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Pilot in Fatal Ethiopian Plane Crash Reported Flight Control Problems

Framed photographs of seven crew members are displayed at a memorial service held by an association of Ethiopian airline pilots, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 11, 2019.

The pilot of the American-made jetliner that crashed and killed 157 people Sunday reported flight-control problems, while pilots in the U.S. filed at least five complaints recently about controlling the plane.

The new Boeing 737-Max 8 aircraft has crashed twice in less than five months, killing nearly 350 people.

Ethiopian Airlines spokesman Asrat Begashaw said the pilot of the Boeing 737-Max 8 aircraft reported the problems Sunday and asked to return to Adis Ababa. "In fact, he was allowed to turn back," Begashaw told Reuters.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg confirmed the pilot's problems in interviews with The Wall Street Journal and CNN.

Pilots in the U.S. submitted at least five complaints about the aircraft in recent months, some of which appear to involve the same anti-stall system, according to a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration database. Complaints are filed anonymously to improve the reporting of safety problems.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is resisting growing domestic and international calls to ground the plane, even as Trump has discussed the issue Tuesday in a phone call with Muilenburg. Muilenburg reassured Trump the aircraft is safe, company and White House officials confirmed.

Muilenburg called Trump, who has developed a relationship with Muilenburg since Trump was elected, after the president complained on Twitter that planes "are becoming far too complex to fly." The call was in the process of being scheduled prior to Tuesday.

Boeing lobby and donations

FILE - Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is interviewed on the Fox Business Network, in New York, Nov. 13, 2018.
FILE - Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is interviewed on the Fox Business Network, in New York, Nov. 13, 2018.

Boeing donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural fund and the two men met later at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to discuss the new Air Force One presidential aircraft that Boeing is constructing.

Trump applauded Muilenburg last June at a National Space Council meeting, calling the CEO a "friend of mine. A great guy."

As a key military contractor, Boeing is a major lobbying force in Washington. Boeing spent $15 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Boeing also has close ties with the U.S. government, particularly with the Federal Aviation Administration.

After decades of using outside experts to certify the safety of aircraft, the FAA changed its approach in 2005 with the creation of a new program through which Boeing and other U.S. aircraft manufacturers could select their own employees to help certify their planes.

US, Canada holding out

About two-thirds of the Boeing 737-Max 8, the company's newest plane, were pulled from service within two days of Sunday's crash, with the U.S. and Canada being the only countries defying the international aviation community.

As of late Tuesday, FlyDubai was the only large airline outside North America still flying the planes.

Airlines and the number of grounded Boeing 737-MAX 8 airplanes
Airlines and the number of grounded Boeing 737-MAX 8 airplanes

U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio has suggested the FAA could be conflicted by its roles as an aviation industry advocate and regulator. The Senate plans to conduct a hearing on airline safety.

Trump has resisted calls for the jet to be grounded until the cause of the crashes are found and planned modifications of software are installed for the aircraft's automatic anti-stall system, which may have played a role in both accidents.

No plans for grounding

Boeing also said in a statement Tuesday it has no plans to ground the Max 8, while the FAA said its own review of available data shows no basis for grounding the planes.

Boeing announced on Monday that it is developing a "flight control software enhancement for the 737 Max, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer."

The initial crash of the Max 8 involved a Lion Air domestic flight in Indonesia on Oct. 29, 2018, which plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 on board.

During Sunday's Ethiopian Airlines flight, the plane nosedived minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa on an international flight to Nairobi in neighboring Kenya, killing 157 on board, witnesses said.

The flight data and cockpit voice records of Ethiopian Flight 302 have been recovered, the airline announced on Monday. Ethiopian Airlines spokesman Begashaw confirmed Wednesday the black box that contains the records will be sent to Europe for analysis. Begashaw did not indicate which country would conduct it.

VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.

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