphasis added)
What's interesting here is the implication that this witness may have seen something very strange during that portion of the flight about which we otherwise seem to have a curious lack of information. What this witness describes is itself something very odd: the aircraft apparently rotated two times... the problem here is what this language actually means: did the aircraft do loops in the air like a looping rollercoaster? That's rather difficult to believe if indeed the witness saw this just before the crash. Or did it do a spiraling corkscrew? or was it in a spiraling nosedive? Or worse, was the fuselage being twisted back and forth along its central axis in some sort of torsion effect? Ordinarily I'd opt for "spiraling nosedive", but the language is ambiguous enough to allow for other, more disturbing possibilities.
Then there's the matter of the smoke "coming from the back," meaning, perhaps, from the back of the fuselage, which would again be rather odd since the engines are mounted on the wings; so it sounds as if something else might have been on fire other than the engines. Thus, if there's smoke coming from the fuselage, what might be burning? Hydraulics from the control systems for flaps and so on? If so, then that means there might be another culprit than the MCAS system, and it is obvious that one could not rule out foul play. In any case, all this "rotating" and "smoking" is taking place while the aircraft "disappears from the radar while flying over a restricted military zone", making me wonder if the strange behavior described by the witness might be the result of some technology being employed against the aircraft, or if indeed a bomb or some other method of destruction had been placed on it. Who knows?
I certainly do not know, but it seems to me that something smells here, and it has my suspicion meter in the orange-to-red zone. My guess is that this witness, cited in the second article, may have an important key, if not the key to it. And accordingly my guess is we'll hear very little - if anything at all - from that witness by way of clarifying those strange remarks in the future. I could be wrong, I hope I'm wrong. But in the meantime, we're in the presence of a mystery, and I want very much to hear more detail from that witness, as I do from recovered black boxes.
See you on the flip side...