Plane and Pilot

September 20, 2019

When William Langewiesche takes on an airplane crash, he almost always nails it. Nobody is better. His dissection of the Air France 447 disaster, for example, was brilliant, and his exploration of the 2007 midair collision over the Amazon is one of my all-time favorite aviation pieces. And just a couple of months ago I sang the praises of his conclusions on the Malaysia 370 mystery.

That doesn’t mean I always agree with him. He knows this. We’ve spoken a few times and argued a point or two. In no way does it diminish his journalist expertise or his understanding of aviation, but every so often, on this or that point, we see things differently.

Which takes us to Langewiesche’s feature in the most recent New York Times Magazine, looking into the 737 MAX disasters — the Lion Air crash in particular. It’s all the things it should be — exhaustively researched, technically accurate, eloquently written and styled — and getting a lot of attention. But it leaves me with a very sour feeling.

It’s insulting to airline pilots: dismissive, condescending, even a little flip. Langewiesche speaks highly of the skills and airmanship of military pilots, then follows with this of airline pilots: “It’s a far different protocol for the folks flying us on our vacations and business trips. [These are pilots who] never fly solo and whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers. The worst of them are intimidated by their airplanes and remain so until they retire or die.”

Ignoring for a minute that a high percentage of airline pilots are, in fact, trained in the military, this is such a disgustingly insulting description of the piloting profession that I can hardly believe it emanated from the pen of somebody as informed and knowledgeable as William Langewiesche. Whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers? Wow. Just, wow.

In the end, the impression people are left with is that the MAX crashes — both of them — were more the result of operator error than a technical malfunction or defective design. The author may not have intended this; the piece is very complex and nuanced. But Boeing certainly loves the idea, and based on mail I’ve received and comments I’ve heard, for many that’s the takeaway. This is compounded by the title: “What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max.” While probably an editor’s pick, it’s misleading and inflammatory.

William is absolutely correct that the global pilot shortage is creating a hazard, in some cases putting woefully inexperienced crews at the helm of sophisticated jetliners. How and whether that plays into the MAX crashes, however, is maybe not as clear as he thinks. I also worry that the story will only serve to encourage the prejudiced subset of pilots out there who believe that non-Western pilots are categorically inferior. If only the two doomed planes had been crewed by U.S. or European pilots, their thinking goes, rather than pilots trained in Ethiopia or Indonesia, they wouldn’t have crashed.

Most of the author’s analysis involves the Lion Air flight. A case can be made that the crew of flight 610 turned a survivable situation into a non-survivable one through some poor decision making (specifically, by attempting to troubleshoot a control problem rather than immediately land). But it’s just that: a case. There were a lot of moving parts in that cockpit, both figuratively and literally, and what seems the safer choice in a tidy postmortem analysis isn’t always obvious in the heat of battle.

As to the pilots on Ethiopian flight 302, I’m not sure anything could have saved them. The issue that, to me, needs emphasis galore, is the aerodynamic lockout they purportedly faced…

The investigation shows the Ethiopian pilots did, as they should have, engage the plane’s pitch trim disconnect switches in a frantic attempt to regain control after a malfunctioning MCAS system forced the plane’s nose toward the ground. This pair of switches, on the center console near the thrust levers, killed power to the entire automatic pitch trim system, including MCAS, and should have allowed the pilots to maintain a normal flightpath using manual trim and elevator. Manual trim is applied by turning a large wheel mounted to the side of that same center console. Elevator is controlled by moving the control column forward or aft.

Yet they did not, could not, regain control. The reason, many now believe, is a design quirk of the 737 — an idiosyncrasy that reveals itself in only the rarest of circumstances. That is, when the plane’s stabilizers are acting to push the nose down, and the control column is simultaneously pulled aft, a sort of aerodynamic lockout forms: airflow forces on the stabilizers effectively paralyze them, making them impossible to move manually.

Aboard flight 302, the scenario goes like this: Commands of the faulty MCAS are causing the automatic trim system to push the nose down. The pilots, trying to arrest this descent, are pulling aft on the control column. The trim forces are stronger than the control column forces, which is why pulling back on the column has no effect. But now, with power to the trim system shut off, they should be able to lift the nose by manually by rotating the trim wheel aft, relieving that unwanted nose-down push. But the wheel won’t move. Believing the manual trim is itself broken, the pilots then reengage the auto-trim. MCAS then kicks in again, pushing the nose down even further. What’s worse, as the plane’s speed increases, the lockout effect intensifies. And so, with every passing second it becomes more and more difficult to recover.

The correct course of action would be to relax pressure on the control column, perhaps to the point of pushing the nose down even further. This will free the stabilizers of the aerodynamic weirdness paralyzing them, and allow the trim wheel to move, realigning the stabilizers to a proper and safe position. For the pilots, though, such a move would be completely counterintuitive. Instead, they do what any pilots, with pretty much any background and any level of experience, would be expected to do under the circumstances. Turns out it’s the wrong and deadly thing, but they have no way of knowing.

A friend and former colleague of mine — an experienced, American-trained pilot who spent most of his career at U.S. carriers — worked for a time as a training captain at Ethiopian Airlines. He knew the captain of flight 302 and has only the most positive things to say about his skills and professionalism. Maybe Langewiesche ought to have spoken to Seth. He at least could have spoken more of the 302 crash, the dynamics of which, unfortunate as they were, remind people that even the most talented and experienced pilots can find themselves in impossible situations. It would have rounded out the story and given it a more even-handed feel.

Additionally, I wish he’d more cleanly critiqued Boeing’s decades-long obsession with its 737 platform, and its determination to keep the production line going, variant after variant, seemingly forever. Instead of starting from scratch with a new airframe, they took what was essentially conceived in the 1960s as a regional jet, and have pushed and pushed and pushed the thing — bigger and bigger engines, fancier avionics, MCAS — into roles it was never intended for. At the heart of this whole fiasco, maybe, is bad corporate strategy and stubbornness.


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72 Responses to “Plane and Pilot”
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  1. Andrew Aranyosi says:

    Your analysis does not mention the fact that air speed was much higher than normal, and the pilots never pulled the thrust levers back. Pointing at the ground, wouldn’t one’s intuition be…if we’re going down, let’s slow this damned thing down and not go full throttle? In every scenario of normal flight, this is the case. Why not immediately pull the throttle back? Also, the age of an aircraft design has exactly NO EFFECT on it’s ability to fly safely. Your article seems to say that the universal laws of physics changed in the last 50 years. Therefore, 737’s will eventually crash…of their own accord. Therefore, Boeing screwed up by continuing to build more. No. Boeing screwed up by upsetting the balance between the wings’ center of lift with the airframe’s center of gravity, by moving the engines further out front of the wings, thus allowing for less margin for error in the event of a power-on stall. Boeing unacceptably and inarguably screwed up in dropping a ball the size of Manhattan made of solid steel – lack of oversight on a key system that should have been scrutinized 100 times over by both the FAA and corporate management. Where was their internal audit function during the design phase? What’s even worse, this could have been an “inside job” so to speak, but I’ve seen not one single commentator even mention the plausibility of this possibility. Again, where was the internal audit function? Obviously, either non-existent or too busy keeping the triple seven flying.

  2. U. David says:

    Since Capt. Sullenberger’s name has already come up in this discussion, it’s worth noting that he disagrees with Langewiesche’s conclusions in this piece, putting far more blame on Boeing and the FAA than on the pilots. See the link below for his full letter to the NYT:

  3. The NYT piece is not the same calibre as Langewiesche’s excellent writing on many crash stories from Critter 592, to Egypt Air 990 to US Air 1549 to his recent immersion in MH370. Maybe his long involvement in overseas crash investigations has made him cynical. Three aviation columnists, all female, spent their column inches reacting to the article by calling him out for mansplaining. Still, his dissection of the timeline and the in-cockpit performance of the doomed crews is detailed and identifies the fatal confusions. His discussion of Boeing’s contributions is broad and doesn’t get to the roots of the incoherence of the last-minute changes that Boeing made to the 73 Max series and its unsatisfactory certification.

    The root seems to be the remarkably limited amount by which the 50-year old systems of the 737 family have evolved. The automation systems run on one computer at a time. That’s why only one AoA sensor is used. Subsequent series keep at least two computers running and, in Boeing’s style, go to manual flight law if they cannot agree. Only the 737’s have the whirring pitch trim wheels with crank handles in the cockpit (I’m basing this on web pictures of their cockpits). Do the later series use a jackscrew and stabilizer system, vulnerable to high speed lockup? Using a single MCAS to solve a high-speed small deviation and then a low-speed high-deflection problem without redoing a proper safety evaluation seems to have been the fatal error.

  4. Rapier says:

    The NY Times will always weigh in on major events after the dust has mostly settled and absolve the party or parties who have the most clout and money, and point fingers at the least powerful actors. Or, as has been been said, the Times will stand above the fray as the battle rages and then go down onto the battlefield when the battle is over and shoot the wounded.

    I didn’t read the article when it appeared on my screen at the time because I was paywalled but the visible lede at that moment directly blamed the pilots. I was shocked. I had no knowledge of the author or his sterling reputation. I did think instantly about the Times ‘shooting the wounded’ and thought to myself, bingo.

    By what process the author adopted the position of the hack little yes man, Acting FAA Secretary, who in congressional hearing directly blamed foreign pilots I can’t explain exactly. As a general thing, good things happen to people who align their thinking with the powerful; conversely, less good things happen to those who don’t. On not just a professional level but a personal one.

    This, Patrick Smith’s blog and book, are extremely unusual in this day and age. The vast majority of people in even the lowest rung of employment know better than to say much more than boilerplate about their company or industry. There is just too much chance of ruffling some important persons feathers. I won’t say more.

  5. Andrea says:

    The NTSB released a safety recommendations report:

  6. Ken says:

    In my mind, Patrick doesn’t take his last paragraph far enough. Boeing did several things that are possibly criminal.

    1. The MCAS was not classified as a system where failure could cause a crash. They rated it one step lower – so they didn’t need redundant sensoe. Ased on this alone, one could reasonable argue that the 737 MAX was not airworthy per FAA regulations.

    2. After approval by the FAA, Boeing dramatically increased how much deflection MCAS could command without telling them.

    These 2 key contributors to the accidents are indicative of putting schedule, budget, and profit ahead of not just safety, but also regulatory conformance.

  7. R. Hinshaw says:

    I’ve read quite a bit on this and there are a couple of questions I keep coming back to:

    It seems the MCAS can be activated from input from only one AOA sensor. Does that mean it only takes input from one (left) sensor or does it intervene if either shows a value outside a predetermined range? It would seem simple to add some “if . . then” statements in the code to check the sensor data against other characteristics in case the sensors disagree. For example, if one AOA sensor shows a dangerous pitch up but the other does not, what is the airspeed and rate of change of airspeed? It’s concerning that in the case of the Ethiopian 302 the left side sensor was showing an extreme angle of over 70 degrees climb while the other read normal for that part of flight, yet MCAS repeatedly tried to point the nose down even after airspeed rose beyond what is possible in a climb.

    The other question I have is about the two “STAB TRIM” switches. In the previous version of the 737, the two switches were labeled “MAIN ELECT” and “AUTO PILOT”. I believe the second would disable any automated trim while the first cut power to the electric motor in case runaway trim was caused by a wiring issue in the trim controls. In the MAX, however, they are labeled “PRI” and “B/U” (primary and backup?) and all instructions appear to refer to operating them together. Why go away from the ability to kill only automated trim while still allowing the possibility of electric trim from thumb switches only?

    • bstamerjon says:

      I, too question the change between the NG and the Max regarding the STAB TRIM switches. If the function had remained as supplied on the NG, the trained reaction to isolate automatic trim function would have allowed manual electric trim to function.

      Is this how Boeing trained pilots to react? And did Boeing change the functionality to render their training moot?
      To avoid having to recertify the airplane and retrain pilots? Because it would be too expensive? And where, o where is the FAA when they are needed?

    • Ryan says:

      That is a non ishue. In a trim runaway you dont know what is causing it wether its MCAST, the moter going haywier, or the cable sliping. But you shold NEVER EXPERMENT WITH A CHECKLIST. If eanny thing it is a better dezine becuse you have a backup. From What i have hered this was included in the difrance course.

  8. sjc says:

    This is an amazing article on Ethiopian 302 that is a must read. It’s older, but the guy is a good writer and did his homework. He is a former captain for Air Canada.

    • Simon says:

      Many thanks for that line, sjc. A very interesting (but chilling) read.

      How MCAS could have been designed without giving the pilots any notice of its action is beyond me.

      Worse yet, how could Boeing instruct pilots that the one and ONLY way to deactivate MCAS is to turn something off that you might have to rely on in order not to nose dive into the ground at the speed of sound??? I hope they get sued up the wazoo for this. IMHO the management that pushed this implementation should be sent to prison.

    • Gimlet Winglet says:

      That is a very good article and consistent with everything I’ve learned about the 737 Max fiasco.

  9. Bill Combs says:

    I remember wondering what you’d think of Langewiesche’s article as I was reading it. Thanks.

  10. Paul says:

    I disagree. I think Langewiesche is right on. Todays airliners are ultra safe, and catastrophic failures are exceedingly rare. The cost of this is automation systems so complex that minor failures sometimes have catastrophic results, usually due to the inability of the pilots to comprehend and manage the failure. Worldwide skills and experience of the average pilot is in a free fall. The U.S. is still doing ok, thanks to lots of G.A. and the very large pool of military pilots. Europe has neither, nor does Africa, Asia or S. America.
    Boeing wanted to significantly change the NG, but that was going to require a new type rating. SWA with 350 planes on order nixed it. Too expensive. That was 20+ years ago. Not much has changed.
    $99/€89/£69 tickets don’t buy you a captain who has seen it all, nor a brand new aircraft design.
    Tough sh**.

    • Steve says:

      There is a lack of coherence to a response that blames pilot training but also locates the problem in a financial decision 20+ years ago to relentlessly update an aging airplane. Langewiesche’s notion of airmanship (and its sexist associations) goes against his other writing which suggests that this nostalgic and supremacist idea of seat-of-the pants, stick-and rudder airmanship has little place in a modern aircraft flying nearly 600 mph at night in a thunderstorm 30,000 feet in the air at minus 51 degress. Gut-level airmanship may have led the Ethiopian captain to make the decisions he made. He needed advanced, technical knowledge about how to flip some switches. No, this whole idea of airmanship is generated by fiction and movies and John Wayne style heroics. It comes to its head in Space Cowboys — where good ole boy Tommy Lee Jones gets a feel for the Space Shuttle and flies it by hand (absurd!). And at the end, Clint Eastwood saves the day with a stick-and-rudder move on the Shuttle that he learned from his deceased buddy. This is nostalgia for the days before 1964. A red herring. And it all obscures the issue that a bunch of millionaire executives cooked up a scheme to fatten their coffers by putting a passenger plane with questionable aerodynamic in the sky, which has now killed a bunch of people. And all Langewiesche’s article does is make something that is obvious and not complicated seem difficult and convoluted with appeals to sexist, racist and nationalist pride.

  11. Chaz says:

    I read the article in the NY Times when it first came out and the first thing I thought at the time after finishing was “wonder what will say about this”?

    Very interesting response and I agree Langewiesche’s tone was condescending at the end. This coupled with the article that came out today in the NY Times (Sept 26) about Boeing not taking into account the riot of noises and alarms that would be in a cockpit that might overwhelm even very experienced pilots, clarifies things even more.


  12. stephen casciotta usn ret. says:

    I was an a /c mech for 22yrs. we can check everything on the ground , when it takes off its in god hands & the pilot! airplanes crash. it,is made by man ,and will fail! it is a dangerous business. still safer than driving. thanks steve c.

  13. PD says:

    The primary culprit is definitely MCAS, which has been extensively reported since the crashes. I feel Langewiesche is making a larger point about the industry in general, a word of caution.

  14. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this. I too normally enjoy Langewiesche’s work, but this one left a bad taste. A couple things that jumped out at me were his blithe statement that everyone who works for Boeing is of rock-solid integrity (normal distribution of traits among humans would contradict this) and his casual contempt for the LionAir and Ethiopian Air pilots.

    I also came away with a couple of questions which maybe you can answer:

    1. Do you know if the trim wheel spins while MCAS is doing its thing?
    2. What, exactly, is runaway trim under non-MCAS circumstances? Is it an aerodynamic runaway, or an autoflight command malfunction?

    • Steve says:

      I would also like to know if any of the pilots here have experienced emergency warnings indicating a stall, like the stick shaker. Is this a common experience?

    • Gimlet Winglet says:

      The manual trim wheels do spin when MCAS activates. They also spin when any other automatated trim system activates (eg. Speed trim). The prior version of the 737 had two toggles to turn off two automatic trim systems. The Max instead had those two toggles turn off the electric trim motor. I’ve not heard a satisfactory explanation for this change.

      I do not think it is normal to experience a stick shaker in flight, but every airline pilot does experience it in the simulator.

  15. RevZafod says:

    This just came out from The New Republic. Long article, well worth reading.
    Crash Course

    • PD says:

      Nice article. Managers once again.

    • PD says:

      There is a beautiful chapter in The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. The chapter is titled The Checklist Factory. As the name suggests, it tells the story of how airline checklists are prepared. Till I read the chapter, I had no idea the effort that goes into preparing these simple steps. Perhaps a good checklist may have prevented the Max crashes.

      • Gimlet Winglet says:

        Perhaps simply informing the pilots that MCAS exists and that it will trim 2.5% AND (Aircraft Nose Down) for 10 of every 15 seconds until eternity would have prevented the Max crashes.

  16. mitch says:

    I was a Boeing engineer for 38 years, now retired. It hurts a lot to write this.

    Pilot error was not the root cause of these accidents. The fundamental error was Boeing’s: they designed, tested, certified and delivered an airplane with an undocumented fatal flaw. That flaw violated the “Prime Directive” of airliner design: a single failure must NEVER EVER cause the loss of an airplane

    Whether or not the LionAir and Ethiopian pilots could have controlled their aircraft is irrelevant. Those dives never should have happened. A single failure caused each dive, ending 346 lives.

    That failure’s result was Boeing’s fault.

  17. Bernard Morey says:

    “… prejudiced subset of pilots out there who believe that non-Western pilots are categorically inferior.”

    This reminded me of Cathay Pacific’s advertising on Australian TV in the early 1970s. CP was touting the attractions of Hong Kong, then probably the most popular holiday destination in Asia.

    With a lingering shot of the flight deck the voiceover emphasised CP had “sturdy British or Australian pilots upfront”.

    A Youtube search didn’t pick up that advert but I did find one for the inaugural HK-Toronto service in the mid-80s. Exotic Asian cabin crew were touted but the fight deck was manned by Westerners: an older, grizzled captain and handsome first officer. The implication was clear.

  18. Vulcan With a Mullet says:

    I’m thankful for Langewiesche for providing sucj well-researched, well-written perspectives on this multi-faceted issue.
    But I am thankful to you, Patrick, the most, for your blog – through it, I get a clear perspective that has immensely increased my confidence as a casually interested airline passenger.
    I understand there are many causes for the crashes, but as I read the article I kept wondering why Langewiesche didn’t make more of the decision by Boeing to make equipment changes without letting anyone know they were doing it.
    Shouldn’t a pilot be kept aware of the capabilities of their planes? Why would you introduce a variable element into a system without any training or documentation?
    Perhaps the main problem here is IN ITSELF the assumption that most pilots are idiots who can’t be trusted to understand the devices they operate.

  19. Blob neal says:

    Yes, I got my type rating on the DC-3 while flying the DC-8. I had a written exam that could have expired if I did not get an ATP. I did get my type on the DC-3 on 74B. I had flown 74A at Alcoa. I got my type on the 8 at United in 8 days and flew as Capt for EFS . I ended at AIRCAL and eventually at AA. Who would have guessed. I am a long time student of Airline History and am happy to have been a participant in the history. Capt Bob

  20. Jim Houghton says:

    I have never flown anything but sailplanes and a couple of tail-dragging SE putt-putts. But I have had spin training in both. The whole point of spin recovery is to overcome the “intuitive” inclination to suck back on the stick as the nose pitches downward; to instead relax backward pressure and allow flight surfaces to regain their aerodynamic flow.
    Of course, sailplanes spend a lot of time in near-stall conditions in order to stay in areas of lift; stalls and spins are not only possible but likely. Airliners should never find themselves in this condition.
    Still…I used to take the occasional airline pilot up for a flight or two in a sailplane trainer; they never ceased to be 1) a bit nervous and 2) quite amazed if and when we had a chance to soar in lift.
    I felt then and continue to feel that the “pure flight” experience is helpful, if not essential, to truly understand what’s going on when a heavier-than-air object needs to be maintained in flight. I think everyone who wants to fly safely should spend an hour or two at least in as high-performance a sailplane as possible (there are plenty of high-performance two-seaters on the field today).

  21. JR says:

    I read Langewiesche’s main pilot criticisms as being failure to throttle back; that both Lion Air and Ethiopian planes exceeded max design speeds because of takeoff power settings, pushing past the normal envelope where manual trim adjustment and flap extension (to disable MCAS) would have been possible. I’m only an amateur pilot, so not making any judgements, but that part of the discussion is missing from Patrick’s article here.

    Would “better airmen” (apparently from better training) have pulled back the power, giving themselves time and space to troubleshoot more calmly?

  22. Jeff Latten says:

    I think the article was pretty clear that the real forces behind the 737 fiasco were (A) the incompetence of the airlines and Indonesian government agencies responsible for these matters, in pilot training and so forth, and (B) the greed of Boeing and the airline operators in the money end of things. I didn’t see a general pejorative about pilots personally.

    • Chris R says:

      Yeah, if anything I thought the article pretty clearly implied that the root cause of the Lionair is Boeing’s willingness to sell aircraft to operators with terrible safety records.

  23. Alphafloor says:

    Thank you for writing this. Normally I enjoy Langewiesche’s writing. Not this time. He needs to experience the failure mode for himself in the sim like some of us have and get back to us. Eye watering.

  24. Charles Hester says:

    I read Langewiesche’s article. He basically blames the two crashes on pilot error. If pilot error was the cause, why is Boeing redesigning the system? If pilot error was the cause, why doesn’t Boeing stand by its product and say, “Our airplane is fine. There’s no need for a redesign. The pilots were at fault. Better pilots would have saved the plane.” You can’t on one hand say the pilots were at fault, and then on the other hand completely redesign the system.

  25. Michael G Kennedy says:

    Patrick is correct. I felt the same way about the NYT piece when I read it. As a career airline pilot I was insulted by Langewiesche’s remarks. What really brought down those planes was Boeing’s corporate culture of greed.

  26. Mike Friedman says:

    I’m not a pilot, or remotely involved in aviation. I read the article in question and I was also taken aback by that statement about pilots just catering to passengers. Seemed like a throw away insult.

    This article lost me about 80% of the way through. It was so detailed that I eventually gave up. I’m a pretty smart guy but he was so lost in the weeds with the details that I got lost.

    But it pointed out to me that a) regulation of airlines in many parts of the world is dreadful (Indonesia for sure) and b) Boeing seems to have lost its way in its quest to keep re-using airframes from the 1960s so it doesn’t have to recertify a new plane.

  27. PD says:

    The Devil at 37,000 Feet is a favourite of mine also. Mr Langewiesche, whether he is writing about an air crash in the West or elsewhere, the tone is the same. He is a pilot and it is pilots he deeply cares about. For him, I guess, pilots are on the very top of the aviation “ziggurat”. The aircraft may fail, the manufacturer may fail, the designer may fail, maintenance may fail, the engineer may fail, but I guess he feels deeply concerned and hurt when the pilot fails at the stick and rudder level, in airmanship, in SA and in decision-making. In an emergency, as a passenger, I’d hope that my captain displays the sort of focus and ability to shed distractions as Sullenberger did over the Hudson. The article is excellent as it explains in greater detail about the actions the pilots took in all three: one which landed safely, the fatal Lion Air flight and the Ethiopian crash. All three scripts are slightly different. So far my understanding was that the aerodynamic lockout MCAS caused was as bad as a full-blown stall. One needs training on recovery technique. But the article seems to suggest that if the crew had retarded the throttle, manual trim would have worked. There is aviation school training, there is airline training but I believe all pilots spend a good deal of time self-training, flying sailplanes and GA aircraft to be a true airman. I wish after the Lion Air crash, the piloting community had warned that even if MCAS is disabled recovery is not that easy.

    • Gimlet Winglet says:

      “one which landed safely, the fatal Lion Air flight and the Ethiopian crash. All three scripts are slightly different.”

      Slightly different??? The Lion Air that lived had a 3rd pilot deadheadhing in the cockpit who did not have the stress of physically fighting a shaking stick, and he was the one who invoked “runaway stabilizer” or words to that effect in the 30 second window they had before they were in the MCAS box canyon. The Lion Air that crashed was on descent, had some altitude to work with and did not have engines preset to N1 takeoff thrust. The Ethiopeian Air flight was one takeoff over rising terrain. But other than that, virtually identical situations.

      “So far my understanding was that the aerodynamic lockout MCAS caused was as bad as a full-blown stall.”

      This is full-on gish gallop gibberish. MCAS caused 10% AND (Aircraft Nose Down) trim. It did not cause a stall. The “aerodyanmic lockout” you are referring to is the opposing forces of elevator and 10% stabilizer down trim causing too much force on the trim jackscrew, preventing the pilots from manually trimming out of that situation. (Now if only they were brawny Americans, they could have still manually trimmed! Nope, 800 pound gorillas couldn’t have moved those trim wheels.)

      Your last words are about why didn’t the “pilot community” train the pilots for this situation? Um, because Boeing and the airlines explicitly denied them the information they would have needed, even after the Lion Air crash?

      • Steve says:

        Everything I’ve read indicates you are right. Still, do we know what MCAS was designed to respond to? Why would it kick on at such a low altitude? Are there traditional aerodynamic problems with the 737’s tail design involving the size of the elevators? Could the new engines and their mount affect the aerodynamics and control surfaces of the tail?

        • Alain says:

          *Why would it kick on at such a low altitude?*

          Because Boeing was in full-on panic mode and had to rush a badly thought through design to market, because: Airbus?

          I would even be willing to cut them some slack for the first crash. No doubt that involves bad engineering decisions, rush to market, corner cutting, regulatory capture, rotten management decisions, undercutting of experienced engineers and a lot of other bad stuff. But it could be seen as a number of unfortunate mistakes.

          That Boeing, however, didn’t ground the plane volountarily despite the fact that they were the only ones to really be in the know about what happened. Especially given that MCAS wasn’t even documented in the manual for those death traps.

          Now, that’s corporate mass murder for greed, period.

          Doing just about anything to smear the pilots is just about the icing on the cake.

          There should be a special place in hell for Mr. Muilenberg and his management team.

    • Jim Houghton says:

      If you’re hoping for a Sullenberger on every flight, you’re dreaming. He was a specialist in the field of inflight emergency-management, of many years experience. Sure, he could have come all unstuck in a real emergency, but few pilots were better qualified to do exactly what he did.

  28. Bob Palmer says:

    When Boeing and McDonnell Douglass merged, the Boeing name survived but the McDonnell Douglass culture took over. More top down corporate, more bottom line oriented, very anti-union. The company is in business to make money, and in order to make money they have to build airplanes. Tradeoffs are inherent. I think that corporate culture at Boeing led to workarounds that doomed the 737MAX.

  29. Bill Wilson says:

    The only thing better than reading Langewiesche’s articles is reading your critique of them.

  30. Jason Catanzariti says:

    Interesting to contrast the Langewiesche article with this one:

    While some of the same points are made, Boeing gets much more of the blame – I think rightfully so.

    I’m particularly puzzled by Langewiesche’s conclusion that Boeing will eventually have to move to a more Airbus-like flight control system. A good case could be made that MCAS itself WAS on the way toward taking pilots more out of the loop, and it ultimately killed people. I’m also bothered by the idea that this situation could have been treated like a “simple” runaway trim scenario. I’ve been an airline pilot and I now fly bizjets, and when something unexpected happens in a high-tech vehicle moving at hundreds of MPH, it’s never “simple”. As the saying goes, we’ve spent six months dissecting what they had six seconds to react to. Sure, it looks “simple” from here…

    • Patrick says:

      “…when something unexpected happens in a high-tech vehicle moving at hundreds of MPH, it’s never ‘simple’. As the saying goes, we’ve spent six months dissecting what they had six seconds to react to…”

      That’s the best comment here. Perfectly put.

    • RevZafod says:


      I posted my comment #25 before I saw yours. Looks like we’re on the same wavelength.

  31. Stee says:

    Thanks so much for finally breaking your silence on this issue. I positively loved Langewiesche article on AF 447. I teach at a university that has a school for pilots, and I give that article to those students whenever I get a chance. But this NY Times piece is positively racist. It is not a small thing to blame the pilots, call them “weak” and “dumb” but never really address the competence or skills of the particular pilots that he is blaming. What does he know about Yared Getachew’s 8,000 hours flying. How does he know he has never encountered a runaway stabilizer and quickly solved it? I am not even remotely a pilot, but I have read compulsive about this issue. Here are a few questions for you and the pilots out there:
    1) Hasn’t it been decided that the trim wheels on the MAX and NG are too small and don’t really work but in the most ideal of conditions (
    2) Do we absolutely know what issues MCAS was designed to address? Could the placement of the engines also affect the aerodynamics and control surfaces on the tale at low speeds?
    3) Altitude 1. Did the Ethiopian flight have the altitude to push forward on the yoke or decrease speed?
    4) Altitude 2. What effect does the 7000 ft elevation of Addis Ababa have on decisions made by experienced 737 pilots when it comes to flaps and speed?

  32. Justin says:

    “It’s insulting to airline pilots in several spots: dismissive, condescending, even a little flip.”

    Couldn’t agree more, especially coming from someone that has never been an airline pilot. I really enjoy Langeweische’s articles but wasn’t wild about this one. His book Aloft is great.

  33. Bob Neal says:

    Patrick, I would be happy to discuss this piece by William at any time. I thought it was mostly BS. I retired from American after AIRCAL. Before that I flew as Captain on the DC-8. FYI we actually stalled the 8 during training in the MOA. I wonder if the experts in the article ever flew “The Line” in EKG terms. I have 10,000 hrs on the 73 even though I would have been happier on the 8. Happy to say my passengers got an extra safety with me. Best Regards, I also flew as Captain on the DC-3., Retired from AA on the 767. Bob Neal

    • Alan Dahl says:

      That’s incredible, I can’t believe that there’s anyone left who has experience in both the DC-8 and DC-3. My father was a UAL pilot who started out flying DC-3s and progressed all the way up to the DC-8-61 when he retired in the late 1960s. You must have some stories to tell, have you shared them anywhere?

    • UncleStu says:

      My eyes overflow with tears of happy nostalgia at the mention of the DC-3.

      There is a documentary “The Plane That Changed the World” on TV from time to time. I watch it every time.

      Once, on a military hop, I had the pleasure of sitting on a bar stool while leaning on the back of the pilot and co-pilot seats, flying around the cumulonimbus clouds.

      What an experience! What a plane!

  34. Leonard Lane says:

    This excellent article is very disturbing, primarily as it reveals the diametrically opposed approaches to “flying” an aircraft taken by Boeing and its low-cost foreign airlines customers. Boeing designed and sold aircraft that required “pilots” to fly them safely and their customers such as Lion Air developed their airline business model around “operators” in the cockpit. The article makes it clear that Boeing was aware of this conflict, but continued to market aircraft to users that weren’t capable of safely flying their aircraft. We all know how well that’s worked out. It seems to me there’s more than enough blame for this debacle to go around.

  35. Alan Dahl says:

    Patrick, it seems to me that the time to have reacted to the out of trim situation would have been immediately after it occurred, by throttling back and reengaging the flaps since it should have been obvious to the pilot that flap retraction was the action that triggered the out of trim situation. Would this have been something a pilot would have considered? I’m also confused as to why they kept flying runway heading towards the mountains rather than circling back which would have given them more time and altitude (and also would have reduced the lockout while in the turn)?

  36. Simon says:

    I was always under the impression that modern passenger aircraft are designed to be passively stable. The fact that the MAX requires something like MCAS indicates this is not true for the MAX.

    I think Patrick makes a very good point here. If Boeing designs an aircraft with such a “dangerous trim corner” you would think it is their duty to ensure pilots are sufficiently informed about this hazardous configuration and how to recover. I would also assume that it’s the FAA’s duty to ensure that airlines train pilots sufficiently about such a hazardous configuration and recovery from it (my understanding is that used to be the case a long time ago, pre-NG).

    If, however, an experienced and well trained crew managed to unknowingly get caught up in this corner, that to me indicates both Boeing and the FAA have failed their responsibility towards the crew and hence also the flying public.

  37. DON F BEYER says:

    No other plane ever built needed anything like MCAS. Instead of spending 43 Billion Dollars on stock buybacks and build an airframe with the engines positioned the way they should have, this mess never would have happened. Boeing lied and 346 people died. It’s sickening to hear the FAA and Boeing say the MAX won’t fly until it’s safe. MCAS is as flawed as the square windows on the first Comet.

    • Mark says:

      MCAS may (or not) be the bad guy here, but I believe something like it is the future of flying. R&D needs to be done to get it right, standardize it across platforms, and train pilots to rely on it.

      • Steve says:

        Negative. Nothing like MCAS needs to be on every aircraft. MCAS is a jerry-rigged, software patch designed to enable Boeing to strap larger engines onto an aging air frame that couldn’t accommodate them normally. If you are speaking about automation, this is a different matter. Unfortunately, Boeing has lost the race and better, fly-by-wire aircraft built from the ground up, like the Airbus A220 are the future of aviation — not hybrid monstrosities. It’s very sad. If one would read some of Patrick’s older articles on modifying the 767 and the beauty of the 757, one would see that Boeing had opportunities to maintain its worldwide competitiveness — which it seems to have lost. How could one ever regain their confidence in this company? I don’t think American, United, or Southwest has any true excitement about the Max plane, and are probably secretly wishing they had the foresight of Delta, which went with the A220.

        • Simon says:

          Just because the MAX and the A220 came out around the same time doesn’t make them competitors. The MAX competitor is the A320. The A220 competes/repalces 717, A318, and smaller Embraers and Canadairs.

          • Steve says:

            You are probably right. Still, I have read that the Max was responding to a shifting use for single aisle aircraft which made engine efficiency more desirable. They were being expected to fly longer and longer routes — even transatlantic ones. Meanwhile, the A220-300, of which Delta purchased I think 50, is designed for the 120-160 capacity market, which seems almost to place it in competition with the Max. I recently flew on a Delta Max and it was kind of eerie because I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like a smaller, regional jet, but it was strangely roomy inside. Almost too roomy for what seemed like such a small plane. So, it won’t do too bad on the long haul, though I’m not sure I’d like to be in a single aisle jet for much more than 3 or 4 hours.

          • Steve says:

            correction: I mean to say I recently flew on a Delta A220

  38. Tod says:

    At the end of the day Boeing created this mess by overreacting to the Airbus A320neo family. Putting newer and bigger engines on a 1980’s airframe is very different to doing the same to what is essentially a 1960’s airframe.
    However i am now reading that Airbus might have an issue with the flex cabin of the A321neo, is this correct

  39. JamesP says:

    Excellent take on it, thank you. There are indeed many shades of grey to consider. I also thought it was a very well-researched article, and I think perhaps the author focussed a bit more on the pilot training since Boeing’s part of the problem has been covered extensively. Boeing basically applied software to an aerodynamics problem. It *should* have worked, but *should* is a word you hear a lot in the computer world (“rebooting *should* clear the problem” etc.). And “Max” is an appropriate moniker for the plane – Boeing was trying to push that tired design to the max. Maybe a bit beyond.

    I agree that the NYT article may come across as putting too much blame on pilot errors – particularly with that headline which as you mentioned could have been the Editor’s doing.

    Nevertheless, between the NYT article and your added analysis of it, I came away with a much clearer picture of what happened. Thanks for your article.