Switched Off

April 14, 2022

I’M SUPPOSED to watch the much talked-about documentary, “Downfall,” about Boeing and the 737 MAX fiasco, and report back to you with my thoughts. The show keeps popping up in my Netflix stream. But I end up watching “Better Call Saul” instead.

As a general rule I shy away from aviation-related shows. Inevitably they’re over-the-top, misleading, or incomplete. They leave me annoyed and wanting to write letters to the producers. So, no, I haven’t seen “Downfall” and I have no plans to.

That’s not to say all such programs are poorly made. Comments I’ve heard from other pilots suggest they did a good job with this one. Which is nice to know, but still I’m in no hurry to find out. Plus, they didn’t invite me on the show.

Had they interviewed me, I would have voiced my opinion that central to Boeing’s boondoggle with the MAX was its decision to not build the 797. Instead of coming out with an all-new mid-sized airframe to replace its aging 757 and 767 models, they opted to force-feed the industry monsterized versions of the 737. Plans for the 797 should have been unveiled on the day the 757 went out of production, eighteen years ago.

Boeing claimed there wasn’t a big-enough market for such a jet, which is nonsense. The order backlog for advanced versions of the Airbus A321 proves it. The A321 isn’t half the plane the 797 would have been, but it’s the only one that sort of, kind of, fills that capacity and range niche. Hopefully “Downfall” at least touched on this.

Instead of me reviewing the program, I’ll let you do it, in the comments section below. Let us know what was good, bad, depressing, pleasing or disappointing. Maybe, even, you’ll convince me to watch it.


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The China Eastern 737 Crash

March 22, 2022

FIRST THINGS FIRST, it’s important to employ my usual post-crash disclaimer: When planes go down, initial speculation is often misguided and wrong. Early clues that appear straightforward and revealing turn out to be complicated and unclear.

All we know for certain is that China Eastern flight 5735 was cruising at 29,000 feet when something went disastrously awry. The jetliner, with 132 people aboard, fell into a high-speed plunge. Radar reports show that it leveled off briefly at around 8,000 feet, began a brief climb, then fell into a second plunge from which it never recovered, disintegrating into hilly terrain near the city of Wuzhou. There were no survivors.

The severity of the plunges, which were tracked by air traffic control radar, together with harrowing security camera footage showing the stricken jet in a vertical dive, offer some of those clues that we need to be careful with. Whatever went wrong, it happened quickly and catastrophically. There was no distress call.

This tells us a lot, but also it tells us nothing. Any number of things is possible, from a bomb to a flight control system somehow gone haywire. One cause being thrown around is “structural failure.” Did some portion of the tail or a stabilizer separate from the aircraft? Perhaps. But if so, why? Design flaw, faulty repair, explosive decompression? There can be layers to these things.

That the descent was temporarily arrested is the most interesting part. It suggests the pilots were able to maintain or regain some semblance of control, at least briefly. This lessens the probability of certain scenarios — a bombing or major structural failure, for example, the results of which tend to be a more consistent sort of plummet. Yet nothing can be ruled out entirely. A friend of mine even came up with a pilot suicide hypothesis that, although extremely unlikely, is nonetheless plausible

The plane was a Boeing 737-800. The -800 is one of the “Next Generation” (NG) 737 variants. It first flew in 1997, and today is one of the most popular jetliners in the world.

The 737-800 is not equipped with the stall avoidance system that led to the 737 MAX crashes a few years ago, but the jet has had a few problems over the years:

In 2005, a group of former Boeing employees filed a lawsuit claiming that some Next Generation 737s had been manufactured with defective parts. These parts, it was contended, may have contributed to the fuselage breakups of a Turkish Airlines 737 outside Amsterdam in 2009, and the nonfatal runway overrun of an American Airlines 737 in Jamaica that same year. The ex-employees lost their case, as well as their appeal. Investigators, including the NTSB, found no link between faulty parts and structural failure.

In 2019, fatigue cracks were discovered in the wing-fuselage attachment sections of approximately five percent of the global 737NG fleet, leading to a series of mandated inspections and repairs. But this applies primarily to older -800s that have exceeded a particular number of flight hours and cycles (takeoffs and landings). The airplane that crashed in China was only seven years-old.

A rudder defect was blamed for at least two 737 disasters in the 1990s, plus a number of nonfatal incidents. These were earlier-generation variants, however, and the plane’s rudder servo system was redesigned.

You might also come across articles highlighting the high number of incidents and accidents involving 737s over the decades. Be wary of how these numbers are presented (usually as raw totals, without meaningful statistical context), keeping in mind that more 737s have been built than any other jet.

And so, there’s nothing at this point to suggest flight 5735 was brought down by a design flaw or potential negligence on the part of the manufacturer. And while I’ve never been much a fan of the 737, it’s not because I consider the plane unsafe. No matter, the wolves are out for Boeing, and have been since the MAX crashes. With the company’s reputation in tatters, this couldn’t have come at a worse time, regardless of who or what is to blame.

“Boeing Faces New Upheaval After Crash of Chinese Airliner,” read a headline in yesterday’s New York Times. “No fault has been found,” the article continues, “but the company, which has been trying to overcome a recent legacy of design and production troubles, is likely to get scrutinized.”

It certainly will be. But let’s maybe not go that route until the facts are in. We live in a time when everyone wants quick and concise answers, I know. But air crash investigations take months, sometimes years. Even then, we don’t always learn the whole story.


— China’s domestic airline market is roughly as large as that of the United States. Once much maligned, the country’s aviation safety record has improved considerably over the last two decades and is now considered among the safest. China’s last major accident was a decade ago.

— In the old days, China had only one airline: the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which was second only to Aeroflot in size. And like Aeroflot, it was eventually broken up, splintering off dozens of smaller independent carriers. One of those was China Eastern. Based in Shanghai, China Eastern is today the country’s second-largest airline, just behind China Southern, with a fleet of some 600 aircraft and a route structure extending to Europe and North America.

— We can thank the security-industrial complex for these furtive glimpses of crashing planes we’d otherwise never see. Pentagon, etc. Now this one.

— Those puffs of smoke visible in the video look to me like engine compressor stalls. Jet engines will not function properly in a vertical dive, effectively hiccuping.

— One upon a time, a plane crash in a foreign country killing 132 people would have been a relatively minor news story. What happened is obviously tragic, but the amount of attention that crashes receive nowadays helps underscore how rare they’ve become.




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The Airplane That Isn’t

Boeing bet the future on a 50 year-old design. Did it lose?

December 16, 2019

I’M DEPRESSED. I’m depressed because the word on the street has it that Boeing will not be moving forward with its so-called “new midsize airplane,” or NMA, also known as the 797. That’s the rumor, at any rate.

If built, the 797 would bridge the range and capacity gap between the narrow-body 737 family and the much larger 787 and 777 families — a slot occupied by the now-geriatric 757 and 767. The concept was formally unveiled at the Paris Air Show two years ago, and the planemaker has been mulling it over ever since. The uncertainty around the project has become a simmering backstory to the ongoing 737 MAX saga.

The two are not unrelated.

Back about fifteen years ago, Boeing had a decision to make. It’s popular 757 was getting long in the tooth. Orders were drying up and the company would need to develop a replacement. This wouldn’t be easy, because the 757 was, and still is, a very special machine. You might call it the most versatile jetliner Boeing has ever built: a medium-capacity, high-performing plane able to turn a profit on both short and longer-haul routes — domestic or international; across the Mississippi or across the North Atlantic. And along the way it meets every operational challenge. Short runway? Stiff headwinds? Full payload? No problem. With 180 passengers, the plane can safely depart from a short runway, climb directly to cruise altitude, and fly clear across the country — or the ocean. Nothing else can do that. And it’s a great-looking plane to boot.

Essentially three options were on the table. The first was to come up with a plane from scratch — a brand-new jetliner of roughly the 757’s size and capabilities. A second, less expensive option would be to equip the existing airframe with new engines, modern avionics and other upgrades — a 757-X, if you will. Option three would be to abandon the 757 template altogether and, instead, turn to the company’s favorite cash-cow, the 737, and somehow push it, squeeze it, force it, into the role of the 757.

Although Boeing hasn’t — at least not yet — officially abandoned the idea of new airplane, it is option three, if only by default, that seems to have won. Production of the 757 ceased for good in 2004, and the 737 remains Boeing’s only non-widebdoy replacement option. Need a 180-ish seater? If you’re buying from Boeing, it’s a 737 or nothing: the -800, the -900, or the beleaguered MAX.

None of these, however, can do what the 757 does. The 737’s range allows U.S. coast-to-coast and limited transatlantic pairings, but anything further is out of the question. And what it can do, it doesn’t do particularly well. On longer routes it’s often payload and/or altitude restricted, and for a jet of its size it uses huge amounts of runway with startlingly high takeoff and landing speeds.

I was jammed into the cockpit jumpseat — more of a jump-bench, actually — on an American Airlines 737-800 not long ago, flying from Los Angeles to Boston. Man, if we didn’t need every foot of LAX’s runway 25R, at last getting off the ground at a nearly supersonic 165 knots. What would it be like on the westbound leg, I wondered — a longer flight, from a shorter runway, in the face of winter headwinds?

By contrast, I recently piloted a 757 from Boston to San Francisco. At flaps 20, we lifted off at a docile 130 knots from Logan’s stubby, 7000-foot runway 09, with nearly half the runway still remaining! With every seat full and seven hours’ worth of fuel, we climbed directly to 36,000 feet and flew all the way to California. That’s performance. A 737 cannot come close to that.

In the 737, Boeing took what essentially was a regional jet — the original 737-100 first flew in 1967, and was intended to carry a hundred or so passengers on flights of around 400 miles — and has pushed, pushed, and pushed the plane into roles it was never intended for. Bigger and bigger engines, fancier avionics, MCAS. Five decades and ten variants later, the MAX is a monsterized hybrid of a thing — a plane that wants, and needs to be something that it’s not: all muscle and power and advanced technology, jammed into the framework of a fifty year-old design.

From the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the Airbus line features a similar gap. The A310 died away a long time ago, and size-wise there’s nothing between the A320 family and the long-haul A330.

Or is there? The biggest Airbus narrow-body is the A321 — a stretched-out version of the basic A320. Two upcoming variants, the A321LR (long range), and the A321XLR (extra long-range), are about to hit the market. With two-class seating for around 200 passengers and a range of almost 5,000 nautical miles, these aircraft have enormous potential. JetBlue is among airlines planning to use the LR on routes across the pond, serving Western Europe from New York and Boston.

Whether you’re an airline CEO, a pilot, or a passenger, there’s a lot to like about the A320 family generally, certainly when matched against the 737. It requires less runway, for one, and uses tamer takeoff and landing speeds. On the inside it’s quieter and more spacious, A few weeks ago I rode aboard a 737 for the first time in a while. I normally find myself on an A320 or A321, and I was startled at how uncomfortable the 737 was in comparison. I had a window seat about a third of the way down, and the narrower cross-section meant my shoulder was pressed into the sidewall the entire time, forcing me to sit at an angle. And the noise. The 737 is a loud airplane. On a two, three, or four-hour trip such comfort levels are acceptable. But six? How about a seven-hour nonstop from Gatwick or Shannon?

And if you think it’s noisy in the cabin, you should hear the cockpit, where the sound of the onrushing air must push a hundred decibels. Loud and tight, with barely enough room for the crew’s hand luggage. It’s interesting how both the A320 and the 737 families have roughly the same exterior dimensions, yet somehow the A320’s cockpit is three times roomier and five times quieter. How can that be? Well, look closely at the nose section of the 737. Do you recognize that? The old-fashioned flight deck windows, the shapes of the radome and fuselage? It’s the 707. Unchanged in over sixty years.

Take a MAX and put it next to an old 737-100 from the late sixties. It’s at once the same and yet completely different. You can virtually see the airplane straining, stretching, reaching — trying so hard to become something else. And therein is the problem. Boeing desires the commonality, the simpler training footprint and all the good things that the 737 family offers. But it also wants a plane that can take 200 people across the ocean. What it’s finding out is that perhaps, after all, they cannot be the same thing. You can only reinvent so many times.

The Boeing 757.     Photo by Alberto Riva.

Indeed the A321LR will be the closest thing out there to a 757. Comfort-wise it’ll be equal, if not superior, with almost the range, almost the capacity, and almost the muscle. Sure, those are a lot of important almosts. Eventually, however, the last 757 will be put to pasture, and when that happens, the lack of a 797 all but assures the A321’s domination of the mid-market niche.

Until that day, U.S. carriers continue holding on to their 757s. Hundreds remain in service on trunk routes and transcons. United and Delta have flown 757s from their East Coast gateways on eight-hour services to Western Europe, Scandinavia, even Africa. Of course, you’ll also see it on 60-minute segments into Kansas City, Cleveland, Tucson and Tampa. Nothing can match it across such a wide swath of markets, with little or no concerns as to weather, payload or runway length.

As to its relunctance in committing to the 797, Boeing says that the sales potential for such a plane, estimated at anywhere from three-hundred to a thousand examples, is possibly too limited. As a point of comparison, the company claims that it won’t break even on its 787 program until at least 1,500 aircraft have been delivered. If true, that’s a sad testament to how expensive it has become to develop new aircraft. If a thousand airplanes can’t justify a new line, what can?

Still, it seems that filling such a niche should be well within the technical expertise, and certainly the imagination, of the world’s largest and most prolific plane-maker. Wouldn’t the 797 borrow much of the 787’s architecture, and thus be cheaper to produce? And isn’t this the same company that, fifty years ago, created the 747, an airplane more than double the size of any existing plane, taking it from a napkin drawing to an actual, in-the-air prototype in less than two years! Forgive me for looking at this romantically, but what happened to that sprit and vision?

And if Boeing does press ahead with the 797, will they build the right plane? Preliminary renderings of the NMA from 2017 show us a jetliner seating between 220 and 270 passengers, with a composite fuselage and wings, and a range of around 5,000 nautical miles. Is it just me, or is this much too big? I like the twin-aisle idea; two aisles make for faster boarding and deplaning, and give the cabin a roomier feel overall. But, otherwise, how is this not just a 787 with a shorter range? A 757 replacement should be a plane that tops out at around 220 passengers, not one that starts there.

“It strikes me that the airplane Boeing ought to be putting out there is one that already exists, at least as a template,” I wrote on my website about a year ago. I was talking about the 767, Boeing’s venerable quasi-widebody that dates to the early 1980s. Although a passenger version hasn’t been ordered in years, the jet remains in production as a freighter and as a military midair refueler. Why not upgrade it, I asked in my article, with new engines, a new cockpit, and overhauled internal systems? Is that not a better option — especially considering the limited market that Boeing sees — than spending billions on an all-new airframe? “Call it the 767-X,” I wrote.

Well, in October of 2019 Boeing released a proposal for a 767 derivative called, guess what, the 767-X.

However, the 767 I had in mind as a baseline was the original -200. The -200, which debuted in 1982, is a long-since obsolete aircraft that, by today’s standards, would be laughably uneconomical. In terms of size, range, and capacity, however, it’d be just about perfect. Imagine a modernized, re-engined version delivering twin-aisle comfort for 180-200 people, containerized luggage and cargo, and all the range and unbeatable brawn of the 757. What’s not to like?

Boeing, though, says the -X would build not on the platform of the -200, but on that of the -400, and would be aimed at the cargo market. The -400, which sold very poorly, has seats for around 250 people. Again this is too big. In any case, Boeing eyes the 767-X chiefly as a freighter, not a passenger carrier.

Which leaves us… where?

While Boeing makes up its mind, the 737 MAX drama continues at center stage. And here’s the part we hate to ask but need to: why did the MAX need to exist in the first place?

What if, back in 2004, Boeing had gone ahead with the 797 in lieu of yet bigger and heavier 737s? And were the MAX tragedies, on some deep-down level, an inevitable result of Boeing’s decades-long obsession with its 737 — its determination to keep the production line going, variant after variant, seemingly forever? Where in the blame pie does poor corporate strategy and stubborness fall?

There’s a place for the 737 and always will be. I just don’t know if that place is as far and wide as Boeing would like it to be. And although you won’t see it any reports, but what happened in Africa and Indonesia is, maybe, fate’s way of telling Boeing that the time has come to move on.

This article appeared originally on The Points Guy website and is being used with permission.





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The 737 MAX

UPDATE: November 19, 2020

Two years after the crashes of Lion Air flight 510 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, the Boeing 737 MAX has been cleared to reenter service. Its twice deadly stall-avoidance system has been redesigned and pilot training protocols modified. FAA chief Steve Dickson gave the formal go-ahead on Wednesday afternoon, permitting U.S. carriers to once again operate the aircraft in scheduled service. Foreign regulators are expected to follow suit. American Airlines say it will begin phasing its MAX jets back into service as soon as December. United and Southwest will do so early in 2021. Some predicted the plane would never fly again. They were wrong. The MAX is back.

My feelings are mixed:

Is the 737 MAX safe, now that it’s been upgraded and tested out the wazoo? Absolutely. Will passengers trust the jet enough to fly on it? Probably, yes. Most people have little idea or concern about what airplane model they’re stepping onto, and I doubt that will change. The DC-10 and the Comet recovered with similarly scandalous legacies. The 737 will too.

Does that mean it’s a good design, and that Boeing can be forgiven for developing the decrepit corporate culture that led to this mess? And can the company be excused for having forgone the 797 concept years ago in order to push out more 737 variants instead? Heck no.

What they needed to do is not build the damn thing in the first place. As previously discussed on this site, the MAX is the ultimate monsterization of the 737 platform. A plane designed in the 1960s as a regional jet was pushed and pushed and pushed into roles it was never intended for. The “Frankenplane,” as I call it, was the result. It’s cramped, noisy, has a miserably uncomfortable cockpit, and can’t match the performance of its closest competitors — or, especially, of the plane it effectively replaces, the 757.

Such are the times. We don’t get spiffy new airplanes anymore. We get add-ons, variants, knockoffs.


UPDATE: December 29, 2019

Air travel has never been safer. This we can’t really argue. How we reached this point, however, and how we might improve upon it, is open to some debate. “Getting to this level wasn’t easy,” I said not long ago during a radio interview. “And is owed chiefly to three things. The first two are better pilot training and better technologies.”

So far, so good. But what about the third one? “Thirdly,” I said, “we have the seldom-acknowledged collaborative efforts of the airline industry and regulators.”

And that’s true, I suppose. Until it’s not.

Sure, the FAA and the airlines have a vested interest in keeping passengers alive. The stakes are enormous for all parties involved. In the past I’ve cited different examples of collaborative successes: the mandating of certain cockpit equipment, the establishment of proactive substance abuse programs, the tightening of pilot rest requirements, and so on. But this partnership only only works to a point. When the culture goes rotten and the checks and balances fail, the results can be catastrophic. The 737 MAX debacle is a perfect illustration of this.

For a deeper understanding of how, I recommend the recent New Yorker story, “After the Crash,” by Alec MacGillis. This is maybe the best exploration of the MAX saga that I’ve seen to date — worlds better than William Langeweische’s foul analysis that ran in the New York Times Magazine in September. It’s a sobering look into how the FAA and Boeing failed one another in certifying the MAX. (And how ironic that the grand-neice of none other than Ralph Nader was a passenger on the doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight?)

It’s also a sad indictment of what’s become of Boeing’s corporate culture since its acquisition of McDonnell Douglas. The company today is just another corporate entity whose masters see nothing but the bottom line. The many engineers, systems designers and pilots, whose talents were, for generations, the heart and soul of what made Boeing special, have been cast aside or ignored. Indeed, what this whole mess really comes down to is Boeing’s stubbornness and lack of vision: how, rather take the time and care to come up with a new airplane, it took a 55 year-old design and made a monster out of it.

What Boeing should do is the one thing it almost certainly won’t do: say goodbye to the 737. Cut its losses and pull the plug on a plane that should have been put to pasture a long time ago. Then pool its resources, bring those engineers and pilots back into the loop where they belong, and build an all-new, high-performing 200-seater.

Meanwhile, on and on it goes. How wrong I was. What I predicted would be fixed and forgotten in a matter of weeks is now in its ninth month of crisis. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg was forced out last week. The planes remain grounded. Lawsuits are pending.

UPDATE: October 25, 2019

For months now I’ve avoided publishing any updates on the 737 MAX saga. Things have spun in so many different directions that I wouldn’t know where to dig in. The media, both big and small, has done a surprisingly good job with the story — and all of its various substories — and there hasn’t been much to add, from a pilot’s perspective, that I didn’t already say in my early installments.

This week, though, we’ve seen a couple of big developments. First, Indonesian authorities released their final report on the crash of Lion Air flight 510, the disaster that touched off the whole mess. Here’s a decent summary from the BBC. The findings echo much what William Langewiesche wrote in his scathing Times story a few weeks ago, throwing a portion of the blame on the flight crew and faulty maintenance.

The investigators cite nine — nine! — separate failures, both human and mechanical, that led to the crash. Although this spreads the blame around, it does not absolve Boeing. The BBC reporter nails it with this one paragraph: As Boeing’s chief executive Dennis Muilenburg has repeatedly stated, there was a chain of events. But at the heart of that chain was MCAS — a control system that the pilots didn’t know about, and which was vulnerable to a single sensor failure.

And there’s still the Ethiopian crash, the dynamics of which were somewhat different (see below).

Boeing, meanwhile, might at last be closing in on a solution. The beleaguered planemaker is moving forward with a suite of software and training upgrades that it believes will get the MAX back in the air soon. You can see a bullet-point rundown here. What “soon” might be is still anyone’s guess. I expected the plane to be flying again by now, and for the controversy to have long since died away. That hasn’t happened, and the repercussions for Boeing cannot be overstated. The company has taken a huge hit to its bottom line, as well as its reputation.

And here’s the part we hate to ask but need to: why did the 737 MAX need to exist in the first place? Were these catastrophes, on some level, the inevitable result of Boeing’s decades-long obsession with its 737 platform — its determination to keep the production line going, variant after variant, seemingly forever?

Instead of starting from scratch with a new airframe, Boeing took what was conceived in the 1960s as a regional jet, and has pushed and pushed and pushed it — bigger and bigger engines, fancier avionics, MCAS — into roles it was never intended for. Five decades and ten variants later, the MAX is a monsterized hybrid of a thing, a plane that wants, and needs to be something that it’s not: all muscle and power and advanced technology, jammed into the framework of a fifty year-old design. Call it a software failure, or call it bad corporate strategy and stubbornness.

The MAX will fly again, safely. Boeing has invested far too much money and effort to abandon the program. But here’s hoping this is the end. You won’t see it any reports, but what happened in Africa and Indonesia is, maybe, fate’s way of telling Boeing that the time has come to move on.

UPDATE: April 13, 2019

What a mess. Boeing is getting knocked around by everyone from members of Congress to late-night comedians. The MAX’s certification program is under scrutiny, airlines are canceling orders, and passengers everywhere are scared. The FAA is facing accusations that it took far too long to order the MAX’s grounding (after numerous other countries had already done so), and that it basically permitted Boeing to self-certify an unsafe aircraft.

We keep hearing, too, about what a horrible black mark this is not merely against Boeing, but against American aviation’s place in the world. We are no longer the global leader in air safety, no longer the “gold standard,” whatever that means exactly, as several articles have described it. This is maybe just another example of the weird phenomenon known as American exceptionalism, but each time I hear it, I keep going back to the DC-10 fiasco in the 1970s.

In 1974, in one of the most horrific air disasters of all time, a THY (Turkish Airlines) DC-10 crashed after takeoff from Orly Airport outside Paris, killing 346 people. The accident was traced to a faulty cargo door design. (The same door had nearly caused the crash of an American Airlines DC-10 two years earlier.) McDonnell Douglas had hurriedly designed a plane with a door that it knew was defective; then, in the aftermath of Paris, tried to cover the whole thing up. It was reckless, even criminal. Then, in 1979, American flight 191, also a DC-10, went down at Chicago-O’Hare, killing 273 — to this day the deadliest air crash ever on U.S. soil — after an engine detached on takeoff. Investigators blamed improper maintenance procedures (including use of a forklift to raise the engine and its pylon), and then found pylon cracks in at least six other DC-10s, causing the entire fleet to be grounded for 37 days. The NTSB also cited design flaws in the engine pylon and wing slats, quality control problems at McDonnell Douglas, and “deficiencies in the surveillance and reporting procedures of the FAA.”

That’s two of history’s ten deadliest air crashes, complete with design defects, a cover-up, and 619 dead people. And don’t forget the 737 itself has a checkered past, going back to the rudder problems that caused the crash of USAir flight 427 in 1994 (and likely the crash of United flight 585 in 1991). Yet the DC-10, the 737, and America’s aviation prestige along with them, have persevered. If we survived those scandals we can probably manage this. I have a feeling that a year from now this saga will be mostly forgotten. Boeing and its stock price will recover, the MAX will be up and flying again, and on and on we go. This is how it happens.

There’s also a lot being made of the FAA’s more or less outsourcing aircraft certification to Boeing. This is frustrating, and ironic, because air travel has never been safer, and it’s partly because, not in spite of, the close relationship and collaborative efforts between regulators, airlines, manufacturers, pilot groups, and so on. (A good example is the self-reporting program between pilots and FAA, which has been very successful and has kept dangerous trends from being driven underground.) Bear in mind how much these parties stand to lose should a tragedy occur. A crash can destroy an airline outright. It’s in the interest of all these entities to play things as safely as possible.

Did something go wrong in the 737 program? Are Boeing and the FAA jointly responsible? Probably. But I don’t believe anybody was intentionally reckless. That’s an important distinction, and for the most part the relationships between industry and regulators has been a productive one. You can’t say that about banking, perhaps, but in aviation it seems to work. The remarkable safety record we’ve enjoyed over the past twenty years bears that out, absolutely.

For the airline passenger, these can seem like scary times. Air crashes, perhaps more than any other type of catastrophe, have a way of haunting the public’s consciousness, particularly when the causes are mysterious. My best advice, maybe, is to turn off the news, take a step back, and try to look at this through a wider lens. The fact is, Lion Air and Ethiopian notwithstanding, air travel has never been safer than it is today. Two fatal crashes in five months is tragic, but in decades past it wasn’t unusual to see ten, fifteen, or even twenty air disasters worldwide in a given year. Nowadays, two or more is downright unusual. Here in the United States there hasn’t been a large-scale fatal crash involving a mainline carrier in nearly twenty years — an absolutely astonishing statistic. There are far more planes, carrying far more passengers, than ever before, yet the accident rate is a fraction of what it once was.

UPDATE: April 6, 2019

This just makes you shake your head.

What seems to be the case, based on analysis of the voice and data recorders from the doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, is that the 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, and that few 737 pilots are aware of. 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 that is 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 would be expected to do under the circumstances. Turns out it’s the wrong thing, but they have no way of knowing.

It’s possible that the pilots of Lion Air flight 610 faced exactly the same situation, with the same result.

Apparently, pilots of older-generation 737s — long before there was MCAS — were aware of the lockout potential, and some were trained accordingly. (I flew the “classic” 737-200, briefly, about twenty years ago, but have no memory of it one way or the other.) However, as an obscure phenomenon that no pilot was likely to ever encounter, it was eventually forgotten as the 737 line evolved, to the point where no mention of it appears in the manuals of later variants.


UPDATE: March 29, 2019

ON MARCH 10th, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302, a Boeing 737 MAX bound for Nairobi, crashed after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing 157 people from more than thirty countries. Five months earlier, 189 people perished after Lion Air flight JT610 went down near Jakarta, Indonesia, under eerily similar circumstances. Both planes were brand new 737 MAX jets. Both crashed shortly after takeoff following a loss of control.

Although findings from the voice and data recorders pulled from the Ethiopian wreckage haven’t been released yet, it’s all but assumed that flight succumbed to the same flight control malfunction that brought down Lion Air. The 737 MAX has a deadly design problem, and Boeing needs to fix it. In the meantime, all MAX jets remain grounded worldwide.

The culprit is something called MCAS, which stands for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, a system that adjusts control feel as the plane’s nose pitches upward, effectively nudging it downward.

MCAS operates in the background, transparently and automatically — there’s no on or off switch, per se — and only during a very narrow window of the jet’s flight envelope. This is not something that occurs in normal, day-to-day operation, but certification requires it for those occasions when, for whatever reason, the plane reaches unusually steep climb angles. To raise a plane’s nose, the pilot pulls back on the control column. As the nose pitches further and further upward, the control forces required to maintain this action are supposed to become heavier. This helps keep pilots, and/or the autopilot, from inadvertently stalling the plane — that is, exceeding what we call the “critical angle of attack,” at which point the wings run out of lift and the plane ceases to fly. On the 737 MAX, however, certain aerodynamic factors, including the placement of its very powerful engines, result in control forces actually becoming lighter as it approaches the point of stall. Because of this the plane would not meet certification standards. And so MCAS was engineered in to properly adjust the feel.

Thus there’s a certain beauty to MCAS — provided it works correctly. What’s happening, apparently, is that faulty data is being fed to MCAS by the plane’s angle of attack indicator — a small, wedge-shaped sensor near the plane’s nose that helps warn pilots of an encroaching aerodynamic stall. An impending stall is sensed when there isn’t one, triggering the plane’s stabilizer trim — stabilizers are the wing-like horizontal surfaces beneath the tail — to force the nose down. This sets up a battle of sorts between the pilots and the trim system until the plane becomes uncontrollable and crashes.

What leaves us stymied, though, is the fact that any MCAS commands, faulty or not, can be overridden quickly through a pair of disconnect switches. Why the Lion Air pilots failed to engage these switches is unclear, but unaware of the system’s defect in the first place, we can easily envision a scenario in which they became overwhelmed, unable to figure out in time what the plane was doing and how to correct it. From that point forward, however, things were different. “Though it appears there’s a design flaw that Boeing will need to fix as soon as possible,” I wrote in November,“passengers can take comfort in knowing that every MAX pilot is now acutely aware of this potential problem, and is prepared deal with it.”

Or so it seemed. With the Lion Air crash fresh on any MAX pilot’s mind, why did the Ethiopian pilots not immediately disconnect the trim system? Did a disconnect somehow not work? Was the crew so inundated by a cascade of alarms, warnings, and erratic aircraft behavior that they failed to recognize what was happening? Or, was the problem something else completely? This is the most perplexing part of this whole unfolding drama.

While we wait for the black box results, Boeing this week revealed a suite of hardware and software tweaks that it claims will rectify the issue. This includes incorporation of a second angle of attack indicator, and an alerting system to warn pilots of a disagreement between the two.

The largest MAX operators in the U.S. are American Airlines, Southwest and United. Other customers include Alaska Airlines, Air China, Norwegian, FlyDubai, China Eastern and China Southern. The type is most easily recognize by its 787-style scalloped engine nacelles, which earlier 737s do not have.

Founded in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines is the largest carrier in Africa. Westerners hear “Ethiopia” and tend to make certain, unfortunate associations, but this is company with a proud history and a very good safety record. It flies a state-of-the art fleet, including the Boeing 787 and A350, on routes across four continents. Its training department, the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, has been training pilots for 55 years. Ethiopian’s pilots are distinguished by their handsome, olive green uniforms.

The captain of the doomed flight ET302, Yared Getachew, was a graduate of the highly competitive Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, and had more than 8,000 flight hours — a respectable total. “Yared was a great person and a great pilot. Well prepared,” a former Ethiopian Airlines training captain told me.

The first officer, on the other hand, had a mere two-hundred hours. Airline training is intensive, and as I’ve written in the past, the raw number of hours in a pilot’s logbook isn’t always a good indicator of skill or talent. Nonetheless, if indeed that number is correct (it’s unclear if this refers to his total flight time, or his number of hours in the 737 MAX), that’s pretty astounding. By comparison, the typical new-hire at a U.S. major carrier has somewhere on the order of 5,000 hours. Whether the first officer’s lack of experience had anything to do with the accident, however, is another matter.


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