The MAX Wasn’t Broken, But Clickbait Media Forced Boeing To “Fix” It Anyway

Flight re-testing of the 737 MAX is complete. The re-testing was aimed at proving the safety and reliability of the redesigned MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). The redesign was not needed. Not needed, that is, where the plane is properly maintained and flown by well-trained pilots.

Maintenance Standards. There were no problems with the MCAS in the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, Mexico, Japan, or Australia. That is because maintenance standards are good in these countries.

Pilot Standards. But even if there were a malfunction of the MCAS in these countries, the pilots — because training standards are high — would have taken care of it in three seconds by using a procedure that has been standard on all Boeings since the 707.

Inadequate Standards. The MAX ran into problems where standards for maintenance and for pilots are inadequate. Recent news should make this point more than obvious. Pakistan International Airlines has grounded 150 pilots who appear to have a fake pilot’s license. Here’s the link to that news.

Case In Point. The license problem was discovered following a crash in Karachi on May 22nd in which the performance of the pilots trying to land an Airbus was mindboggling.

  • They approached the runway three times too steep.
  • They attempted to land around 80 miles per hour too fast.
  • They did not put the landing gear down.
  • After scraping the engines on the runway, instead of letting the plane slide to a stop, they went back into the air to attempt another landing, presumably so they could get the gear down before landing on their second try.
  • As the pilots maneuvered the plane to make a second landing, the engines failed, presumably due to contact with the runway on the first landing. The plane crashed short of the runway with no power.

Pilots Are Supposed To Be Able Go Fly. If they can’t fly and they crash, I have the narrow-minded view that it is not necessarily the manufacturer’s fault.

Why Are There Pilots On A Plane? Airliners could be flown as drones. Pilots are on the plane because mechanical problems arise. When a problem arises, they are there to deal with it. It is every pilot’s job to know how to deal with problems.

When the Lion Air MAX crashed, I pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the plane that any competent pilot couldn’t take care. Some of the Lion Air pilots were able to take care of it. Some not able. Lion Air’s maintenance was so bad, the plane that crashed had the problem develop on five flights in a row.

  • Flights One Through Three. When the problem arose, the pilots were sharp enough to deal with it.
  • Flight Four. The pilots at the controls didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, a pilot from another airline hitching a ride in the cockpit knew how to handle it. He coached the pilots at the controls through the procedure, which is in the manual and they should have memorized.
  • Flight Five. The pilots did not know what to do. They crashed.

The Uproar. Click-bait media said the crash was Boeing’s fault. The problem was not Boeing’s fault. It happened at Lion Air because of:

  • untrained and/or incompetent pilots
  • incompetent maintenance
  • incompetent management, and
  • incompetent governmental oversight.

As the media saw it, Boeing was supposed to be so competent that incompetence everywhere else didn’t matter.

When I pointed this out, I got a lot of pushback. Readers of my fear of flying newsletter insisted that because the media insisted it was Boeing’s fault, must be right. I understand. Here, in the developed world, we can’t fathom how screwed up aviation is in some other parts of the world. It is hard to understand how incompetent some of the pilots are at some airlines.

So let’s take a look at how severe the pilot competence problem is in some places. The history is long. I have to start somewhere so let’s go back twenty-some years.

October 31, 1999. EgyptAir flight 990 crashed near Nantucket Island. Readouts on the flight recorder showed there was nothing wrong with the plane. A co-pilot who had been unable to successfully upgrade to captain intentionally put the plane in a dive and crashed the plane while saying a prayer. Was that Boeing’s fault? Both EgyptAir and the Egyptian government said it was. They claimed the National Transport Safety Board’s investigation was a sham and it covered up the so-called real cause of the crash.

February 25, 2009. Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 crashed during landing at Amsterdam. The pilots had the auto-throttles (like cruise control on your car) engaged. A faulty radio altimeter caused the throttles to be pulled back to idle. Though pilots are required to monitor the speed and call out any speed deviation, neither pilot noticed the plane was flying too slow until it was too late to recover.

Though this was obviously pilot error, the New York Times published an article THIS YEAR — January 20, 2020 — to pile on Boeing’s 737 MAX woes. The article was titled “How Boeing’s Responsibility in a Deadly Crash ‘Got Buried’.” The article was written, as usual, by someone who has inadequate knowledge of airline operations. Pilots are required to conduct a “stabilized approach” from 1000 above the runway to touchdown. That means the speed and the throttle setting must be proper and consistent throughout the approach. The pilots came nowhere close to that requirement which, had they complied, the radio-altimeter-autothrottle malfunction would have been obvious and easily corrected.

July 6, 2013. Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco on a beautiful sunny day because the airport’s ILS, the electronic guidance signals used for an automatic landing was shut down, and the pilots were so unskilled that they could not do what any amateur pilot can do: fly the plane by hand.

Airline management would much rather blame Boeing than take responsibility for a crash. Blaming Boeing is also done by regulators who fail to ensure pilots are trained and maintenance is proper. Now, don’t get alarmed. I am not talking about the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, Mexico, Japan, or Australia. But there are places where aviation isn’t done right, and the blame for crashes there should not be artificially extended to Boeing, Boeing is good, but they can’t build a plane that some fool can’t crash. But because Boeing got crucified, the MAX is now being “fixed” for stuff that would never have needed fixing if real pilots with real licenses and real training had been in the cockpit.

If there were a 737, a 747, a 757, a 767, a 777, and a 787 sitting there on the tarmac and I could choose which to fly as a pilot, I would choose the 757 because it is so responsive to control inputs. When I flew it, most of the time the landings were so smooth the passengers didn’t know we were on the ground.

If I were to choose one for passenger comfort, I would choose the 787 because the pressurization system makes it feel like you are not at high altitude during cruise.

If I were to choose one for safety, it wouldn’t matter. And if the 737 was a 737 NEO or a 737 MAX, I wouldn’t care. And if there were two 737 MAX airliners there, one with the original MCAS and one with the newly redesigned MCAS, I wouldn’t care, as least so long as the pilots were properly trained.

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Tom Bunn is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist. He is the originator of the SOAR Fear of Flying Program.

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Capt Tom Bunn

Capt Tom Bunn

Tom Bunn is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist. He is the originator of the SOAR Fear of Flying Program.

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