In all the hype about the problems surrounding Boeing’s 737 Max airliner, particularly the two deadly crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia, I couldn’t help noticing one thing. Airlines and pilots in First World countries appear to have had few similar problems with the aircraft. It’s those in Third World countries that did – and not all of them, either. The Lion Air 737 Max that crashed had experienced control problems just the day before the accident – but a third pilot on board, who knew what he was doing, told the flight crew what to do (as was pointed out in the aircraft manual), and the problem was resolved quickly and easily. The cockpit crew on the fatal flight appear to have lacked that level of knowledge and/or training and/or understanding.
This brings up a very important point, one that the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted.
Boeing Co. is increasingly committed to transferring more control of aircraft from pilots to computers after two crashes exposed flaws in an automated system on its 737 MAX that overpowered aviators in the disasters.
. . .
… such changes also seek to address the fact that average pilots may not react to problems—including those tied to automation—as quickly or proficiently as designers traditionally assumed, according to former and current Boeing officials and industry executives. The view took hold after a flight-control system known as MCAS put two MAX jets into fatal nosedives within the past 14 months that together killed 346 people.
“We are going to have to ultimately almost—almost—make these planes fly on their own,” then Boeing Chairman Dave Calhoun said in a CNBC interview in November, roughly six weeks before relinquishing that job to become the Chicago plane maker’s CEO.
. . .
Executives at Boeing and Airbus have said they are also designing flight-control systems tailored for younger pilots, who generally have less flying time in their logbooks—and a more innate familiarity with technology—than aviators of years past.
. . .
Boeing also plans to tailor its design and training to better serve the more globally diverse group of pilots now flying its planes, said former and current company officials familiar with the plans.
. . .
Some of the new systems Boeing and other companies are working on are designed to maintain stable flight while pilots troubleshoot in moments—like those during both MAX crashes—when crews face cascades of emergency alerts and warnings that can be confusing or contradictory.
There’s more at the link.
There are three aspects to this issue that the WSJ article (and Boeing’s comments) side-stepped, probably for fear that politically correct critics would pillory it for being “insensitive” or “elitist”. However, I don’t give a damn about politically correct critics – so here goes.
First is the language issue. English is, by regulation, the international standard language in air traffic control, and is also the language in which most aircraft instruments (particularly those made in the Western world) are labeled and operated. Candidates for commercial pilot certification in the USA have to have a working knowledge of the English language in order to take their examinations, and this is supposed to be verified during the check ride. However, that is not always the case overseas, particularly in the Third World. If a non-English-proficient crew is overwhelmed by warning messages in a language they don’t properly understand, then problems may develop too quickly for them to respond appropriately. I think this hasn’t been mentioned at all in the mainstream media – but it should be. Having flown in many countries in the Third World, I can assure you from personal experience that the problem is very real. Discussions with those who sign up pilots from other countries for training in the USA will reveal just how widespread the problem really is.
Second, there’s the cultural mindset. Technology is downright challenging at times. Even First World pilots sometimes battle to get through all the prompts, warnings, alerts and messages being thrown at them in the cockpits of airliners. That’s why simulator training is so important. It can reproduce problems that are almost impossible to overcome, and repeat them again and again, so that pilots learn the hard way how to deal with them. (Simulators also show how impossible some problems really are. Take, for example, the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 at Sioux City, Iowa in 1989. Astonishingly, the cockpit crew was able to land the plane, although it wrecked on touchdown, and saved the lives of many people on board. Post-crash re-enactments in simulators were uniformly catastrophic, resulting in a crash with the loss of all lives aboard. They not only helped to explain what happened, but also helped in the design of modifications to similar aircraft in an attempt to prevent any recurrence.)
If you take people who do not grow up with an intimate familiarity with technology, they often find it hard to master it. Many take refuge in learning-by-rote, checklists, and “heads-down” flying – looking at their instruments, rather than out of the window at what’s going on around them. The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 is a good example. A simple glance out of the cockpit windows would have shown the aircraft to be far too low – but none of the flight crew appear to have done so. Instead, concentrating on their instruments, heads down in the cockpit, they essentially flew into the ground.
How many of the Boeing 737 Max’s problems might be blamed on a similar technological overload of its flight crew? Again I point out that First World crews appear to have either had no similar problems to Third World aircrew flying that plane, or they were able to deal with them as a matter of routine. I can’t help but think that a basic comfort level with technology had a lot to do with that. (One example: why on earth did the Ethiopian 737 Max remain at full takeoff power for the entire time it was in the air? That should have been throttled back soon after lift-off, but it was not. Was the crew simply too overwhelmed by other issues to think about so basic a requirement? It should have been drummed into them during their basic training, never mind advanced commercial pilot status! As it happened, it simply made the situation worse, bringing on disaster even faster.)
Finally, there’s an issue of culture. Status, prestige and rank are vastly more important in Third World countries than they are in, say, the USA. A senior or command pilot expects – and usually gets – instant obedience from his co-pilot, rather than informed input and (if necessary) disagreement. If the command pilot makes a mistake, or isn’t coping with an issue, a US pilot will likely at least say something, if not intervene to help correct the problem. Not so much in the Third World. There, the boss is the boss is the boss – and if he’s doing something wrong, he’s still the boss! “Talking back” will likely get his assistant reprimanded or fired, rather than commended. Again, I can’t help wonder how much this problem was a contributing factor to the two fatal 737 Max crashes. I have no way of knowing . . . but having been a passenger on many Third World aircraft (including Ethiopian Airlines – never again!), I have my suspicions.
The problem with Boeing’s proposed solution is that automation can be as hazardous as anything else. Just look at the problems reported with the Tesla “autopilot” (not to mention the deaths allegedly attributed to it). I know that DARPA is currently engaged in developing a “robotic co-pilot” for military aircraft. I presume that Boeing envisages similar technology for its passenger airliners. I just hope it works better than Tesla’s iteration!