Thanks windwalker. I have now registered and believe I will get a certain number of free articles each month.
Frankly, I cannot agree with the author's assertion in the article that the "real cause” of the two fatal crashes was "lack of experience and training of the pilots flying the aircraft." I do not absolve them of blame - contrary to assertions I have made in the past - but the crucial fact is neither crew should have been put in the position they found themselves in. They just happened to be at the sharp end of a series of fatal errors that no one at the time seemed to fully understand.
The very long and extremely detailed NYT article is utterly fascinating - and horrifying at the same time. Generally, having years before been fully aware of the awful problems at another Indonesian start-up, Adam Air, I was not surprised at the author's comments about Lion Air. I was more surprised about the comments on Ethiopian Airlines which has, certainly in recent years, had a very good reputation.
[Adam Air's] disregard of safety ran the gamut and resulted in the dispatch of shabby airplanes in the hands of beleaguered pilots . . . I know how it feels, because as a young man I flew for fly-by-night cargo operators in the United States and suffered most of the survivable failures known to pilot-kind — engine failure, engine fire, electrical failure, electrical fire, radio failure, radar failure, pressurization failure, wing-flap failure, landing-gear failure, gyroscopic failure, airspeed-indication failure, altimeter failure, anti-ice failure, personal (girlfriend) failure, tail-tin-canning lightning-strike failure and trim failures at least four times. By trim failures, I mean runaway trims. Our mechanics laughed about “pencil whipping” the airplanes into the air, and we agreed that the paperwork was a joke. The F.A.A. inspected it and never caught on. But we carried only freight. One winter night, one of our pilots died. He was taken down by a de-icing failure over high terrain inbound to Los Angeles, and none of us were surprised.
From the above, it is perfectly obvious that the author was (and perhaps still is) a highly proficient and hugely experienced pilot used to all manner of emergencies in an age when automation in the cockpit was a fraction of what it is today. You can feel from the way he writes that he puts himself into the position of all the Lion Air and Ethiopian pilots. And he makes the procedure for correcting the problems which arose seem relatively simple. That is one of his first errors.
Early on he makes a very salient point.
Airplanes are living things. The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on. The United States Navy manages to instil a sense of this in its fledgling fighter pilots by ramming them through rigorous classroom instruction and then requiring them to fly at bank angles without limits, including upside down. The same cannot be expected of airline pilots who never fly solo and whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers who flinch in mild turbulence, refer to “air pockets” in cocktail conversation and think they are near death if bank angles exceed 30 degrees. The problem exists for many American and European pilots, too. Unless they make extraordinary efforts — for instance, going out to fly aerobatics, fly sailplanes or wander among the airstrips of backcountry Idaho — they may never develop true airmanship no matter the length of their careers.
So, as he himself points out, many pilots today do not have anything like his earlier level of hands-on experience. That is not just a result of tremendous technological advances. It is partly due to the massive rise in the number of passengers and the consequent need for vast numbers of pilots and engineers, many of whom have been inadequately trained. He cites China as the first example of a country where air travel expanded rapidly and pilots were basically taught by rote and where, if something like a landing approach veered from the ingrained training pilots had received, accidents more than likely occurred.
That changed over time. With the support of the Chinese government, which went so far as to delegate some regulatory functions to foreigners, the manufacturers were able to instil a rigorous approach to safety in a small cadre of pilots and managers, who in turn were able to instil it in others. The effort was made not out of the goodness of the manufacturers’ hearts, but out of calculations related to risk and self-preservation. It is widely seen to have been a success. Today the Chinese airlines are some of the safest in the world.
He goes on. Boeing realised it had a similar problem with Lion Air. Boeing was aware of the widespread culture of corruption within the airline and accepted it could do little to change this. But as Lion Air was one of its largest customers worldwide, it felt it had to do something. So, it decided to intervene and attempt to raise standards.
10 years ago, Boeing spent a “shitpot full of money” in doing the same exercise to raise the standards at Lion Air, but without similar success. Lion Air continued to crash airplanes around runways as it had before. The Indonesian authorities lacked the political will to rein that in.
He continues by comparing the approaches of Boeing and the new upstart Airbus.
[Whereas Airbus addressed the] accelerating decline in airmanship [by designing an aircraft that would] require minimal piloting skills largely by using digital flight controls to reduce pilot workload . . . and build in pilot-proof protections against errors like aerodynamic stalls, etc. . . . [Airbus] efforts led to the smartest airplane ever built, a single-aisle medium-range ‘fly-by-wire’ masterpiece called the A320 that entered the global market in 1988, led the way to all other Airbus models since . . . Boeing, on the other hand, continued with its different design philosophy that relied on pilots’ airmanship as the last line of defense. It made sense in an era when airplanes were vulnerable to weather and prone to failures and pilots intervened regularly to keep airplanes from crashing.
Rather ominously, he then adds that by the 1980s however,
it became apparent that because of engineering improvements, very few accidents were caused by airplanes anymore, and almost all resulted from pilot error . . . In the face of these changes, Boeing clung resolutely to its pilot-centric designs. [The Airbus] approach was diametrically opposed to Boeing’s.
Of Boeing’s decision not to re-engineer the basic 737 hull which had been in existence for almost 60 years, the author says virtually nothing. Of the new engines having to be placed further forward and partly above the surface of the wing, he also says little. After Boeing came up with the MCAS system, he does add that
Boeing believed the system to be so innocuous, even if it malfunctioned, that the company did not inform pilots of its existence or include a description of it in the airplane’s flight manuals.
And that surly is the basic root cause of the two fatal crashes – not any possible incompetence of the airlines nor any failure of the pilots. At least in the case of Lion Air, Boeing was perfectly well aware of the type of operation run by the airline. It was aware of the youth of its pilots and the training systems, such as they were, that it had in place. After all, it had worked with the airline to improve that training. Yet it totally failed to provide any information to airline and pilots of the new MCAS system and how it would operate. It was not in the training iPad programmes and it was not in the pilots’ flight manuals. Yet even given that gross error of judgement, the author absolves Boeing of much of the blame, seeming to suggest the MCAS system was an honest mistake. That beggars belief, considering the reports from more than a few Boeing insiders on how it was vital and further reports from pilots on US airlines having reported problems with sudden unexplained nose-down actions long before the Lion Air crash.
Even so, he remains critical of Boeing as a company.
On the corporate level, the company is the worst sort of player — a corrosive agent that spreads money around Washington, pushes exotic weapons on Congress, toys with nuclear annihilation, sells all sorts of lesser instruments of death to oppressive regimes around the world and dangerously distorts American society in the ways that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against in his prescient 1961 farewell address.
In the penultimate paragraph, the author goes back to the comparison between the basic Boeing and Airbus approach to aircraft design. Boeing’s -
traditional pilot-centric views needs to change, and someday it probably will; in the end Boeing will have no choice but to swallow its pride and follow the Airbus lead.