The software system, called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), automatically activated when an AOA sensor indicated the plane's nose was drifting too high and in danger of instability. MCAS would adjust the tail of the plane, which in turn would push the nose down. Had Boeing instead required that both AOA sensors needed to be in agreement before MCAS could be activated, it may have prevented the deadly consequences that followed.
When Flight 302 reached an altitude of 8,100 feet, MCAS received the faulty sensor data and forced the jet into a nosedive. Captain Getachew struggled to raise the plane. MCAS automatically forced it down, again and again. The pilots were facing the same chaotic circumstances that befell Lion Air Flight 610, with the same type of Boeing plane, a little over four months earlier in Indonesia. In that crash, the stick shaker vibrated loudly, control readings went awry, an AOA sensor falsely alerted, and for twelve long minutes the bewildered captain was in a tug-of-war with his own plane. Lion Air Flight 610 rose and fell twenty-one times before plunging into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board.
After the Lion Air crash, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive, warning pilots that a faulty AOA sensor could activate the automated "nose-down trim" system on the 737 Max 8 and 9 planes. Boeing also issued a bulletin directing pilots' attention to existing procedures for handling erroneous AOA data: They could flip a series of switches on the control panel to power off the system and stop the "nose-down" command. Although MCAS was not mentioned by name, it was the first time pilots learned that such a system even existed on the new 737 Max planes.
First Officer Mohammed flipped the switches that powered down MCAS, as directed. Captain Getachew pulled on his control column to manually lift the nose, but aerodynamic forces acting against the tail of the plane made it impossible. "Pull with me," Captain Getachew told the first officer. Together, they struggled against 180 pounds of force. In desperation, they turned the system back on in an attempt to use electrical power to regain control of the tail. But then MCAS kicked in again. Six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa, Flight 302 plunged toward a barren field at a speed of 575 miles per hour. The impact was so forceful, rescue helicopters had trouble finding the crash site because the plane was buried thirty-three feet below the surface. No one survived.
The plight of Flight 302 gripped the world's attention not only because of its tragic end but also because of its eerie similarity to the Lion Air crash. There was a pervasive sense of mistrust in the planes and, soon thereafter, in the decision-making processes at Boeing and the FAA.
Boeing's and the FAA's responses to the crisis diverged dramatically from the reactions of governments worldwide—and from reality. On Monday, March 11, the day after the crash, Boeing released a statement expressing its condolences to the families and loved ones of Flight 302, while also insisting that the 737 Max was a "safe aircraft" to fly. The FAA issued a "Continued Airworthiness Notification," saying that it was examining data, and would take "appropriate action if the data indicates the need to do so," but it did not yet have information "to draw any conclusions or take any actions." However, the two incidents were alarming enough that Ethiopian Airlines immediately grounded its fleet of Max planes, the Civil Aviation Administration of China ordered all ninety-six Max planes in its country grounded, and other airlines and countries quickly followed suit.
By Tuesday, March 12, two days after the crash, the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore had banned Max aircraft from flying in their airspace, and airlines in Oman, Norway, and South Korea all grounded their fleets. But not in the United States, where Boeing was, at the time, America's biggest manufacturing exporter. In 2018, Boeing marked a record $100 billion in total revenue. Boeing employed 145,000 people worldwide and did business with thirteen thousand domestic suppliers, including companies like General Electric, the maker of its Max engines.
On Tuesday morning, Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg made a personal call to President Donald Trump to assure the president there was no cause for alarm, that "the MAX aircraft is safe."
Watching the news reports, I was horrified and heartbroken for the victims, their families and loved ones. I also saw this tragedy as a web of failed decision-making and disregard for ethics. In the days following the accident, I continued to be alarmed that the same decision-makers seemed not to take full responsibility for their decisions. Then I turned my focus to our decision: When and under what circumstances should we fly on a 737 Max plane? How could we possibly assess the risk? Muilenburg would later tell a reporter that he would "absolutely" take that risk and put his own family on one of the planes. But for me, the answer was absolutely not.
By Wednesday morning, March 13, more than sixty countries had banned the Boeing jets in their airspace. But the FAA had not budged from its position. In a statement posted the evening before, the agency said it was still reviewing data, but had "no basis to order grounding" and no data "that would warrant action."