It’s the FAA versus the rest of the world, as respected aviation authorities around the globe continue grounding fleets of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, some taking even more drastic steps by banning them altogether from their country’s airspace.
The FAA’s latest statement, released Tuesday, doubled down hard on its stubborn position, saying they have found no reason to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8. Is the FAA then – between the lines – tacitly floating a not-so-subtle theory of blame the pilots, not the plane?
Case in point, the Boeing Dreamliner 787. Not long after its initial launch, the entire 787 fleet in 2013 was grounded by the FAA due to overheating lithium-ion batteries. There were no Dreamliner accidents, no loss of life. Burning batteries alone were reason enough to ground the airplane. Battery issues were eventually resolved, and the Dreamliner program resumed, a resounding Boeing success.
What’s the difference between grounding the Dreamliner 787, and not grounding the 737 Max 8? Pilot error. A widespread belief exists that U.S. pilots undergo superior training, and come to the cockpit with more flight hours and rigorous experience, compared to third-world pilots such as those flying for Ethiopian Airlines, or Indonesia’s Lion Air.
With the Dreamliner’s smoking batteries, it was obvious the problem was not pilot error. But despite two fatal crashes of the new 737 Max 8, U.S. fleets remain defiantly airborne, perhaps a suggestion that in the end, it will be the third-world pilots – and not the machines – blamed for the loss of 346 lives.
At the heart of the 737 Max 8 crash controversy is a new Boeing-engineered device called MCAS – Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. Preliminary investigations into both accidents suggest erroneous inputs from MCAS may have contributed to flight crews losing control of the pitch attitude of their jets, as they plunged into unrecoverable high-speed dives.
To understand MCAS, let’s use a simplified car analogy. Imagine a system built-in to your new car, ostensibly to protect you. A computer program designed to suddenly swerve the car if it senses a head-on collision. But what if the system accidentally kicks in when there is no threat, causing a far more lethal situation than the phantom collision it’s trying to avoid? And what if the solution in the white-knuckled panic of the moment is for you – the driver – to reach down and flip some switches to disable the system? Oh, that’s right. The automobile manufacturer neglected to mention the secret system. So, you do the best you can, fighting the steering wheel, wondering what’s taken control of your car, as you careen off the road.
But why was MCAS created and installed in the first place? According to Boeing, MCAS would maintain a safety margin, in manual flight (not on autopilot), at high wing angles, by pushing the nose down if the jet entered near-stall aerodynamic conditions. So far, sounds good. But some industry veterans’ postulate MCAS was really just a work-around response to aerodynamic issues discovered once the bigger and more powerful new LEAP engines were installed on the decades-old 737 airframe design.
The back-door MCAS system operates independently of the pilots. So independent, in fact, that until the first 737 Max 8 crash, flight crews were out of the loop, not knowing that MCAS, a secret system, even existed. Boeing has pushed back, saying the pilot’s cockpit flight manual covers a loss of pitch control scenario, as it relates to what’s known as runaway stabilizer trim. And since MCAS uses the stabilizer trim to move the jet’s tail, pilots should have been quick enough in an emergency to diagnose the problem, and turn off the stabilizer trim switches. Doing so is supposed to disable the MCAS.
Boeing announced an MCAS software upgrade will be released no later than April. But beyond that, what about more training? The captain of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was 29-years old. Sitting beside him was a co-pilot with a reported 200 hours. Due to a global shortage of pilots outside of the U.S. young captains and inexperienced copilots are becoming the norm. That shortage is creeping into U.S. regional carriers, as they struggle to find high-time new hire pilots.
If I had to ride a Boeing 737 Max 8 today, would I feel safer if the jet was piloted by U.S. flight crews? Yes. Because I remain confident that American aviators receive the highest level of training in the world. But let’s be clear: for even some U.S. air carriers, that so-called Max 8 model ‘differences’ training amounted to one-hour of self-study on an iPad. As a former airline instructor pilot, far more comforting to me, moving forward, would be the knowledge that Max 8 crews everywhere complete full-motion simulator training that includes scenarios recognizing MCAS malfunctions – and successful recoveries.