Nervous Flyers . . .

. . . close your eyes or hide behind the sofa

Amongst our Charioteers there are, as far as I remember, at least two qualified commercial pilots who have flown 737s, another who has worked on building and testing air frames, and a further couple or perhaps more of us who have worked in one or more fields in ATC. If any of you don’t agree with my take on recent events, don’t be shy, tell me why I’m wrong.

At various times back in the day, I’ve worked closely with the UK CAA and more recently with the Australian CAA (now Air Services Australia). Both organisations were (and still are, as far as I know) staffed with safety-minded, highly professional experts. Dealings with the US FAA were more indirect, but they were viewed as extra-cautious, play-it-safe expert experts – and if they said jump, the ATC world was pleased to jump immediately and ask questions later. Annoying at times, but safe.

When the first 737 MAX 8 went down, it was obvious to me (and I guess many other ‘armchair experts’) that there had been a software fault in some part of the FMS similar to, but different from, the one in the A330 AF447 that went down in 2009 on its way from Rio to Paris. I confidently anticipated a rapid reaction by either Boeing or the FAA to the deaths of so many people – all passengers and crew. What happened? Not a thing beyond the usual platitudes and a vague mumble about waiting until the black boxes (actually orange) had been analysed.

Then the second MAX 8 went down in similar circumstances, with all lives lost, again – that’s 300+ in a few months, which is a lot of ruined families even by American school shooting standards. What happened this time? Well, you couldn’t make this up –

  • China grounded all 737 MAX 8s that were Chinese registered and prohibited all others from entering Chinese airspace.
  • The FAA said that all 737s were safe, keep on flying.
  • Indonesia grounded all MAX 8s
  • The FAA said that all 737s were safe, keep on flying.
  • Australia grounded all MAX 8s, then the UK did the same, and Eurocontrol did, and many other countries . . .
  • The FAA said that all 737s were safe, keep on flying.
  • Canada grounded all MAX 8s
  • President Trump grounded all MAX 8s by Executive Order.
  • The FAA and Boeing agreed that they should be grounded.

Whatever is going on?

I don’t fly any more, but if I did I’d make sure it was on an Airbus, not on a dodgy Yankee deathtrap certified by a corrupt Administrator. 😎

Author: Bearsy

A Queensland Bear with attitude

15 thoughts on “Nervous Flyers . . .”

  1. The problem with coding is that it can take a long time to figure out what is actually going on. It was obvious that there was something wrong last year, but exactly what it was and if it was a one-off issue remained uncertain. Lion Air also has had issues with maintenance and letting problem aeroplanes fly. Ethiopian Airlines does not have this reputation and it is very, very cautious as it has great ambitions. My opinion? Boeing doesn’t have a clue as to what is wrong but doesn’t want to admit it. The FAA is also out of its depth. The speed of technological advancement has outstripped the ability of governments and regulators to keep up. Boeing stood to lose a fortune if the 737-Max had to be recalled and the FAA stood to get egg on its face if it showed that it was struggling to keep abreast with developments.

  2. I am certainly no expert, not even when sitting in an armchair, however, I did read a couple of responses from people who claimed to be, on the Quora platform. (Bearsy, for all I know, you were one of those to comment.) They seem to be saying that automated safety systems are not fool proof and sometimes the pilot knows better. Anyway, here is a link for those interested.

    What I will say is that I would rather fly in a Boeing 737 MAX than drive on some of Zimbabwe’s roads. Yesterday I completed the final leg of my trip back from Cape Town. Bloody hair-raising.

  3. G’day Sipu, thanks for the Quora link. I haven’t read all the material there, but I’ve skimmed through most of it. There’s some very good stuff – and some that is painfully bad for a range of reasons (ignorance, politics and so on).

    I’ve learnt a bit in areas that are not my speciality, but certainly nothing that makes me change my opinions or conclusions. I could go into detail, but I reckon that would bore my readers – and me too!

    No, I didn’t write any of the Quora articles or comments 😎

  4. Having read a lot of articles over the past couple of days, it appears to me that there is no doubt that both Boeing and the FAA have totally lost the plot. Their appalling joint lack of professionalism has resulted in the death of 300+ people. Both “accidents” could have been avoided if they had behaved the way they used to.

    I won’t go into detail, but stretching the boundaries of “grandfathering” to include a change of engine with different size, shape, power, mass, purportedly ameliorated by an undisclosed, undocumented software bodge with the power and ‘machine will’ to override anything the pilots tried to do, is stupid in the extreme. Those responsible in both organisations should be removed and sent to prison for manslaughter (or second degree murder, or whatever, in Yank-speak).

    I can hardly believe that the USA has sunk so low.

  5. Bearsy, I think you should contribute to Quora. Some of the topics are daft and the answers dafter, as you indicated, but there is quite a lot that is interesting and the platform provides a useful source of information on a range of topics. I should imagine it right up your street. Apparently that is how Jordan Peterson came to prominence. He posted answers that received a huge number of positive reactions. I am not suggesting that you start writing self-help books, but I think with your experience in the engineering field and elsewhere, you may be able to make some useful contributions and find it enjoyable. Boadicea too. Just a thought.

  6. Bearsy: Under US law, the two crashes would be murder in the second degree of two different sorts. The Lion Air crash would be considered negligent homicide. Those who could have changed something to prevent the deaths did not do anything. Their negligence, as a result, caused the accident and the deaths. The Ethiopian Airlines crash would be reckless indifference. It is also a form of murder in the second degree, but it would carry a more severe penalty.

    The USA isn’t what it used to be. It has lost the plot. There is still a great degree of dynamism and, of course, it’s hard to argue that everything is going wrong there. But, there is still a sense that people are so busy shouting over and past each other that they aren’t grasping even basic points any more.

  7. G’day, Bearsy. For most of my professional life I was an extremely frequent flyer (Knight’s Cross with Swords, Oak Leaves and Bar, etc.) in a business or first class armchair whenever available, to and around various hot and tropical parts of the world and I am extremely relieved I can now sit on my hillside and just watch the things flying over.

    I am extremely relieved because I feel that the headlong rush towards automation of the latest genres of aircraft is being made for monetary and commercial reasons, possibly to the detriment of pilot experience and passenger safety. The warning signs were there from the start when one of the first Airbus A320s crashed at a French airshow after the pilots attempted a ‘touch and go’ landing as part of the display. It was alleged that the computers overrode the pilot’s throttle inputs having decided it was in ‘landing’ mode and flew the aircraft straight into a forest as a result. Then there was, as you mention, the A330 that fell out of the sky over the Atlantic in the middle of the night because, if I remember correctly, erroneous data was being fed to the computers from faulty sensors. Now we have in swift succession and apparently in similar if not identical circumstances, the Lion Air and the Ethiopian Airlines crashes.

    To ground the Boeings would seem to be a sensible precaution pending an investigation, but I am disturbed that the FAA resisted the move until worldwide pressure forced their hand. One wonders if Boeing, with several hundred of these new aircraft already in service and an order book in excess of 4,000 examples, might not have had a hand in this delay. And it is not as though the company does not have form in this regard. Several decades ago there was a series of unexplained crashes of 737s where the aircraft rolled inverted and dived straight into the ground. It eventually transpired that because of a design fault in the rudder actuator, pilot inputs on the rudder pedals could in certain circumstances cause the rudder to move to the extreme of its travel and lock there, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable. The 737s were never grounded and hundreds of souls perished before the problem was identified.

    Now that pilots are increasingly becoming mere ‘aircraft systems monitors’ rather than active pilots it is easy to see a sudden software problem becoming fatal because the crew spend their final moments playing catch up and trying to identify what the hell is happening rather than flying out of trouble, which they might be prevented by the electronic ‘safeguards’ from doing anyway. To paraphrase a chap writing a comment in the DT last week, I would prefer to be flown safely by a pilot with more than 10,000 hours of hands on experience rather than die because in a moment of crisis four French or American computers were arguing amongst themselves about whether or not the pilot was taking the correct remedial action.


  8. I darkly suspect that Boeing’s change of position had nearly as much to do with international pressure or with simply wanting to do the right thing as it did with the decline in the value of their stock.

    Here’s another tidbit that I just spotted this morning while seeing what our neighbors to the North are up to:

    Walking seems safer.

  9. Many thanks for all your comments, Gentlemen.

    Sipu – I’m too old for that game, and I’ve been retired too long to be current! Thanks for the suggestion, but no thanks! 😎

    Christopher – thanks for the clear explanation of the Mercan criminal code, much appreciated.

    OZ – Absolutely! I seem to remember that I was on duty on a stand at the Paris Airshow the year the 320 became a lumberjack. If memory serves, the rolling, let’s fly upside down 737 was for some while ascribed to wind-shear and pilot unfamiliarity before the real reason was discovered.

    Cog – Thanks for the link, I had already seen the same report locally. To add a little extra detail – the 737 MAX 8 is fitted with two attitude sensors (one each side) but the MCAS only takes input from one because the “designers” didn’t believe the function was critical enough to do the usual “best of two” (or preferably best of three) comparison. Presumably that was before the actuator’s max movement was upped by a factor of 10 or more during flight trials. Talk about negligence! 😱

  10. When I booked a flight from Sydney to Brisbane on Qantas the aeroplane was initially supposed to be a Boeing 737 Max-8. Naturally, they swapped it for an Airbus A330.

  11. G’day, Bearsy

    This is an interesting read in the New York Times about the Lion Air crash which appears to have been originally published eight days before the Ethiopian disaster.

    Perhaps Boeing and the FAA weren’t exactly forthcoming with the veritΓ© after all.


  12. Hi OZ, thanks for the link but the NYT paywall won’t let me read more than the first few lines. Not to worry, there are plenty of other relevant articles, most of which are telling the real story – except for those written by Boeing or the FAA or retired friends calling themselves consultants, of course.

    Forty seconds to flip a switch that you haven’t been told about, which controls a function you’re not aware of, or certain death.


  13. Any of you who have actual experience flying airy-planes, please tell me: is stalling really all that likely a threat? Although not a wearer of wings, it seems to me that it would be fairly easy to recognize an incipient stall and that any pilot worth his uniform could and would take appropriate action immediately – manually, without having some fool computer system to do it for him.

  14. Cog: Not a pilot, but I’ve had to do a lot of research into aeroplane crashes as part of my legal studies. Stalls are rare, but the overwhelming majority of cases can be dealt with. In the case of the 737-Max, the computers over-ruled the pilots. Boeing did not let the carriers know how to over-rule the computers so pilots could only rely on their training. This failed as Boeing used a technology that was very knew and that few had any training for, much less experience, with.

  15. Cog – I’m not a pilot either, but perhaps I can add a few bits of relevant information, until a real fly-guy comes along and tells us where I’m wrong.

    What type of aircraft you’re in makes a lot of difference – a little personal job or a bloody great commercial thingy – my comments only relate to the big end of town.

    Stalls can creep up on you, that’s why there have been “stick shakers” fitted for many years. When the control column begins to shake in your hand you’re either already in a stall or you bloody soon will be. Take action! But under some emergency high stress conditions even experienced pilots will ignore this warning and do the wrong thing . . .

    Getting out of a stall is not exactly easy at the best of times and there’s little time available, because with no lift you’re dropping like a lump of lead – very quickly. I believe it was the VC-10 that had a stall mode that was almost impossible to get out of if you weren’t a test pilot. One of the planes of that era, anyway.

    In cloud and/or at night, a pilot cannot rely on his own senses to know whether the plane is going up, down or into hyperspace. Or even to know which way is up. That’s why you have to become instrument rated to fly in those conditions, and learn to trust what your instruments tell you. Which is fine until the instruments go wrong – or the FMS tells you porkies, like the Boeing system did in the 737 MAX 8s.

    It’s all rather more difficult than you might imagine, especially if you’re relatively new to the left seat. 😎

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