Thursday, March 14, 2019

What's Next for the Max?






As an aviation blogger, the past few days have been simultaneously hope inspiring and depressing. Hope inspiring as many people understand, or make a good faith attempt to understand, the underlying issues surrounding the 737 Max. But also depressing as random fanbois, trolls, and low information, yet self proclaimed experts, happen by my comments section to disgorge their dubious wisdom on things about which they know little or nothing.

Mencken was Right: No One Ever went Broke Underestimating the Intelligence of the Public


One commenter offered, based on no information other than two 737s had crashed, that all of them should be grounded. I pointed out that by that logic, it would be even more beneficial to ground all airplanes everywhere as it would be safer still. The response was "I didn't say all airplanes should be grounded" displaying an ironclad grip on logical fallacies.

When I noted that the MCAS system could be completely deactivated using two switches mounted on the center console, a commenter replied that well, "maybe the switches reconnected themselves". Other than the testing of those switches being a mandatory preflight item, this commenter has obviously confused the Boeing 737 with the SkyNet model T-1000 Terminator which can rewire itself automatically.

Lastly, when one commenter [Hi Scott!] boldly opined that the 737 was the worst airplane he'd ever flown on, I replied that my passenger experience is usually more dependent upon the particular airline and class of service rather than the aircraft type. This big brained person assured me, however, that no, none of that mattered. He apparently would rather sit in a non reclining 28 inch pitch economy seat on a Spirit A320 than a first class seat on a JAL 737.  [Sigh]

Public Relations and Marketing Wins


So the FAA bowed to international and media pressure and grounded all Max aircraft, which is proving to be a minor inconvenience to most operators of the aircraft. I was personally walking out to a Max to fly to Phoenix when the announcement came. Someone somewhere had done some preparations and an -800 was towed to the gate by maintenance about 10 minutes later for a slightly delayed departure.

We of course are now treated to the circular logic of all the "I told you so" stories. The process starts as media sensationalism whips up a gullible and credulous public followed by outraged calls for the aircraft to be grounded. After weather-vaning politicians cave into public pressure, preening media talking heads then get to state that something must have been really been wrong. And so it goes.

Make no mistake: this grounding has more to do with public relations and marketing than safety. As of yet, there is very little evidence that the two Max crashes are in any way related other than the most superficial of circumstances. But the tsunami of media scare stories and sensationalism showed no signs of abatement, so this was the correct decision. 

The FAA cited "newly" discovered satellite data which finally swayed their decision.They are referring to the ADS-B tracking system which relays flight parameters to air traffic control through satellite. This information, however, was publicly available shortly after the crash and it does show some minor altitude excursions, though nothing is conclusive.

The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder from the Ethiopian crash have been recovered and sent to France for analysis. Again, prescient commenters noted that this was a good thing because, of course, had they been sent to the US, American investigators would falsify any result finding the US producer of the aircraft at fault. I actually agree with this decision in spite of the slander against the integrity of the NTSB and other US investigators. Having French investigators analyze the data will deflect the inevitable cries of bias should the investigation find fault in anything except the aircraft itself.

What Next?


What happens next is we wait for the data from ET302 to be downloaded and released. When that happens and a likely cause of the accident can be discerned, the Max will be cleared to fly. Notice that I didn't say that this clearance will in any way be dependent on the outcome of the investigation. The aircraft will be flying again in a matter of weeks regardless of the findings.

Why you ask? Should the MCAS system be implicated in this crash (unlikely in my opinion), there will be software fixes and training updates offered. As I've noted many times, the system can be deactivated completely through the use of two center console mounted switches. Even then, the system should only activate in the case of gross pilot negligence resulting in an aerodynamic stall or, as in the case of the Lion crash, an errant sensor input due to a mechanical malfunction. 

The software fixes will preclude the activation of the system due to the failure of a single sensor. The training updates will reemphasize to all operators that undesirable electric trim inputs can be inhibited through the use of the center console mounted stab cutout switches. 

Should the MCAS system not be implicated in the ET302 crash, the Max will be back in the air that much sooner. Make no mistake, all airline crashes are tragedies of the highest order for everyone involved. The object of any investigation is to find out what happened and to take measures to prevent any future recurrence. Commercial aviation is one of the safest, if not the safest means of transportation available. 

What will be left is a mopping up by the lawyers.


Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included instructing future USAF pilots in the T-37 primary jet trainer, aerial refueling in the KC-135 Stratotanker, and conducting worldwide logistics in the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at robertgraves.com. He also writes for Avgeekery.com. 








Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Is the Boeing 737 Max 8 Safe?





737 Max 8


This past Sunday, an Ethiopian Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with 157 passengers and crew. There were no survivors. This is the second crash of a Max 8 variant of the 737 in five months after the crash of a Lion Air Max 8 last October.

An undocumented system was brought under scrutiny in the Lion Air crash and now questions are being raised as to whether this same system, known as maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), might have played a roll in this latest crash. If that is found to be the case, the safety of the aircraft itself will be called into question.

What We Know


At the current time, the cause of both accidents is unknown as the accident investigation is still underway on the Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian Air crash investigation is just getting under way. The flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders have been recovered from both accidents and are being analyzed.

The flight recorder data from the Lion Air crash suggests that the pilots were having control difficulty due to erroneous inputs from the aircraft's MCAS system which itself received faulty inputs from a malfunctioning angle of attack (AOA) sensor. It is this errant sensor and its maintenance history that investigators are focusing on.

Initial reports from the Ethiopian Air crash suggest that the aircraft experienced control difficulties shortly after takeoff. Data from a flight tracking and reporting system known as ADS-B show highly unstable vertical velocity and airspeed readouts which were similar to the airspeed and altitude excursions of the Lion Air mishap aircraft.

Unconfirmed reports from listeners on the frequency reported that the Ethiopian pilots stated that they had unreliable airspeed indications and were declaring an emergency.

And right now, that's it. There are similarities, but no confirmation that the same system brought down both aircraft.

Is It Safe?


Given that we know little about the cause of the first accident and nothing about the cause of the second, a grounding of this model aircraft is premature. I am qualified and current in this model aircraft and am confident that it is as safe as any aircraft flying. Airplanes sometimes crash. It is always a tragedy when they do, but barring a definitive indictment of the design, there is no reason to overreact.

Even should the MCAS system be found primarily at fault, the system can be completely deactivated by two easily reached switches on the center console of the cockpit. Why the Lion Air pilots didn't take this action is unknown, but the investigation should eventually reveal the cause. A similar malfunction occurred on a previous flight of the mishap aircraft, and those pilots took the correct action and landed uneventfully. Questions as to why the aircraft flew again without being properly repaired should be asked.

In the event of unreliable airspeed, which can happen to any aircraft independent of model, routine practice of this malfunction in the simulator should make it a non-event. I recently underwent this training myself, but the basics of pitch and power date back to Wilbur and Orville. Recognition is the toughest part, but after that, known pitch and power settings will keep the aircraft from stalling and in control.

I don't mention these questions to cast blame, but rather to answer critics who don't understand aviation or engage in magical thinking. The Max is still a 737 at heart and flies nearly identically to the other four models of the aircraft that I have flown. So yes, it is safe, and I'd gladly put my family on one and fly it myself with no reservations.


Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included instructing future USAF pilots in the T-37 primary jet trainer, aerial refueling in the KC-135 Stratotanker, and conducting worldwide logistics in the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at robertgraves.com. He also writes for Avgeekery.com.