Former pilot blames training and lack of ‘airmanship’ for fatal Boeing crashes

Six months after the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, a writer who has forensically investigated two fatal crashes has blamed the poor performance of pilots. 

A total of 346 people died when Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed in October 2018 and March 2019 respectively.

After the second tragedy, the 737 Max was grounded by regulators because an anti-stall system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was implicated in both crashes.

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But writing his first article in the New York Times Magazine, William Langewiesche – himself a pilot – says: “What we had in the two downed airplanes was a textbook failure of airmanship.

“In broad daylight, these pilots couldn’t decipher a variant of a simple runaway trim, and they ended up flying too fast at low altitude, neglecting to throttle back and leading their passengers over an aerodynamic edge into oblivion.

“They were the deciding factor here – not the MCAS, not the Max.”

Langewiesche describes the performance of the Lion Air captain, Bhavye Suneja, as “abysmal” as he struggled to control the jet with 189 people onboard after take-off from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

“In my own flying life, each of the four trim runaways I have experienced has been at most a 10-second problem – eight seconds to be surprised, and two seconds to flip the electric trim off.”

He says: “The 737 features two prominent toggle switches on the centre pedestal whose sole purpose is to deal with such an event – a pilot simply switches them off to disengage the electric trim.

“They are known as trim cutout switches. They are big and fat and right behind the throttles. There is not a 737 pilot in the world who is unaware of them.

“Boeing assumed that if necessary, 737 Max pilots would flip them much as previous generations of 737 pilots had. It would be at most a 30-second event. This turned out to be an obsolete assumption.”

He describes the Lion Air first officer, known simply as Harvino, as “weak in an essential quality known as airmanship”, and is disparaging of safety standards in Indonesia.

Langewiesche claims that in Indonesian flight simulators, used for training, that the usual complement of two pilots flying and one instructing is augmented: “There are sometimes seven in there: two pilots flying, one instructing and four others standing up and logging the time.”

Indonesia’s chaotic aviation industry is characterised, says Langewiesche, by: “An onrush of inexperienced pilots willing to work long hours for low pay; discouragement among mechanics, ramp workers and dispatchers; pressure to keep airplanes flying despite component failures that should have grounded them; the falsification of cargo and passenger manifests; dual maintenance and flight logs; and corruption permeating the entire system, including even air-traffic control.”

The writer criticises the air-traffic controller in Jakarta for failing to identify there was something seriously wrong with the Lion Air flight, saying: “It is hard to imagine what the controller was thinking.

“One of his headings steered the flight away from conflicting traffic, when instead it was the traffic that should have been steered away from the flight.

“Equally unfortunate was the acquiescence of Suneja and Harvino, who dutifully complied with every air-traffic control request.”

In both the crashes, the MCAS activated in response to a single faulty angle-of-attack sensor, which measures the angle of the wing to the airflow.

“One of Boeing’s bewildering failures in the MCAS design is that despite the existence of two independent angle-of-attack sensors,” he writes, “the system did not require agreement between them to conclude that a stall had occurred.” 

Langewiesche believes the faulty instrument involved in the Lion Air crash was obtained from a supplier in a district of Miami that is known as “Cockroach Corner” because of the number of aircraft parts of dubious origin and quality.

He writes: “The angle-of-attack sensor on the captain’s side was a slapped-on unit from Cockroach Corner that was 20 degrees out of whack.”

After the Lion Air crash, the American safety regulator, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive about the MCAS problem: “This condition, if not addressed, could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane, and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss, and possible impact with terrain.”

Captain Yared Getachew and first officer Ahmed Nur Mohammod Nur, who were on the flight deck of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, were aware of the possible problem.

But their attempts to overcome the MCAS were in vain because their Boeing 737 Max was flying much too fast.

Langewiesche writes: “The excessive speed was amply clear in the cockpit, where an overspeed clacker was sounding off, but neither pilot thought to reduce the thrust and slow.”

After the first accident report into flight 302, the airline issued a statement saying: “The preliminary report clearly showed that the Ethiopian Airlines Pilots who were commanding Flight ET302 have followed Boeing’s recommended and FAA’s approved emergency procedures to handle the most difficult emergency situation created on the airplane.

“Despite their hard work and full compliance with the emergency procedures, it was very unfortunate that they could not recover the airplane from the persistence of nose diving.”

While Langewiesche is critical of the aircraft manufacturer, he does not think that corners were cut on safety in order to make money: “Although Boeing’s designers were aware of timetables and competitive pressures, the mistakes they made were honest ones, or stupid ones, or maybe careless ones, but not a result of an intentional sacrifice of safety for gain.”

The planemaker’s chairman, president and chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, said: ”The tragic loss of life in both accidents continues to weigh heavily on all of us at Boeing, and we have the utmost sympathy for the loved ones of those onboard.”

Boeing has been working relentlessly on fixes to allow the plane to return to commercial service, and still believes the Max could be flying passengers as early as October. But Langewiesche writes: “The reintroduction of the 737 Max will be exceedingly difficult because of political and bureaucratic obstacles that are formidable and widespread.”

The acting head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, is a pilot and has said that he will not sign off the Boeing 737 Max until he has flown it himself.

In the UK, Norwegian and Tui Airways are waiting to bring their 737 Max jets back into service. 

Ryanair, which has ordered 210 Boeing 737 Max aircraft in a unique, high-density configuration, has yet to operate the plane.

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