April 15, 2019, © Leeham News: This column will no doubt light up the blog-o-sphere.
There’s been a major debate going on since the crash of Lion Air JT610, the Boeing 737-8 MAX that immediately became a huge controversy.
Boeing immediately blamed the pilots. So did some pilots of some US airlines, who said if the Lion Air crew had just flown the airplane, it wouldn’t have crashed. It was a training issue, some said.
Having got tremendous blow back over Lion Air, Boeing publicly held its tongue when Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crashed five months later.
Still, Boeing officials quietly still said there was nothing wrong with the airplane.
Some US and Canadian pilots maintained, publicly and privately, that a lack of training and pilot skills in the Third World was responsible.
They’re not entirely wrong.
It’s pretty clear that the root cause of the two accidents can be traced to MCAS, the automation feature that provide stall protection for the MAX. In this case, automation fought the pilots (or the other way around, depending on your viewpoint) and the pilots lost.
Linking MCAS to a single Angle of Attack sensor rather than two created a single point of failure.
This is supposed to be an anathema in aviation.
Designing MCAS to be a repetitive engagement also proved a mistake.
Boeing is correcting these with its software upgrade.
But for those who want to exonerate the pilots in both crashes, well…those who criticized the four pilots have some pretty solid ground.
Aviation Week last week published a summary of the initial report for the Ethiopian Airline crash. The findings point to the pilots. The article is here; free registration is required.
It’s fair to say that the four pilots were probably trapped into making mistakes. Boeing didn’t tell the airlines about the MCAS, so no training was possible. But mistakes were made by pilots, nevertheless.
In late-March, there was enough information about the two accidents for me to have an email exchange in which I wrote:
Broadly, the following points appear to be contributory factors to the two accidents:
I also wrote that national pride will probably minimize the pilot contributions to the accidents.
Those who pointed to poorer training in Third World countries aren’t wrong.
Pilot skills and training in the First World are extraordinary. The accident rates in the US, Canada and First World Europe have been lower than anywhere else since the dawn of modern aviation.
Airbus adopted Flight Envelope Protection and sophisticated computer control over the airplane. Boeing preferred more direct pilot control, even as it moved toward automation.
Airbus essentially took the approach to prepare the airplane for the lowest common denominator. Boeing’s approach was for the average pilot, however this was defined.
Concerns over increasing automation aren’t new. When Boeing introduced the 737 NG in 1997, with more automation than the 737 Classic, I remember at the time Southwest Airlines was concerned about automation leading to a degradation of pilot skills. Then, there was a conscious decision that the pilots still needed to fly the planes.
I’ve talked with a United Airlines pilot who flew Boeing aircraft and who was a captain on the A320 at the time of our discussion. This was years ago. He said that despite the automation, he’d manually fly the airplane often to maintain his skills.
There are two notable accidents in which auto-throttles played a key role. One was the Asian Airlines Boeing 777 accident at San Francisco. Another was the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 crash in Amsterdam. In neither case were the auto-throttles the sole cause but these contributed to the accident.
Auto-throttles were an element—one of many—of the two MAX accidents.
On the other hand, the A320’s flight envelope protection system was a contributing factor to the successful water ditching for US Airways flight 1549.
A major difference between Western training and that in the Third World is Cockpit Resource Management. Culture also plays a role.
CRM has been around Western airline training for decades. It has contributed to successful outcomes of many emergency situations. CRM encourages cooperation between the captain and subordinate cockpit crew members.
CRM tends to be lacking in other areas, in part because many cultures place a high premium on deference to authority. There are several accidents in Asia where this deference played a deadly role.
Delta Air Lines is a founder of the international alliance SkyTeam, which includes many airlines outside the First World.
Ed Bastian is CEO of Delta. I asked him at the Aviation Week MRO Americas conference last week about the different levels of pilot training and whether Delta takes a lead in standardizing training among SkyTeam partners.
“We do have a safety panel within SkyTeam and we have investments in partners around the world [which are not SkyTeam members],” he said. “Safety is one of the things we do partner with. We share insight, we share observations, we share training protocols, we’re always looking to learn from each other.”
That the definition of the “average pilot” may need a rethink is a thesis that has emerged from these two MAX accidents.
It looks like a thesis that has merit.