Airplanes are too complex
March 28, 2019
To The Eagle:
On Sunday, March 10, Ethiopian Airlines 302 crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people aboard. Since this was a similar event to Lion Air’s October crash (shortly after takeoff from Jakarta) and in the same relatively new model aircraft (Boeing 737 Max 8), our mainstream media immediately launched into what they are best at: Breathless speculation about defects and danger, and endless finger-pointing at the obvious evil-doers, in this case Boeing, FAA, pilots, and, of course, Donald Trump.
In both accidents, the aircrafts’ noses were pitching up and down and they weren’t gaining altitude properly. In the earlier one, Lion Air, they’ve recovered enough black box data to know that the pilots had switched off the pitch trim, were trying to trim manually, had bad data coming in from stall sensors and associated software, and were manually pulling upward on the control columns with force in excess of 100 lbs at time of impact.
As it happens, I had just given a speech to our local Toastmaster group on the troubled future of self-driving cars and had used stories of several classic airliner accidents to illustrate the ongoing struggle in the aviation industry as the manufacturers labor to create slicker, more automated planes, and the pilots’ efforts to maintain realistic command and control. Basically, you want an autopilot to do exactly what you tell it and no more, not quit without telling you, not override your control, and not fly you into a situation you can’t hand-fly out of. (Full disclosure: before becoming a retired curmudgeon, I was a pilot for 33 years with the Navy and TWA.)
The U.S.A. has the best trained pilots in the world because our superior and extensive military flight training teaches aviators to fly airplanes out to the limits of their various performance envelopes. Other countries, particularly third world countries, lacking this rich training environment, are training not pilots, but flight system managers – exactly the training received by our 9/11 terrorist attackers. So, in all the bloviation emanating from the media, only one item stood out for intelligence, incisiveness, and humor – a tweet from President Trump: “Airplanes are becoming too complex . . . complexity creates danger . . . all this at great cost for very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein for my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are able to easily and quickly take control of a plane.” Right on!