FAA chief says he doesn’t know how long Boeing 737 Max planes will be grounded

An analysis by French investigators of data from the damaged “black boxes” in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 will yield initial results sometime Thursday, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration said.

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The data could address questions about whether there is a dangerous software problem with the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, now grounded by more than 40 countries and all major airlines around the world. The FAA reversed itself Wednesday, making the U.S. one of the last to order the 737 MAX grounded, following days of back-and-forth between President Donald Trump, Boeing and the FAA.

The “black boxes,” which are actually orange and house the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, arrived in France Wednesday night, three days after Sunday’s crash just outside Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. All 157 people died aboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the second 737 MAX 8 plane to be involved in a deadly crash in less than five months.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent U.S. agency that investigates transportation accidents and issues widely-respected safety recommendations, sent three additional investigators to assist in the black box analysis in France, the agency said Thursday.

The NTSB investigators are specifically trained to analyze human factors and flight crew operations, as well as the recordings, the NTSB said.

A key question is whether the plane’s autopilot system might have played a role in the Egyptian Airlines crash, as it seemed to have done in the fatal crash of an Indonesian Lion Air 737 MAX 8 last October. In that crash, it appears the pilots failed to disengage the autopilot when the plane’s nose began pitching up and down, perhaps because they were unaware of how to do so.
Complaints from at least two U.S. pilots disclosing similar problems with the autopilot function have surfaced in the aftermath of Sunday’s crash.

France’s aviation safety bureau took on analysis of the black boxes after the damage was revealed to be too extensive for Ethiopian investigators’ capabilities, but will provide the downloaded data to Ethiopia, which is leading the investigation of the crash, the NTSB said.

The acting administrator of the FAA said Thursday morning that he didn’t know when Boeing 737 Max 8 or 9 aircraft would fly again in U.S. airspace.

“We don’t know how long the planes will be grounded,” FAA head Daniel Elwell told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview.

The raw flight data initially available on Sunday and Monday didn’t match that of the Boeing 737 Max that crashed in October in Indonesia, killing all 189 people on board.

PHOTO: Daniel Elwell speaks to Good Morning America, March 14, 2019.ABC News
Daniel Elwell speaks to “Good Morning America,” March 14, 2019.

But after the data were further examined — a joint effort by Boeing, the satellite data provider and the National Transportation Safety Board — similarities emerged, Elwell said.

“When we could see the refined data,” Elwell told Stephanopoulos, “it matched too closely to the Lion Air trajectory to figure that they weren’t similar.”

PHOTO: American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 pulls into its gate after arriving at the Miami International Airport from Saint Thomas, March 13, 2019, in Miami.Joe Raedle/Getty Images
American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 pulls into its gate after arriving at the Miami International Airport from Saint Thomas, March 13, 2019, in Miami.

A proposed software fix for the 737 is “almost complete,” Elwell said.

“We expect by the end of this month all the testing will be complete, and we will authorize implementation of the fix,” Elwell added.

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