The US Federal Aviation Administration has reaffirmed the airworthiness of the Boeing 737 MAX in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people. It comes after several countries and airlines grounded the aircraft.
There have been mounting concerns about whether Boeing’s best-selling single-aisle airliner is safe to fly, after crashes in Indonesia last October and in Ethiopia last week that dealt a heavy blow to its reputation. In a statement on Monday, the FAA said that, while “external reports are drawing similarities” between the accidents, which killed 346 people in total, it’s too early to judge if a common issue is to blame.
“This investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions,” the agency said.
The FAA gave Boeing until April to update its software and the maneuvering system, as well as training requirements and flight crew manuals, to reflect the changes. In a separate statement on Monday, Boeing gave an assurance it would unveil a flight control software upgrade in the “coming weeks.”
While the FAA opted to proceed with caution, aviation authorities in China, Indonesia and Ethiopia, have rushed to ground their respective fleets of the US aircraft manufacturer’s most popular plane, as a precaution.
Stock markets have also been reacting to Boeing’s woes, its shares sliding more than 5 percent on Monday.
With no definite conclusions reached from last October’s Lion Air crash yet, let alone last week’s Ethiopian Airlines disaster, speculation has been rife, with some experts suggesting that a common technical fault had doomed both planes.
What do the incidents have in common?
Desmond Ross, aviation security expert, former pilot and CEO of DRA consultancy, told RT that, although a complete set of data is not available on either of the crashes, “they do look very similar.”
There have been damning reports that the Ethiopian jet had experienced a violent nosedive shortly after departing from Addis Ababa airport this week, and that this incident was “possibly caused by similar issues to that of the … Lion Air crash.”
The brand-new jet is marketed as more fuel-efficient and technically superior to its direct competitor, the Airbus A320neo family. To beat the European jet, Boeing had installed larger engines that were moved a bit further forward, tilting the balance of the aircraft. To compensate for this, the company altered on-board software and the flight control system, Ross explained.
On Sunday an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed, killing all on board. Five month earlier an Indonesian Lion Air jet crashed near Jakarta. All crew and passengers died. Both airplanes were Boeing 737-8 MAX. Both incidents happened shortly after take off.
Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are now grounded about everywhere except in the United States. That this move follows only now is sad. After the first crash it was already obvious that the plane is not safe to fly.
The Boeing 737 and the Airbus 320 types are single aisle planes with some 150 seats. Both are bread and butter planes sold by the hundreds with a good profit. In 2010 Airbus decided to offer its A-320 with a New Engine Option (NEO) which uses less fuel. To counter the Airbus move Boeing had to follow up. The 737 would also get new engines for a more efficient flight and longer range. The new engines on the 737 MAX are bigger and needed to be placed a bit different than on the older version. That again changed the flight characteristics of the plane by giving it a nose up attitude.
The new flight characteristic of the 737 MAX would have require a retraining of the pilots. But Boeing’s marketing people had told their customers all along that the 737 MAX would not require extensive new training. Instead of expensive simulator training for the new type experienced 737 pilots would only have to read some documentation about the changes between the old and the new versions.
To make that viable Boeing’s engineers had to use a little trick. They added a ‘maneuver characteristics augmentation system’ (MCAS) that pitches the nose of the plane down if a sensor detects a too high angle of attack (AoA) that might lead to a stall. That made the flight characteristic of the new 737 version similar to the old one.
But the engineers screwed up.
The 737 MAX has two flight control computers. Each is connected to only one of the two angle of attack sensors. During a flight only one of two computer runs the MCAS control. If it detects a too high angle of attack it trims the horizontal stabilizer down for some 10 seconds. It then waits for 5 seconds and reads the sensor again. If the sensor continues to show a too high angle of attack it again trims the stabilizer to pitch the plane’s nose done.
MCSA is independent of the autopilot. It is even active in manual flight. There is a procedure to deactivate it but it takes some time.
One of the angle of attack sensors on the Indonesian flight was faulty. Unfortunately it was the one connected to the computer that ran the MCAS on that flight. Shortly after take off the sensor signaled a too high angle of attack even as the plane was flying in a normal climb. The MCAS engaged and put the planes nose down. The pilots reacted by disabling the autopilot and pulling the control stick back. The MCAS engaged again pitching the plane further down. The pilots again pulled the stick. This happened some 12 times in a row before the plane crashed into the sea.
To implement a security relevant automatism that depends on only one sensor is extremely bad design. To have a flight control automatism engaged even when the pilot flies manually is also a bad choice. But the real criminality was that Boeing hid the feature.
Neither the airlines that bought the planes nor the pilots who flew it were told about MCAS. They did not know that it exists. They were not aware of an automatic system that controlled the stabilizer even when the autopilot was off. They had no idea how it could be deactivated.
Nine days after the Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 ended in a deadly crash, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive.
“This is the first description you, as 737 pilots, have seen. It is not in the AA 737 Flight Manual Part 2, nor is there a description in the Boeing FCOM (flight crew operations manual),” says the letter from the pilots’ union safety committee. “Awareness is the key with all safety issues.”
The Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed went down in a similar flight profile as the Indonesian plane. It is highly likely that MCAS is the cause of both incidents. While the pilots of the Ethiopian plane were aware of the MCAS system they might have had too little time to turn it off. The flight recorders have been recovered and will tell the full story.
Boeing has sold nearly 5,000 of the 737 MAX. So far some 340 have been delivered. Most of these are now grounded. Some family members of people who died on the Indonesian flight are suing Boeing. Others will follow. But Boeing is not the only one who is at fault.
The FAA certifies all new planes and their documentation. I was for some time marginally involved in Airbus certification issues. It is an extremely detailed process that has to be followed by the letter. Hundreds of people are full time engaged for years to certify a modern jet. Every tiny screw and even the smallest design details of the hardware and software have to be documented and certified.
How or why did the FAA agree to accept the 737 MAX with the badly designed MCAS? How could the FAA allow that MCAS was left out of the documentation? What steps were taken after the Indonesian flight crashed into the sea?
Up to now the FAA was a highly regarded certification agency. Other countries followed its judgment and accepted the certifications the FAA issued. That most of the world now grounded the 737 MAX while it still flies in the States is a sign that this view is changing. The FAA’s certifications of Boeing airplanes are now in doubt.
Today Boeing’s share price dropped some 7.5%. I doubt that it is enough to reflect the liability issues at hand. Every airline that now had to ground its planes will ask for compensation. More than 330 people died and their families deserve redress. Orders for 737 MAX will be canceled as passengers will avoid that type.
Boeing will fix the MCAS problem by using more sensors or by otherwise changing the procedures. But the bigger issue for the U.S. aircraft industry might be the damage done to the FAA’s reputation. If the FAA is internationally seen as a lobbying agency for the U.S. airline industry it will no longer be trusted and the industry will suffer from it. It will have to run future certification processes through a jungle of foreign agencies.
Congress should take up the FAA issue and ask why it failed.
- Europe’s aviation regulator on Tuesday said it is suspending operations of the Boeing 737 Max 8 jet, following a deadly crash over the weekend.
- Aviation regulators from China to Britain have grounded the aircraft.
- The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it doesn’t see any reason to ground the planes.
Europe’s aviation regulator on Tuesday said it is suspending operations of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets following the deadly crash of one of the planes in Ethiopia over the weekend — leaving the U.S. increasingly alone in standing by the American-made aircraft.
Aviation regulators from China to Britain have grounded the aircraft, joining a growing list of countries and airlines suspending the plane and banning it from their airspace after the second deadly crash of the popular aircraft in less than five months.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency on Tuesday said it “is taking every step necessary to ensure the safety of passengers.” The decision not only applies to airlines within the European Union but to operators outside of the region flying to or from the region, the regulator said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is facing growing criticism for backing the airworthiness of Boeing’s 737 Max jetliners as the number of countries that have grounded them grows in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash over the weekend, according to CBS News.
Curiously, this is a reversal of the conventional process where the rest of the world typically takes it cues from the FAA, long considered the world’s gold standard for aircraft safety. Yet aviation safety regulators in dozens of other nations have decided not to wait for the FAA to act and have grounded the planes or banned them from their airspace. In addition, at least 10 airlines worldwide have stopped flying them.
Three days after an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed, killing all 157 people on board, just months following a deadly crash in October of another new Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air in the sea off Indonesia, country after country ignored assessments by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that the plane is safe to fly. Canada agreed it was too early to act but many fell into line in growing numbers behind the first major nation to ground its 737 Max fleet – China.
In doing so, long-time American allies including the U.K. and Australia broke convention by snubbing an authority that has defined what’s airworthy for decades. New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam on Wednesday became the latest countries to block the 737 Max, helping legitimize China’s early verdict on March 11 that the plane could be unsafe.
“The FAA’s credibility is being tested,” Chad Ohlandt, a Rand Corp. senior engineer in Washington told Bloomberg. “The Chinese want their regulatory agency to be considered a similar gold standard.”
As we reported yesterday, the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency, which covers 32 countries, announced Tuesday it was banning the planes from flying in its airspace. Other countries that have either grounded or temporarily banned them include China, the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Oman, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia and the UAE.
One day after the Ethiopian Airlines flight plunged to the ground, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) drew a possible connection between the crash and Lion Air’s in October. A preliminary report into the earlier disaster, which killed 189 passengers and crew, indicated pilots struggled to maintain control following an equipment malfunction. Both flights, on almost brand new planes, ended minutes after takeoff.
The CAAC asked domestic airlines to ground their 737 Max 8 fleets. “There needs to be reason for us to change that decision,” said CAAC’s deputy head Li Jian. Domestic carriers including China Southern Airlines Co. and Air China Ltd. account for about 20 percent of 737 Max deliveries worldwide through January, according to Boeing’s website.
According to Bloomberg, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told CNN that the latest crash and the Lion Air tragedy had substantial similarities. Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ethiopia wanted to send the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders to the U.K., causing U.S. investigators to hold intense behind-the-scenes talks to bring the parts to America.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that he’s concerned that international aviation regulators are providing more certainty to the flying public than the FAA.
“In the coming days, it is absolutely critical that we get answers as to what caused the devastating crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and whether there is any connection to what caused the Lion Air accident just five months ago,” DeFazio said.