CNN has gained access to the flight simulator and manual used to train the pilots of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed earlier this month and killed all 157 on board.
The Boeing 737 Max 8 simulator is the only one of its kind in Ethiopia. It is where the already-experienced pilots of the ill-fated flight were trained, according to the airline.
Flight 302 was the second fatal Max 8 crash within six months, after a Lion Air flight carrying 189 people crashed into the Java Sea last year shortly after take-off. Investigations into both crashes have focused on a new feature on the Max 8 planes—the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS)—and whether pilots had sufficient training with it.
At the Ethiopian Airlines’ aviation academy in Addis Ababa, roughly 4,000 pilots-in-training spend years learning the ropes, and veteran captains catch up on new systems twice annually.
In the facility, simulator cockpits lurch and weave on tripods, giving trainees the opportunity to safely re-create flight conditions of all sorts. There are seven at the facility representing the different aircraft in the Ethiopian Airlines’ fleet. Next to the Boeing 777 and Airbus simulators is the Max 8, where a green sign reads “training session in progress.” A single simulator session lasts four hours.
Chief Pilot and Vice President of Flight Operations Yohannes HaileMariam is at the helm of our simulated flight. Everything during the re-creation is designed to be as real as possible, including videos of runways and airports around the world that play on the screens, simulating the cockpit’s wind screen. Guided by HaileMariam, our simulated flight rises and is airborne for 15 minutes before gliding to a stop.
During our simulated flight, there is no sign of a downward tug on the plane’s nose, a concern at the center of investigations into the two crashes. The 737 Max 8’s MCAS lowers the plane’s nose when a sensor detects that the aircraft is at risk of stalling.
In the Lion Air crash, the MCAS forced the plane’s nose down more than 24 times before it finally hit water, according to a preliminary investigation by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, which also found the system was responding to a faulty sensor. Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam have said that there are “similarities” between the two crashes.
GebreMariam told CNN earlier this month that the Max 8 simulator cannot replicate the MCAS system.
The Max 8 flight manual shown to CNN does not refer to the MCAS system by name. A source with knowledge of the aircraft told CNN that there is no mention of the MCAS in any of the plane’s flight manuals, which are considered a bible of sorts to pilots and crew, and often used to trouble-shoot emergencies.
Although the system is not explicitly addressed in the manual, the FAA has described the company’s training requirements as sufficient nevertheless.
In the wake of the Lion Air crash, Boeing released a bulletin advising airlines about how to respond to sensor issues. Six months later, after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Boeing also issued a statement noting that its Max 8 flight manual “outlines an existing procedure to safely handle the unlikely event of erroneous data coming from an angle of attack (AOA) sensor,” which feeds data to the MCAS system.
The company on Wednesday announced a software update that would add new safeguards to the MCAS system, and said it would include more information about that updated system in the plane’s manual. After receiving a briefing from Boeing about the software updates, two top American Airlines pilots told reporters they felt confident in the 737 Max model.