Black Box Politics: How National Pride Intrudes on Crash Probes

By Alan Levin and Julie Johnsson | March 15, 2019

The EgyptAir flight to Cairo had barely cleared the New York coast when it mysteriously dove into the ocean. Cockpit recordings eventually made clear what happened: A copilot being summoned to Egypt to be reprimanded had killed himself and the other 216 people aboard.

That conclusion, couched in diplomatic language in a report by U.S. accident investigators, didn’t satisfy the Egyptian authorities. Assisted by a team of Washington-based advisers, the Egyptians wrote a separate accident report concluding that flaws with the Boeing Co. 767 were to blame for the 1999 crash.

Signs of international tension have also emerged in the high-stakes investigation of the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max on Sunday. More than 50 countries grounded the plane in a rebuke to American authorities who counseled waiting for more evidence. And Ethiopian officials pointedly sought experts from anywhere but the U.S. to analyze the black-box voice and data recorders recovered from the wreckage of the 737 Max.

Work to download the data is expected to begin Friday — five days after the jet went down.

“Air crashes can be hugely sensitive for governments and safety agencies, not just airlines,” said Paul Hayes, safety director at the Ascend aviation-analytics arm of London-based Cirium. “That’s partly because of national cultural differences in areas such as suicide, but regulators can be very defensive if they think their decisions or competency is being called into question.”

Under international treaty, the country where an airplane crash occurs typically oversees an investigation. Other nations may participate as representatives of the manufacturer of the plane, as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is doing in Ethiopia. Yet that hasn’t kept politics and national sensitivities from intruding in the forensic work of sifting debris and interpreting data to figure out what went wrong.

“You get false theories,” said Roger Cox, a former investigator with the NTSB whose work took him to many nations to assist after crashes. “You get grandstanding. You get national pride.”

Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 has transfixed the world as nation after nation grounded Boeing Co.’s best-selling jet model despite reassurances from the manufacturer and American authorities. On Wednesday the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration relented and ordered a halt to Max flights, citing new flight-track information.

Strategic Decision

Instead of sending the plane’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders directly to the NTSB’s Washington lab, Ethiopian authorities held onto them for several days and finally sent them to France for analysis.

Ethiopian Airlines says the decision was a “strategic one” after the FAA was left isolated in arguing that the American-made Max should continue flying.

“This isn’t unusual,” said Ronald Schleede, another former NTSB investigator who worked on dozens of foreign investigations. “But it is unfortunate that the recorders haven’t already been read out.”

Schleede recalled the 1996 case of an Aeroperu flight that crashed shortly after takeoff from Lima, Peru, killing all 70 people aboard. Because the plane was a relatively new Boeing 757, it was critical that investigators determine whether there was a safety issue. Once the boxes were retrieved from the seabed, Schleede said the NTSB arranged to fly them directly to Washington.

“Twelve hours from when we got them out of the water, we had them read out and we knew the cause of the accident,” he said. It turned out tape had been left covering a port on the plane used to help calculate altitude and speed, leaving the pilots with confusing instrument readings and they lost control in the darkness.

Similarly, if the Ethiopian black boxes had been read earlier it could have prompted a faster grounding of the Max if a systemic problem was revealed, Schleede said. Conversely, if the data end up showing that the Boeing plane wasn’t to blame, it could have spared millions of dollars in economic disruptions.

China Airlines

Schleede said he often had to rely on diplomacy and compromise in figuring out where to send black boxes. After a China Airlines plane crashed in 1998 in Taiwan, killing 203 people, he received a call from a local investigator. Would the U.S. agree to read out the black boxes, he was asked. The Taiwanese didn’t trust the French to read them out because the plane was an Airbus SE A300.

Schleede thought that if the NTSB took the boxes, the French might be upset, and that could interfere with future investigations. He said he arranged to have them shipped to Canada.

The nations with formalized crash investigation agencies — including the U.S., U.K., France, Australia, Canada and others — cooperate frequently and trust each other, Schleede added.

“We all get along really well,” he said. “We know each other.”

Inevitably though, suspicions arise when American investigators are called upon to investigate U.S. pilots or equipment. Cox, Schleede and several other current and former investigators said the NTSB doesn’t go easy on Boeing.

“In fact, we are very hard on them,” Cox said.

Related: Clue Linking Mysterious Boeing 737 Max Disasters Came From Space

Even when final reports aren’t released, investigators have almost always been able to discover the cause of a crash and take necessary action to ensure that flying is safe.

One of the most notorious cases creating diplomatic rifts occurred after the 1997 crash of a Silkair 737 in Indonesia. The plane had been flying from Jakarta to Singapore when it dove from cruise altitude into a river, killing all 104 aboard.

In that case, the black boxes weren’t very helpful. Both had mysteriously stopped recording before the crash. Eventually, suspicion turned to the captain, who had heavy trading losses and had recently obtained a life insurance policy.

But when Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee released its report in 2000, it concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to say what caused the crash. The NTSB, which normally goes out of its way not to comment on other nations’ work, issued its own conclusions in 2000, saying that the pilot had most likely committed murder-suicide.

Related: Two 737 Max Crashes Put Boeing’s Reputation on the Line

Ethiopian Airlines disputed Lebanon investigators who found that a series of pilot mistakes caused a 737-800 that departed from Beirut to plunge into the sea in 2010, killing 90 people. An airline press release accused Lebanon of “speculating” on the cause. The Ethiopian government, which filed a dissenting report, said the crash was due to an explosion triggered by a bomb or lightning.

After a 2016 EgyptAir crash in the Mediterranean that killed 66 people, Egyptian investigators said they discovered explosive residue on human remains. That meant the inquiry had become a criminal investigation. The French Office of Investigation and Analysis contradicted the conclusion, saying the evidence pointed strongly to a fire.

The dispute has held up a final report that could address the dangers of in-flight fires. French investigators last July issued an unusual rebuke of Egypt, saying work to continue examining evidence had been blocked.

Sometimes, leads emerge that local authorities would rather not pursue.

Cox was once sent to a Latin American country to assist an inquiry into the crash of a U.S.-registered corporate jet. Yet the host authorities seemed to have no resources to investigate and it soon become clear that the plane had been owned by a criminal organization.

“We just met that invisible wall where people weren’t cooperating very well,” he said. “The investigation just ground to a halt. We eventually just went home.”

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