The view from the cockpit

Ashwini Phadnis New Delhi | Updated on March 12, 2020

Pilots feel Boeing should first address concerns regarding the flying controls of the MAX

The Boeing MAX, a new-generation aircraft, enjoyed 19 months of successful flying after its launch in August 2017. But in March 2019, things started going horribly wrong for the aircraft after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed soon after take off from Addis Ababa airport. Months earlier, Lion Air Flight 610 had crashed, killing all those on board.

One year on, the core issue identified is a problem with the aircraft’s instability in a part of its aerodynamic design.

The Boeing 737 MAX is powered by CFM LEAP-1B engines which are larger than the old CFM-7 engines, and produce a lot more thrust and drag compared with previous installations in the Boeing 737 NG (Next Generation) aircraft, making the engines on the MAX more powerful.

Captain PP Singh, now an examiner on the Airbus 330 with Nepal Airlines, says that from a certification point of view, there was a lot of pressure on Boeing to prove that the MAX aircraft was very similar, if not identical, to the B737 NG aircraft that came before it.

“The global population of the Boeing 737 aircraft is large. If the airlines buying the MAX had to retrain their pilots for the MAX, it would have been a huge cost for them.

This happened at a time when Airbus, the other producer of narrow-body aircraft, already had the New Engine Option (NEO) of the Airbus A320 family, which allowed a seamless common pilot qualification between the A320 and the A320neo,” Captain Singh points out.

Hence, Boeing, too, wanted an aircraft which was superior but could be flown by pilots who were already flying the B737 NG.

Hence, the company installed a system called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), which was designed to synthetically alter aircraft control laws to provide pilots the same ‘control feel’ as the B737 NG.

“In a nutshell, Boeing tried to overcome a physics problem with a software solution,” Captain Singh says.

Internal emails, which have now been leaked, show that Boeing software engineers had warned of issues with the technology; but with cost being a key consideration, these were not addressed.

Desperate moves

After the Lion Air crash, Boeing tried to insinuate (it could not directly comment anything as the inquiry was on-going) that the crash was caused by a pilot error. An infuriated Lion Air management threatened to cancel all Boeing orders and take Airbus aircraft instead.

Boeing also maintained that the MAX came with some in-built safety features to ensure a safe flight. However, this claim was negated when the Ethiopian Airlines MAX aircraft crashed in March 2019.

Pilots recall that the inquiry report into the incident showed that the pilots of the ill-fated Ethiopian flight turned off two switches that were supposed to cut off power, but that failed to arrest the dive of the aircraft. In desperation, the pilots then switched them back on, but in vain.

Pilots feel that Boeing will now have to answer two issues — what modifications in equipment will be sufficient to win back the confidence of global regulators and put the aircraft back in the air; and what can be the contribution of an average pilot to a safe flight of the aircraft in case of any untoward incident?

“Every pilot doesn’t have the flying skills of a Sully or the chief test pilot of Boeing or Airbus,” Captain Singh says. Therefore, the manufacturer has to make sure the aircraft is modified appropriately and the pilots told what they can do to address any emergency.

However, what is more worrying for Boeing and the airlines that flew the MAX is that the two fatal crashes exposed only some of the problems with the aircraft. Pilots maintain that one year is a long time for a plane to be grounded, and in this period, a number of new problems have cropped up.

The latest was reported in February 2020 when Foreign Object Debris (FOD) was discovered in the fuel tanks of some of the parked MAX.

These add to the already long list of troubles with the MAX, and there is no knowing how many more such issues will crop up as the aircraft continues to be grounded across the globe.

Published on March 12, 2020

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