The Time Traveler: Air crash investigation

15 March 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
Every Sunday, it’s my ritual to watch Air Crash Investigation on National Geographic Channel.
Some may say this is a morbid fascination or disturbing for a frequent air traveler (as well as time traveler, of course). I don’t agree.
I’m fascinated by the way that the science of investigating airline tragedies has develop to such an extent that it is now possible more often than not to pin down the exact cause of a crash.
It intrigues me that many people fear aviation. But continous improvement and tight regulation have in fact ensured that flying is statistically far safer than traveling by car.
This Sunday, though, I was glued to the news channels as they announced Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 had crashed shortly after take-off on a routine flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, killing all 157 people on board. An unspeakable tragedy.
Right now, no-one knows what happened, except that the last communication from the pilot to Air Traffic Control indicated that he was facing difficulties and wanted to return to the airport. Then nothing.
What I know from my mild obsession with air crashes is that the accident will be thoroughgoingly investigated, both by the Ethiopian and Kenyan authorities, and by the Airline and its Star Alliance international partners. As the plane, a Boeing 737-MAX, is manufactured in America, the US National Transportation Safety Board will doubtless send its experts as well.
I can also tell you, because even a simple google search will reveal this, that Ethiopian Airlines has an excellent safety record. Its last major crash was way back in 1996, and that was due to a hijacking.
(Video footage of the dramatic ditching of that plane in the sea off the Comoros Islands, after the terrorists dithered and its fuel ran out, is still available online).
What is also known is that, although it is too early to make any pronouncements on this case, the Boeing 737-MAX has been involved in other cashes recently, and its newly introduced flight-control computer software has been blamed.
Also, by the by, Ethiopian is known for its excellent customer service, unlike some airlines (Air Namibia, cough, cough), and is popular because it flies all over Africa, not just between one country and its former colonial power. (In the case of Ethiopia, of course, make that attempted former colonial power, and eat our collective shorts, Mister Mussolini!)
To hear some global media pundits talk on TV this week, you would think that Ethiopian Airlines is a failed airline, running a few rusted old planes out of a failed state. Worse still some news anchors have conjured up all the worst stereotypes about tin-pot banana republics while talking about African aviation ‘in general’.
I may be an amateur airplane buff, but I’m a professional media analyst, and some of the behavior of the world’s media in relation to this tragedy has been less than stellar.
Respected media outlets that should know better, such as Associated Press, led with the numbers of Brits, Americans and Canadians killed, with Kenyans and Ethiopians (the majority of deaths) a mere footnote, not mentioned in social media posts at all.
Even if investigation does reveal some monumental cock-up at Ethiopian Airlines, it would hardly be the first in the aviation world.
The list of those includes at a lot of airlines in the West. I remember that story of Air Canada flight 143 in 1983, for example, which ran out of fuel mid-air because, I kid you not, the plane used metric measurements, whereas the duffers filling it up at the airport were still working in old-school pounds and ounces.
I’d bet my bottom dollar media people didn’t go around talking about the poor safety record of North American planes as a whole back then, and I really doubt if one or two Kenyans on the flight would have made headline news at the expense of Canadians or US citizens.
You may have guessed that traveling by plane is somehow special to me. The sky really is the great blue beyond. But even up there, it seems whiteness is a force to be reckoned with.
Hugh Ellis is a frequent flyer and a journalism lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views expressed here are personal views. Follow him on Twitter: @ellis_hugh


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

Contact Us

Windhoek Observer House
c/o John Meinert & Rossini Street
Windhoek West
Tel: +264 61 411 800
Fax: +264 61 226 098