With the loss of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 offshore from Beirut on 25 January, the phenomenon of fundamentally serviceable aircraft – and all their passengers – being lost over the sea at night is becoming frightening.
Here’s a list of the main airline losses in this category since 2000. There have been seven such accidents, and together they have killed 976 people:
2010 Ethiopian Airlines 737-800, Mediterranean Sea near Beirut
2009 Yemenia Airbus A310-300, Indian Ocean near the Comoros Islands
2009 Air France A330-200, South Atlantic
2007 Adam Air 737-400, Java Sea near Sulawesi
2006 Armavia A320, Black Sea near Sochi
2004 Flash Airlines 737-300, Red Sea near Sharm el-Sheikh
2000 Gulf Air A320, Arabian Gulf near Bahrain
In some of them the cause has been established officially. Gulf Air, Armavia, Flash and Adam Air were all caused by a combination of total or partial pilot disorientation followed by a failure to control an aircraft that could have been controlled.
Yemenia is known to have hit the sea having stalled at quite low level during an attempted circling approach at night, so that could be put in the loss of control/loss of situational awareness category.
Air France was known to have suffered some specific technical anomalies, but in the absence of new information indicating the the aircraft was physically uncontrollable, the crew should have been able to maintain control but failed to do so.
And now Ethiopian Airlines. It sounds distressingly like several of the others, particularly the Flash Airlines event. In the latter, the captain was carrying out a slow turn over the sea at night, and from what he said to the copilot, he clearly had the “leans”. The aircraft went into a spiral descent and crashed. The copilot could see what was happening but left intervention too late.
We have learned from Beirut air traffic control that the aircraft was on a northerly heading soon after take-off from runway 21. We believe it was heading to a coastal way point north of Beirut, possibly with the intent of crossing Lebanon eastward, bound for Syrian airspace. There it would, presumably, have turned south toward its destination, Addis Ababa.
But the flight, still in its early northward climb, was told to turn left onto 270deg to avoid traffic inbound to land on 16. The aircraft’s left turn continued through 270deg around to 140deg, despite warnings from ATC. The crew did not respond, and radar contact was lost.
There were thunderstorms in the area, and this may turn out to be a contributory factor in what happened. But right now it looks terribly like another case of pilot disorientation over the sea at night.
This is an undeniable phenomenon now, but no-one is recognising it as such. Whenever it is finally recognised, determining more appropriate pilot training would be a priority internationally. Maybe the aviation insurance industry should start lobbying, but it’s a pity they should need to.