Pilots Confront Boeing: 737 Max Crashes Were NOT Pilot Error

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The lie of the day: Skilled pilots could have prevented the two 737 Max crashes.

The deeper we dig into the 737 Max crashes, the easier it is to make a case that Boeing, not software, not poorly trained pilots is to blame for the 737 Max crashes.

The Seattle Times addresses the issue in How much was pilot error a factor in the Boeing 737 MAX crashes?

In his opening statement Wednesday at the House Aviation subcommittee hearing on the 737 MAX in Washington, D.C., the lead Republican congressman blamed errors by the Indonesian and Ethiopian pilots for the two deadly MAX crashes in those countries.

“Pilots trained in the United States would have successfully been able to handle” the emergencies on both jets, said Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He added that preliminary reports about the accident “compound my concerns about quality training standards in other countries.”

That's the gambit that Boeing wants everyone to believe. However, pilots strongly disagree.

“I’m disappointed with those who sit in their lofty chairs of judgment and say this wouldn’t have happened to U.S. pilots,” said a veteran captain with a major U.S. airline, who asked not to be named to avoid involving his employer.

The flight crew on the March 10 Ethiopian flight faced a barrage of alerts in the flight that lasted just 6 minutes. Those alerts included a “stick shaker” that noisily vibrated the pilot’s yoke throughout the flight, warning the plane was in danger of a stall, which it wasn’t; repeated loud “DON’T SINK” warnings that the jet was too close to the ground; a “clacker” making a very loud clicking sound to signal the jet was going too fast; and multiple warning lights telling the crew the speed, altitude and other readings on their instruments were unreliable.

The Lion Air crash in October would have been at the forefront of the Ethiopian pilots’ minds, and they seem to have focused solely on following the Boeing procedure to eliminate the MAX’s new flight-control system — called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that was pushing the nose down. They did so by flipping two cut-off switches. But then the heavy forces on the jet’s tail prevented them from moving the manual wheel in the cockpit that would have corrected the nose-down attitude.

“What would the best pilot do on their worst day with all of this sensory overload?” the veteran U.S. airline captain said. “Who knows what any of us would have done?” “The manufacturer isn’t supposed to give us airplanes that depend on superhuman pilots,” he added. “We should have airplanes that don’t fail the way these airplanes failed.”

What Does the Simulator Say?

Starting from the point where the Ethiopian pilots hit the cut-off switches and stopped MCAS from operating, the U.S. MAX crew tried in the simulator to recover.

Even though the U.S. crew performed the simulator experiment at a normal speed of 250 knots instead of the more than 350 knots of the Ethiopian jet, the forces on the jet’s tail still prevented them from moving the manual wheel in the cockpit that would have corrected the nose-down attitude.

To get out of it, the pilots used an old aviator technique called the “roller coaster” method — letting the yoke go to relieve the forces on the tail, then cranking the wheel, and repeating this many times.

This technique has not been in U.S. pilot manuals for decades, and pilots today are not typically trained on it. Using it in the simulator, the U.S. MAX crew managed to save the aircraft but lost 8,000 feet of altitude in the process. The Ethiopian MAX never rose higher than 8,000 feet, indicating that from that point in the flight, the crew couldn’t have saved it.

Two Hours on an Ipad

Boeing says 2 hours on an iPad is all it takes in additional training.

Really? When top-notch pilots cannot recover a craft in a simulator as opposed to real life panic?

Of course, Boeing insists that the software is now fixed.

Is it?

Trained Pilots

Bjorn Fehrm, a Swedish pilot and aerospace engineer who is an analyst for Bainbridge Island-based Leeham.net, said the report assumes the accidents could have been avoided by “a really proficient pilot … on a good day.” But he said Boeing and Airbus cannot rely on the roughly 300,000 pilots flying worldwide having a good day and being perfectly trained for every emergency.

The veteran U.S. airline captain said that the American aviation community needs to avoid getting “too cocky about U.S. pilots being immune from mistakes.”

He said he’s spent a lot of time flying with local pilots in western China where the mountains are high and the flying is hazardous. I’d put them up against American airline pilots any day,” he said. “They are exceptional airmen.” And he criticized Boeing for designing an airplane in which a system triggered by a single sensor failure would present such challenges and require such a high-performance response from the pilots.

Myth Shattered

I believe that dispels the myth that US pilots would necessarily have avoided those crashes.

Damning Audio

Next consider a damning audio that shows pilots confronting Boeing about new features suspected in deadly crashes.

CBS News has obtained audio from the American Airlines pilots' union confronting Boeing about new features to the 737 Max that may have been factors in two deadly crashes. Frustration boiled over during the tense meeting in November 2018, less than a month after the first Max crashed, and four months before the second crash.

"We flat out deserve to know what is on our airplanes," one pilot is heard saying. "I don't disagree," a Boeing official said.

The pilots at the meeting were angry that system was not disclosed to them until after the first crash. "These guys didn't even know the damn system was on the airplane — nor did anybody else," one pilot said.

The official, Boeing vice president Mike Sinnett, who does not appear to know he was being recorded, claimed what happened to Lion Air was once-in-a-lifetime type scenario.

Boeing told the pilots it would make software changes, perhaps in as little as six weeks, but didn't want to hurry it. "We want to make sure we're fixing the right things," the official said. "That's the important thing. To make sure we're fixing the right things. We don't want to rush and do a crappy job of fixing the right things, and we also don't want to fix the wrong things."

That fix was still in development when the second 737 Max crashed in March, leading to the worldwide grounding of the plane. The existence of the audio was first reported by the Dallas Morning News.

Fixes Needed

Boeing was aware fixes were needed but sent out no alerts or warnings. Boeing did not treat this as an emergency.

Recall that even after the second crash Boeing begged Trump to not ground the planes.

How galling is that?

Criminal Negligence?

The Points Guy says Boeing Faces a Possible Legal Nightmare With Airlines for the 737 MAX.

Norwegian Air has already declared that it will demand compensation from Boeing for its grounded fleet of 737 MAXes and lost fares, meaning that a lawsuit is all but certain unless Boeing simply gives in, which is unlikely. Other airlines are widely expected to follow Norwegian’s lead.

Boeing and its client airlines are likely already frantically preparing their legal arsenals. That will play a huge role in determining how much the aircraft manufacturer will ultimately be on the hook for — or whether it might even come out of the debacle scot-free.

The key point of contention will be whether Boeing did its due diligence in keeping its planes safe. That includes rolling out an airworthy vessel, but also making sure it and its clients were up to date on needed improvements, upgrades and revised standards.

“The easiest thing to relate it to is your car,” Dedmon said. “If the airbag’s been found to be bad, the manufacturer issues a notice to the buyers, you take it to the dealer, and they get it fixed. Things of that nature happen in aviation as well, like a repair that went out at a certain time, or inspections to have to be done within certain flight hours — those things aren’t routine in aviation, and there’s nothing abnormal in any form with that.”

Where the parties are likely to disagree in court, however, is whether the airline or Boeing or a third party didn’t do the best reasonable job of making sure everyone who needed to know was kept abreast of vital updates.

What the plaintiffs’ lawyer will particularly be keeping an eye out for — but are unlikely to find, in this day and age — is a “smoking gun” document that’s proof that Boeing knew about a dangerous fault in the 737 MAX and covered it up. That’s what happened with the Ford Pinto, which notoriously exploded into flames in relatively minor collisions.

Tough But Not Too Tough

The Detroit Free Press discusses criminal negligence in its report Should Boeing be held liable for plane crashes? It's complicated.

The crashes highlight a perennial question facing authorities in many nations: How to punish and correct bad corporate behavior without damaging the economy or thousands of innocent employees?

Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, writes in his new book "Doing Justice" that people often ask him why no Wall Street executives went to jail following the collapse of the financial system in 2008, an event that triggered the Great Recession. The answer, he writes, is that criminal charges are often so hard to make stick.

"Much of what happened in 2008 was not the product of a few people with clear, provable intent to rob others of their savings," he writes. Rather, the financial collapse stemmed from thousands of people ignoring or not understanding the risks in the mortgage-backed securities they were buying and selling.

Everyone wants the bad actors to go to jail, Bharara adds. "But in the system that we have, you can't proceed without proof of particular people engaging in particular conduct with a particular mental intent. The bar to prove intent is high."

Absent clear evidence of criminal intent, he writes, "You can find behavior reprehensible, careless, greedy, thoughtless and cruel, but that's not enough to bring a case."

"If they can't get an individual, then they'll try to charge the company because companies generally are easy to get," Henning said. "They tend not to fight, so there's less of a chance they will go to trial." And often what you see in these settlements with companies, they try to mitigate the damage. They get the penalty but then they try to make sure it doesn't cost the company too much. You don't want to put Boeing out of business.

Smoking Gun?

In the absence of a smoking gun, it would be very difficult to prove criminal negligence.

But consider wrongful death lawsuits. Expect the airlines to be dragged into some of those lawsuits.

And Boeing might counter-sue over cancelled contracts claiming the planes are fit to fly.

This can drag on for years and probably will.

Lawyers will have a field day and make a fortune.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

Comments (26)
No. 1-15
Flyer351
Flyer351

Regulation! That's the best penalty you could give Boeing. Beef up the FAA, make sure it is untouchable and totaly independent. No more building planes based on benefit to the shareholders only. You can build planes and make money. Build build them to safety standards not profit margines. That is the way Boeing became great in the first place. Remember the pride in the 747 being the safest plane ever with multiple backup systems and redundancies, not for being the most profit generating. Which it eventually ended being anyway Safe planes generate profits. Planes built to generate high dividends crash.

mark0f0
mark0f0

My question -- will the Exim 'bank' be forced to provide a de facto covert bailout of Boeing if the foreign carriers just tell Boeing to go shove their planes where the sun don't shine?

Can Boeing survive, without recapitalization, the entire loss of the 737 program?

leicestersq
leicestersq

I think Boeing needs to be careful here. Say they did win the legal cases and they manage to keep a compliant FAA close to them, will that benefit them long term?

As a customer I would say not. If I thought that a company like Boeing wasnt subject to fair legal and regulatory oversight, would I let them supply me with planes? Certainly not if I had a reasonable alternative. You dont want to enter into a deal where the deal is rigged against you.

Given what to me looks like overwhelming evidence of faults with the aircraft, Boeing wont win simply by winning in court.

Sechel
Sechel

Boeing should be ashamed to even suggest its pilot error at this point, even without proof its inexcuable

Snow_Dog
Snow_Dog

“Boeing says 2 hours on an iPad is all it takes in additional training.”

It’s like the annoying posts telling us how to “Make $100/ hr at home in your spare time. No experience necessary, no risk, no money down, start today!”

Yes, folks! You can train yourself on your iPad to fly the Boeing 737 Max.

Six000mileyear
Six000mileyear

The court of public opinion will deal Boeing the harshest penalty of chosing another plane manufacturer for their travels, but that doesn't begin to repare the damage of those lives lost.

flubber
flubber

Maybe the pilots should sleep in a Holiday Inn Express too...that'll sharpen 'em up!

RonJ
RonJ

Preet Bharara: "You can find behavior reprehensible, careless, greedy, thoughtless and cruel, but that's not enough to bring a case."

Bankers committed criminal acts. William Black would have prosecuted them. Bharara is making fake excuses for why the bankers were not prosecuted.

Webej
Webej

I disagree. Quadrupling the authority limit (on the angle of trim) of the MCAS without telling the FAA and revising their submissions is surely black letter fraud.

APRnow
APRnow

Hey, for the 3rd, 4th (?) time already: this is not a case of software error, OK? 'This' was settled some 30yrs ago when the world airlines decided there were too many crashes. They authorized a study for big bucks, told the investigators you've got a year, go for it, we need answers. A yr later the investigators told the airlines, the answer: RELIGION, in the cockpit (now, I realize you nervous folks out there are giant eyed in disbelief/consternation, and it ain't PC, but, hey (again), get over it, OK?). The result was, the airlines re-issued every pilot training manual out there, rest is history.

I thought everybody on these threads was a TRADER. To be a TRADER you have to know. Start 'knowing'.

desertfox22
desertfox22

"That fix was still in development when the second 737 Max crashed..."

Yeah, they were still busy calculation what that fix (-> complete re-design) would have cost. Now they might be busy thinking where to start calculating what the consequences might cost...

truthseeker
truthseeker

Mish you have always been very good even exceptional in spotting liars, and I can’t think of a time I have ever disagreed with you. Yet if you will please allow me just a little bit of leeway here, I would like to say something about truth. Most reasonable people will agree I think that there are three kinds of truth, being subjective truth, objective truth and divine truth. If you would please google C.S. Lewis and the poison of subjectivism, you will see it explained in a very short 14 minute essay with doodles to make the extremely important point. Lastly his essay written during the middle of ww2 fits in extremely well with many of your most important subjects over the years I really do believe.

ZAviator
ZAviator

My feeling is the Max 8 should never have existed in the first place. Boeing could not succesfully "kludge" the aerodynamic issues they created and have gotten themselves into very hot water. Anyone with basic knowledge of aerodynamics and logic can deduce that any claims of pilot error are bogus, yet those making them are so complacent that they believe they can fool even experienced pilots. IMO if this finding is upheld it would cause a lot more damage to Boeing's already iffy reputation. Even if the ridiculous statement that any US pilot would have gotten out of the situation were true, it shows lack of concern re the safety of Boeing's international clients and public, who represent the major share of their market, in that they failed to create sufficient awareness of the ubiquitous one-sensored over-eager MCAS bandit they hoped would cure the pitch up effect they created. Anyone not including dual redundancy into the detailed design specification of safety critical autonomous control algorithms should not be in their post and anyone approving it is even more liable IMO. Its a shocking state of affairs.

Donincanada
Donincanada

This story is full of so many holes. The pilots should have been able to avoid crashing both planes. The airline should not have allowed the Ethiopian plane to fly if it had sensor problems the day before. Pilots did not follow procedure. And they do not need to know why the computer is trying to nose down...they just have to shut off the power to the tail and fly manually. They should never exceed the max airspeed. Too many pilot errors. The software is there to help inexperienced pilots overcome their lack of skill.

Rich737
Rich737

Mish, congrats! You’ve joined a long line of “journalists” who chose to follow the age old strategy of selling fear. Like sex, it sells! Why buck the trend and tell the other side of the story, which happens to be true, when it won’t sell? Right?

I’m a 737 Captain and a former Navy pilot with 15,000 hours experience, mostly on the 737. I, and every pilot I know, believes that pilot error was almost entirely to blame, especially in the Ehteopian crash. Especially after the first crash, all 737 pilots should have known that simply disabling the stab trim, and running the stab trim runaway checklist would stop the emergency. They also should have known that the Malaysian accident was due to a faulty AOA. The Nigerian pilots knew they had a bad AOA indication during takeoff, and still failed to execute the stab trim runaway emergency for a long time, and then, did it incorrectly. They never disabled the auto throttle, which is a step on the checklist, and let the plane get so fast that the trim wheel was not able to control the nose... THEN they re-engaged the switches which were trying to kill them in the first place! The media version, “Ethiopian pilots ran the Boeing checklist and still crashed!” Wrong. Doing it wrong, not disabling auto throttles, and re engaging the switches does not constitute doing the checklist. On a checkride, that would be a bust, and in real life, as we’ve seen, it means death.

Every pilot I know would fly the max the way it was, pending the necessary fixes. It’s not dangerous. The stab trim runaway checklist has been on the 737 since the beginning of time. Any 737 can have a stab trim runaway, and any pilot who fails to execute the checklist in this emergency will have made a fatal error of incompetence.

But go ahead and say it’s a myth that we’ll trained pilots could have prevented this. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story that sells like this! It was a well trained pilot on the jumpseat of the Malaysian jet that kept it from crashing the first time, by the way. He knew which ckecklist to run, told the crew, and they landed safely. Your Myth is busted. Go ask a thousand 737 pilots if they’d fly the max. See what they say.