Reader Question: Aviation Clovered?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

T asks: After the Lion Air 737 MAX crash, we were assured that Boeing’s new plane was safe and the pilots were all properly trained. So the smart money was on these things falling from the sky. Again we hear of a record-breaking event where a new 737 MAX went down, again killing everyone on board. I was hoping you could pen some prose on this. There is no Libertarian plane anything.

My reply: I am not a pilot and don’t know much beyond general layman stuff about commercial aviation. It is my understanding that – as with cars – commercial aircraft are being designed to rely more and more on technology, on software and programming – with less emphasis on active control by the human pilot/driver.

I personally would much rather fly on an old 707 or (even better) the Concorde than any of the new busses of the air. For the same reason that I would rather drive a car without automated emergency anything.

It takes longer in 2019 to fly from NY to LA than it did in 1970 – and is far less pleasant.

I suspect that, if we did live in a Libertarian world we’d have routine supersonic travel in extremely safe “next-generation” SSTs piloted by extremely skilled pilots who handled everything from backing up from the gate to deploying the speed brakes after touchdown.

I am hoping someone with more knowledge of commercial aviation will join this discussion.

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Around the world these 737 MAX 8 are being grounded.

    However, “On Monday, the FAA said in a notice that the aircraft is still airworthy and expects to mandate design enhancements to the automated system and signaling on board the Boeing planes by April 2019. Boeing is also is planning to update training, the FAA said.”

    More mandates, that the ticket.

    On a lighter note, the plane in Ethernopia (credit to South Park) was carrying dozens of climate change enthusiasts from the UN. May they rest in pieces.

    Witnesses to the Ethernopia crash have said that the plane was on fire, smoking, and dropping parts of the empennage before the “uncontrolled flight into terrain.”

    Perhaps the event in Ethernopia was an Allah Akbar moment.

    Only one thing in certain at this point in time. The people NOT responsible for this tragedy MUST be punished vis-à-vis more taxes and more restrictions.

  2. As someone who worked in the industry and got his commercial/instrument, I’ll weigh in on this. I’m not an expert, but I know a few things more than the layman does.

    Could technology be at the root of this Ethiopian Air crash? Yes, it could. Such a technological glitch isn’t without precedent. During one of its early test flights, the Airbus A320 crashed. It was the first commercial airliner with fly-by-wire. This means that the controls are connected to the computer rather than the flight controls; the pilot makes a control input, then the computer interprets this input and decides which control surfaces to move and by how much. Could something similar (albeit with the stall warning system) have happened here? Definitely.

    Here’s the A320 flight that crashed. The computer overrode the pilots, and the flight crashed into the trees. Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAg-WauGrLU

    • Thanks, Mark!

      I remember watching that video, too. Imagine the feeling… you’re pulling back on the yoke, trying to throttle up… but the computer says no…

    • That’s the aviation equivalent of that damn little Microsoft paperclip:

      “It looks like you’re trying to land ….”

      I hate flying on an Airbus. Drives me crazy that the computer keeps running the throttles up and down, even at cruise. I guess other passengers don’t notice stuff like that, but I notice everything – or did, I won’t put up with TSA and don’t fly anymore. Retired now so they can’t make me!

    • Marky,

      Well it was a successful takeoff.

      The climb out, not so much.

      But I have a question for you. As I understand, the Airbus is made by a consortium of governments. Perhaps the first such endeavor.

      What were those pilots thinking?

      Didn’t they drive to the airport that day on Government produced roads? The same roads that begin to disintegrate as soon as the first frost comes along.

      Do you think they didn’t have a clue that bus they were only in partial control of wouldn’t disintegrate after the first takeoff?

      Apparently I’m a soothsayer. I predicted death and destruction when I first learned of the announcement that a group of governments was going to build planes.

      Reminds me of the shuttle pilots over Texas who didn’t even try a side slip before they disintegrated.

      • Airbus started out as a consortium of four European governments, but I’m not sure if this is still the case. I was doing some research, and it’s not clear how much gov’t ownership remains. Given the fact that they built the A380, for which there was little market demand, I would be inclined to think that there is still some gov’t ownership of Airbus. Who else can ignore the market but the gov’t? The A380 was a vanity exercise; Airbus wanted to show that they were better than Boeing by building the world’s biggest airliner. Though they did so, Airbus never recouped their investment in the A380.

        The A320 is not Airbus’ first product-not by a long shot. It’s their best known and best selling product, but it’s not their first product. The A320 first entered service in the late 1980s, whereas Airbus first started in 1970. The A300 was their first airliner.

        Airbus’ first product was the A300, one of the first twin engined airliners. Eastern Airlines was among the first American carriers to use the type, raising eyebrows when they did. Keep in mind that back then, America had three airliner builders: Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, and Lockheed. Before Eastern took delivery of the Airbus A300, American airlines bought from the aforementioned American builders. We didn’t have the duopoly that exists now.

        So, how did Airbus get Eastern buy the A300? How did they crack the American market that heretofore had been controlled by our Big Three? Basically what they did was give Eastern too good a deal to refuse. They gave Eastern four A300s for nothing; they got ’em for free to use as long as they wanted to ‘try them out’. Who wouldn’t take four airliners for free? The remaining A300s were sold or leased to Eastern at terms that Boeing, McD, and Lockheed couldn’t match-thanks to Airbus’ gov’t backing. The rest, as they say, is history.

        That’s not to say that our airline manufacturers don’t get any gov’t help; they do, in the form of military contracts. That’s what Airbus has argued in the past, and it’s an argument with merit.

        Boeing has taken advantage of its military work numerous times throughout their history. For example, the Boeing 307 airliner of the late 1930s and early 1940s was a B-17 derivative; it used the wings, nacelles, landing gear, and tail section from the B-17 program. If you see the 307 up close as I have, the resemblance is unmistakable. Boeing also used knowledge gained from the B-47 program to build the 367-80 quadrajet prototype, which served as the basis of the 707 and KC-135 programs. I could go on, but you get my point.

        Now, you have a duopoly in the large airline business: Airbus and Boeing. In regional jets, you have a similar duopoly: Embraer and Bombardier. The same exists with railroad locomotives. That’s a segue for my next point…

        The large railroads buy from both EMD and GE. They may buy more from GE than EMD, or vice versa in a given year, but they’ll buy from both so as to preserve an alternative. I see the same thing happening with the airline manufacturers. Airlines have bought from both Airbus and Boeing, and they will buy from both. They will continue to do so because they do NOT want a monopoly.

        Those are my thoughts…

        • Other than as a 320 passenger, my professional experience with Airbus is that of dealing with contradictory requirements while working for a sub-contractor. IOW, if you meet Req. A you fail Req. B, and if you meet Req. B you fail Req. A. And this is just for a component! I don’t know how it all got settled, because I finally said I wasn’t going to be gone from home any more and the shall-not-be-named sub-contractor would not let me work off site. Their loss; they actually said that I was the best SW engineer they had ever had – LOL

  3. I’m putting my toe into the water, looking at getting my private pilot certification. I figure aircraft are cheaper than dating, right? Anyway, because I’m paying more attention to the airspace, I have a few thoughts.

    Most layman think the reason air travel has become so much safer in the last 20 odd years is due to technology. That’s true mostly due to advanced trainers and simulators. Pilots are run through trainers, where every possible scenario can be played out, including reruns of actual black box data from incidents. It can be done over and over, on controls that behave exactly like the real thing, until reactions are muscle memory.

    My guess is that because it is a somewhat new aircraft, and this is a new feature, crews haven’t been put through the simulator enough to make use of it. And although it can be turned off, it sounds like the default is on. My guess is that there will be a NOTAM issued telling crews to turn it off until they have been properly trained on how to use it.

    • RK,

      I’ll go with the opposite. Simulators are the problem.

      First rule is fly the airplane.

      And to do that, one needs to know how to fly the airplane, no the simulator.

    • ReadyKilowatt
      March 11, 2019 at 8:49 pm
      I’m putting my toe into the water, looking at getting my private pilot certification.

      Hell yes! And thank goodness!

      General aviation is sooooo lacking in people like you. It is so sad. You’ll make a difference.

      “I fgure aircraft are cheaper than dating, right?”

      Well, as an aircraft owner you’ll end up in the $100 burger club. (Mile high club is always looking for new members as well.)

      As far as buying a plane, take a look at this https://youtu.be/Xi1sy93c_Xg

      My personal recommendation for anyone wanting any kind of license is to start with gliders. You’ll develop seat of the pants flying skills and have a HUGE ADVANTAGE if you’re flying a powered airplane that suddenly turns into a glider.

      As my son always says, a glider pilot never makes a Deadstick landing – even if the 747 he’s flying just ran out of gas.

      And don’t date a gal wearing a shirt with a picture of Amelia Earhart that says “Women Can Fly.”

  4. Eric – I noticed that! I checked on a flight that I took in the early 1970s from JFK to Prestwick in Scotland to confirm. In 1973, the flight took 6h30 min on the way and 7h09 minutes on the way back. Today, an equivalent nonstop flight takes an hour longer. We are going backwards. It’s a disgrace.

    The only hope that we might have is to allow foreign carriers to come in to compete with the domestics. With a few anti trust restrictions built in, such as not allowing foreign ownership of our domestic carriers, I could get on board with that idea.

    In a dream world, we would also be rid of the TSA, but this seems feasible.

    • Hi Swamp,

      Yup. I had the great good luck to fly on a couple of 707s back in the day… a magnificent airplane. And you could arrive at the airport minutes before they closed they gate, which shaved literally hours off travel time.

      The current stuff takes forever to get going – because of all the Security Theater – and when it finally does get going, it’s not balls to the wall, turbojets screaming, like it used to be. It’s a lumbering, almost oafish effort – just like a bus.

      The new airplanes are very aptly named!

      • I’m certain if I wasn’t blind as a bat I’d be a pilot today. Never got to fly on a 707, but did fly on a 727, DC9, 747 and a few really fun puddle jumpers. It wasn’t the aircraft so much as the attitude. The DC9 was my first flight ever, and the stewardess gave me wings, which I’m sure are somewhere in my parent’s house. I got to look in at the flight deck, and in the case of the 747, actually got to sit in the left chair (after we were at the gate of course). In college on my way home for Christmas I sat in the smoking section, and I clearly remember walking though the terminal at PIT smoking a cigarette hoping to make my connection after a weather delay (I was kind of an a**hole punk, but then again everyone else was smoking too). Of course I didn’t, so I got a meal voucher, a hotel voucher, and a free taxi to the hotel. On the way back after break dad handed me a few drink coupons (no one carded me). Years later, getting a bump to first class (thanks for the extra miles, mom!) and flirting with the first class stewardesses (and extra cookies too!).

        But then 9/11 happened. And Warren Buffet bought a controlling interest in all the major US airlines. And the 4 majors carved up all the gate space at the airports amongst themselves. And then they added more rows so unless you’re a 5′ 3″ asian woman you’re going to have to pay up for legroom. And now they slow us down but try to run more flights per day. This works fine if you’re traveling north/south, but if you start crossing time zones you end up with some pretty lousy choices for arrivals.

        • Well, I bought an old Ford pickup from the son of the test pilot who first flew the 747 – LOL

          It was quite a story: his mom was the daughter of a British official on Fiji when his dad was a US pilot in the Pacific during WW2. I bet it would make a heck of a movie!

    • Hi Wise,

      I just happened to hear an interview with a 737 MAX pilot; apparently, there is a new automated anti-stall system in the airplane and that may be the source of the problem.

      • The articles I’ve read also mentioned the new anti stall system, which according to said articles will actually override the pilot – what could possibly go wrong? So the computer thinks the plane is going to stall and forces the nose down to pick up speed, right into the ground! I think there’s a way to regain control by the pilot but if you’re only a thousand feet or so in the air and pointing down, shitting a brick while yanking back on the yoke there isn’t a whole lot of time to process all that.
        A good source for aviation info is askthepilot.com

        • I winder if that has anything to do with the Air France Atlantic Ocean crash years ago. Apparently the idiot pilots kept pulling the nose up in a storm with alarms going off and the captain pilot who was sleeping at the time burst into the cockpit and said what are you doing! Too late bye bye.

          There is certainly an analogy to “semi-autonomous” cars here.

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