It is never pleasant to focus on engineering industry shortcomings. However, when new aircraft fall out of the sky, with multiple fatalities the result, the ugly business of discovering the faults commences.
On Sunday, 10 March 2019, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 (flight ET302) belonging to Ethiopian Airlines crashed just six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa. It went down on its way to Nairobi, Kenya, crashing into a town known as Bishoftu. Of the 157 people onboard, there were no survivors.
This crash was eerily similar to the Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 which went down over the Java Sea in October 2018. It was the fact that they were both Boeing 737 MAX models which resulted in the inevitable comparisons. Both aircraft were iterations of a new series touted as ‘technologically advanced’ and more efficient than planes that had come before.
Worryingly, in both crashes the aircraft were only months old – essentially brand new. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that th
“The unmatched reliability of the MAX means more 737 flights depart on time with fewer delays. And technological advanced plus powerful LEAP-1B engines are helping to redefine the future of efficient and environmentally friendly air travel.”
Upon hearing the news of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Chinese, Singaporean, Indonesian, Australian, Mexican and Argentinian airlines temporarily grounded their 737 MAX planes almost immediately – a ban which has now become a global one. Consultations with Boeing’s engineers and technical experts has begun, as has an investigation into what caused the Ethiopian plane to crash.
The United Kingdom took a hardline stance on the 12th of March 2019, the Civil Aviation Authority confirmed that they would ban all 737 MAX aircraft and would not allow any to enter UK airspace.
The regulator said in a statement:
“We have, as a precautionary measure, issued instructions to stop any commercial passenger flights from any operator arriving, departing or overflying UK airspace.”
This caused chaos for passengers - with some flights being diverted or turned back midair!
American President Donald Trump also weighed in on the conversation about modern day aircraft. Two days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash he tweeted:
“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”
Over complicating the aircraft?
Experts are treating both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes as suspicious. The Indonesian flight going down 13 minutes after take-off and the Ethiopian one going down after just 6 minutes is alarming aviation analysts.
Boeing has announced that it will release software updates for the 737 Max jets by April. The work on the software tweaks started after the Lion Air disaster. This began after it was reported that the pilots in the Lion Air disaster had trouble with a new feature added to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). It is alleged that the pilots may have not had any control over the plane after the MCAS software kicked in.
The MCAS was implemented when they noted that the new engines Boeing had fitted to their 737 tended to push the aircrafts’ noses upwards. The MCAS sensors were designed to respond to the aircrafts’ upward nose tilt and trigger the software to push the plane into a semi-nosedive to prevent a stall. It is alleged that the software reacted when the planes were still climbing and pushed the two planes into nosedives which the pilots could not correct.
Boeing later said that the pilots in the Lion Air disaster should have taken the necessary steps to disable the software.
Boeing, after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, has had to defend their software, indicating that pilots do have the ability to override the software.
“It was put through flight testing as part of the certification process prior to the airplane entering service. MCAS does not control the airplane in normal flight; it improves the behavior of the airplane in a non-normal part of the operating envelope.”
Bazley, Tarek. “Control System under Scrutiny after Ethiopian Airlines Crash.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 11 Mar. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/03/control-system-scrutiny-ethiopian-airlines-crash-190311094532350.html.
“Boeing.” Boeing: Philip M. Condit, 109380-Leslie Nichols, www.boeing.com/commercial/737max/.
Ostrower, Jon. “What Is the Boeing 737 Max Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System?” The Air Current, 23 Nov. 2018, theaircurrent.com/aviation-safety/what-is-the-boeing-737-max-maneuvering-characteristics-augmentation-system-mcas-jt610/.