New Satellite Network Offers Clues Into Boeing 737 Max Crashes

Clues linking the recent Boeing 737 Max plane disaster to a prior, October 2018 crash came from outer space.

A new reported reveals that a satellite network is capable of tracking planes across the world, tracked the flight path of the Boeing 737 Max that crashed last Sunday. This data was critical in convincing the United States to ground the jet, following the lead of other countries around the world.

The FAA was convinced by the erratic, six minute flight of the Ethiopian Airlines plane, finding that it was close enough to an October 29th crash of another 737 Max off of the coast of Indonesia to "warrant concerns". After the data was reviewed, "it became clear -- to all parties, actually -- that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight," according to the agency's Acting Administrator, Daniel Elwell .

Marc Garneau, Canada's transport minister, also used satellite tracking to make his determination to ground the 737 Max.

The company that provides the flight tracking data is Aireon LLC - it was formed in 2012 by Iridium Communications and Nav Canada, a nonprofit entity that guides air traffic in Canada. Aireon will introduce a new commercial airline tracking service this week. Don Thoma, Aireon’s chief executive officer, said in an interview last month: "We now have a global picture of all aircraft. It’s finally real. It’s finally here."

This company shared the data with the United States NTSB and FAA, as well as several European authorities and various African aviation authorities. Initial tracks of the plane from an Ethiopian ground station "weren’t consistent with how aircraft fly and weren’t credible". It was only after authorities reviewed the Aireon data that concerns were raised.

October's Lion Air 610 crash experienced more than "two dozen short dips shortly after takeoff" according to the article. Indonesian investigators said that the plane was automatically commanded to dive because of software known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The software misinterpreted the plane as being in danger of losing lift on its wings.

Boeing put MCAS in its planes as a protection against an aerodynamic stall, but in the case of the October flight, a sensor malfunction signaled that the plane was in danger when it wasn’t, causing it to dive automatically. Rather than switch off the motor triggering the dives, the pilots tried to counteract it with their controls until it dove into the sea.

The Ethiopian flight showed similar "highly unusual descents followed by climbs". 

Peter Goelz, a former managing director at the NTSB said: "It certainly puts a magnifying glass on the MCAS system. There’s an implication that there were two similar accidents and that it likely involved the interaction of the MCAS system with the flight of the aircraft."

Kevin Durkin, an aviation lawyer, said: "If you have a defective product and it turns out Boeing knew about it, this could easily expose them to punitive damages. The standard is whether the company engaged in conduct with a 'conscious indifference to the safety of others'."

Beyond just legal damages, however, is the reputational that Boeing will likely suffer: as noted earlier, in a worst case scenario, some $600 billion in Boeing 737 Max orders could be at risk should prospective be put off by how Boeing has handled the two, seemingly linked disasters.