Posted Friday, March 22, 2019 10:57 am
By Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)
BANGKOK — Most of the parties in the aftermath of the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash, in which 157 died, came out looking bad. The FAA for three days of dithering, Boeing for pushing through certification of a plane with an apparent dangerous flaw, and pretend aviation expert Donald Trump, who privately told officials Boeing’s 737 Max “sucks” before grounding the model because doing so was important “psychologically and a lot of other ways.” Amtrak, anyone?
Sadly, Ethiopian Airlines may also have gone down in the estimation of the flying public, and it should not have. The airline has long enjoyed a good safety record. But since Boeing raised no alarms, EAL’s pilots did not receive training for dealing with the new 737 computer software that twice seems to have fatally turned against cockpit crews, in Indonesia in October and in Ethiopia this month.
My fondness for Ethiopian Airlines is great and my heartbreak over its recent horror deep, for it is the conveyance
that carried me to the site of the best thing I ever did, join the Peace Corps and teach high school English in Ethiopia from 1962 to ’64. An EAL DC-6B bumped atop the rainy season high clouds for our arrival in Addis Ababa, and later on I sometimes rode an EAL C-47 from the mountain town of Debre Markos into Addis for a weekend of picking up school supplies and reacquainting myself with light bulbs.
The airport in Debre Markos was a grass strip, and when it rained the planes sometimes got stuck in the mud. Passengers would clamber out and push the World World II Dakotas onto terra firma, people would climb back on, and the planes would rattle down to the end of the field and lift off. In the Central Ethiopian highlands, we were already at about 8,000 feet, so the unpressurized aircraft didn’t have to rise all that far.
BEATS SUDAN AIRWAYS
TWA had gotten the airline going in 1946 under an arrangement with Emperor Haile Selassie. Americans ran it in the beginning, and Ethiopians gradually took over. A Captain Mengesha, who often flew through Debra Markos, was said to have been a Korean War flying ace, but I can find nothing online about Ethiopians flying for the U.S. Air Force back then. He was, though, an ace as far as the Peace Corps teachers in Debre Markos were concerned, delivering us safely every time. Safely if not comfortably—the C-47s had canvas bench seats along the fuselage, and the center of the plane was where cargo was sometimes lashed to the floor. On one memorable (for me) occasion, the single lavatory was not available, what with farm animals having been stashed in there.
My appreciation for EAL only grew later on when as a journalist or tourist I flew on other African airlines. My all-time favorite bad African airline is Sudan Airways. In 1988 I was one of a group of passengers trying to fly from Khartoum to Port Sudan. When, after 12 hours of waiting in the scorching heat, the airline told us to go home and come back in 24 hours, the enraged travelers spotted a plane outside on the tarmac with its lights on and charged toward it, planning to demand that its crew fly us all to Port Sudan. My friend Jack Prebis and I joined the rebellion, although toward the rear. We were all beaten back with sticks. None of this would have happened with EAL.
Over the decades EAL has grown into the best airline in Africa, training and servicing other carriers, and it’s one of the biggest. It flies to 20 cities and towns in Ethiopia and 105 around the world, including three in the U.S. You can fly nonstop to Addis from the Washington DC, Newark, or Chicago.
Word will get around that EAL was almost certainly not at fault in the March 10 crash, and the airline will recover its reputation. The terrible accident’s cause likely lies with the Trump administration’s deference to its corporate friends, with public health and safety a secondary concern. Boeing was rushing to get the 737 Max into the marketplace before Airbus finished a similar plane, and certification shortcuts were taken by a compliant FAA.
I remember one occasion in Debre Markos when we went out to the airfield for a flight to Addis, and the local EAL agent said he was sorry but we would not be able to fly that day. He told us, “The airplane is broken.” I suppose he’s too old now, but that guy should be working for the FAA.