18 MARCH 2019
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In the rush to judgment that follows any air accident, theories of all kinds abound. So it has been over the past week as the industry has attempted to come to terms with the fate of two new Boeing B737 Max 8 aircraft crashing within a matter of five months.
One thing for sure. Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s leading air carrier. Its training facilities are impressive and airlines from all over the world send their pilots to Addis Ababa for both ab initio and simulator training. The fact that the co-pilot in last week's accident had reportedly only 200hr line experience is not a factor. All pilots have to build up flight hours and his training would have been to a very high standard.
As of yesterday, the focus was narrowing on the aircraft software. As ever, it is not a good idea to speculate but the cockpit recorder tapes from Ethiopian Airlines’ Flight 302 are due to be released within a few days and then hopefully we shall know more. For the moment, reports indicate suspicion is falling on the automatic nose trim stall-recovery feature that kicks in if software calculates a discrepancy between the wings and the expected air flow.
The industry faces a serious situation and sadly we have been here before. But as we also know from past experience, it can be resolved and it will be. If anything positive can come out of the tragedy, it is the speed of the industry response. The Ethiopian Airlines accident happened on 10 March and the airline grounded the fleet the same day.
Once the two accidents were linked, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) decided to ground all Boeing 737 MAX flight operations in Europe until further notice “as a precautionary measure” as well as suspending all 737 MAX flights by non-European airlines into and out of the region.
On Wednesday, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), while initially criticised for a lack of action, followed suit. It said it made its decision after receiving details of refined satellite tracking data and new physical evidence “that more closely links two crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8s”.
In greater detail than previously released, the FAA said: “On March 13, 2018, the investigation of the ET302 crash developed new information from the wreckage concerning the aircraft’s configuration just after take-off.”
The agency said the information, taken together with newly refined data from satellite-based tracking of the aircraft's flight path, indicated “some similarities between the ET302 and [October 2018 Lion Air JT610] accidents”.
These, the FAA said, “warrant further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents that needs to be better understood and addressed”. Boeing said it agreed with the decision “after consultation with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world”.
A company statement added: “Boeing has determined – out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety – to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 B737 MAX aircraft. Boeing makes this recommendation and supports the decision by the FAA.”
Some commentators have compared the Max 8 crashes with the Miracle on the Hudson in January 2009 when a US Airways Airbus A320 struck a flock of geese during the climb-out from New York LaGuardia Airport, superb airmanship saving the day. Could the Max 8 disasters also have been avoided by crew training? IFR (Instrument Flight Training) is undertaken as single crew. Once pilots join an airline, they take a Type Rating. Is there now too much reliance on automation? What are the options when the software fails?
Boeing may have recognised this problem with a statement by chairman, president and CEO Dennis Muilenburg issued yesterday (Sunday 17 April).
"While investigators continue to work to establish definitive conclusions, Boeing is finalizing its development of a previously-announced software update and pilot training revision that will address the MCAS flight control law's behavior in response to erroneous sensor inputs".
Next to finding the cause of the accidents, a serious problem is reassuring the public. Airlines flying the B737 model in question have been switching operations to other aircraft whether from their own fleets or leased-in. It is in everyone’s interests the answers are found.
The good news, if that’s the right expression, is that the evidence is to hand. No stone will be unturned. Airbus too will look at its procedures. We learnt from the Comet disasters, DC10 and in more recent times the Boeing B787 and its lithium battery problems. The Boeing 737 Max 8 is fundamentally a fine aircraft.
Let us hope 10 March 2019 can be quickly left behind, if never forgotten.
All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum
andreas w. schulz, Germany
A very solid comment on the current situation.