Friday, March 15, 2019

Boeing 737 MAX 8 Black Boxes Going To France? Well, Maybe To Avoid A U.S. Whitewash

Comparison of vertical speed flight profiles of Ethiopian and Lion Air flights which helped lead aviation authorities to ground the MAX 8.  (From NY Times, p. A1)

"Boeing has imported the defense contractor ethic to commercial aviation. Cutting corners is a way of life. Engineering decisions are made for bureaucratic, not safety reasons. It's all good if you spread your manufacturing and political contributions around to enough congressional districts."  - Comment on lead story in NY Times  ('New Evidence In  Ethiopian 737 Crash Points To Connection To Earlier Disaster')

"Our Canadian press has a far more detailed explanation for the 737 MAX disasters.  The aircraft is fundamentally flawed, the whole centre of gravity of the aircraft was changed to accommodate larger engines with marginal fuel efficiency. The software to control stalls caused by the movement of the engines further forward was not explained in the release of new manuals and no pilot training was prescribed. In Canada this could be considered criminal negligence causing death given that Canadian citizens perished in the Ethiopian crash.."  - Comment from Canadian on NY Times lead story.

Finally, the U.S. came to its senses Wednesday, pressured after the rest of the world - and neighbor Canada - took to grounding the Boeing 737 MAX 8.  But oddly, this  was not done by the FAA but by Trump, aka the Dotard. (Hey, even a broken clock is right twice each day!)  But this anomaly has now drawn its own scrutiny over the value of the FAA.  As noted in yesterday's  Financial Times' lead story ('Boeing Safety Controversy Puts U.S. Regulator Under Harsh Spotlight'):

"The president’s announcement has only amplified criticism of the US regulator, which some experts allege is losing its grip over the world’s biggest aviation market.  According to Mark Slack, an aviation lawyer:

'The Federal Aviation Administration has always been slow to react as an agency. But now we have got to this strange situation where we don’t know who is in charge of aviation regulation in the U.S. Is it the White House or the FAA?'

Critics say the agency is understaffed and underfunded, and the state of the FAA has emerged as a focus of concern on Capitol Hill in recent days. Congressional hearings are being planned to examine airline safety and the response to the Ethiopian crash."

But there is more to it than that. In order to understand the FAA's stance and reluctance to act,  one must process the entire warp and woof of the Trumpian yen to eviscerate the "administrative state".  The entire impetus has been to kneecap all regulations and thereby expose citizens to more civil,  medical, political and other risks. As noted in a WSJ editorial from October, 2017:

"Executive branch agencies have issued 100 directives that either knock down regulations or begin a process to eliminate or shrink them."

 For example, gutting EPA regs to allow more mercury to be expelled from coal-fired plants, and also allowing more pollutants (such as perchlorates) in our water.  With the FDA,  we now know it allowed drug makers to change the labels to allow more frequent use of opiods, which was brought out in a recent 60 Minutes interview, e.g.
The wrecking of regs for the USDA and related agencies has meanwhile allowed less oversight for meats such as pork, risking more infestations by Tania solum solex or the pork tapeworm e,g 
Image result for tapeworms in pork, images
With the potential greater infestation of Americans' brains.  As if we needed more parasitism after the Trump political and propaganda infestation.  While some might cheer the sound of the word "deregulation" or mentally conjure up images of freedom and personal liberty, they are woefully misled. As economist George Lakoff has pointed out, e.g.

Regulations are protections.  

Repeat that as a mantra 50 times each day so you won't forget it when you hear the word "deregulation is good".  Now, in the case of the FAA, it has become abundantly clear they are not proactive on behalf of regulation on air safety.   We saw this four years ago when they allowed the drone manufacturers to  fill the skies with the beasties,  now risking potentially calamitous drone- commercial aircraft collisions. 

We also saw the aversion to regulation reinforced with the appointment of Sen. Mitch McConnell's wife Elaine Chao - as head of the Dept. of Transportation  (DOT) -  which oversees the FAA.   That there is no incentive to protect the U.S. public on planes -  anymore than the FDA has incentive to protect against opioid abuse,  or the EPA to protect us from carcinogen-laden water,  is  self-evident.

As Scott McCartney summed the situation in his 'Middle Seat' column ('Muted Response To Bid For Air Travel Rules',  WSJ, March 13, p. A12):

"The DOT has been loath to issue new regulations."

Of course, the excuse usually trotted out by the Right's minions is there have not been the nominations or appointments needed to fill all the jobs available - hence not enough manpower. This is baloney given the Right only cares about whittling the gov't down ("So it can be sunk in a bathtub!" - in Grover Norquist's parlance),  i.e.  not boosting its manpower or purview. McCartney again (ibid.):

"Airlines and many travelers applaud the Trump administration's aversion to regulation and willingness to let consumer choices discipline unpopular business decisions."

Of course, that cavalier take has only worked to a point. Look how quickly many U.S. travelers deluged their reps after the second MAX 8 crash, and especially when they learned they'd have to get to point B on a MAX 8.   Panic, anyone?

Oh, and then having to pay for changing to a different plane! Hardly surprising when we learned (WSJ, yesterday, p. A1, 'Aerospace Giant Tries To Limit The Fallout'):

"The (Boeing) corporate engine runs on cash generated by orders from sales of its most popular plane, the 737 Max."

In other words, this dubious plane is its ATM, its cash cow, noting there are over 5,000 MAX orders in the pipeline. So why the hell would Boeing be proactive in halting its runs?  Why would the FAA cooperate when one of its mandates is to "promote the business of aviation" which has now taken precedence over protecting the flying public?  Especially 'why' if FAA employees anticipate subsequent lobbying for the aircraft industry. 

In the meantime, McCartney's graphs have conveyed all we need to know about the FAA's aversion to regs, including enforcement fines against airlines going down by nearly 90 percent even as domestic three hour delays on tarmacs went up more than 65% since 2016. 

Anyway, some things we've learned since Trump ordered the U.S. MAX 8 fleet grounded:  

-  Dozens of U.S.  Pilots complained of inadequate training on automation-assisted flying systems, unfamiliarity with the controls,  and anxiety that prompted them to engage the auto­pilot earlier than normal.  In at least two instances the plane pitched downward or maneuvered against pilots’ inputs.  Much of this was elaborated on in a Rachel Maddow segment Tuesday night, e.g.

- The preliminary report on the Oct. 29 Lion Air Flight 610 
crash found that a device known as an “angle of attack” sensor had mistakenly indicated the plane’s nose was too high, prompting the plane’s automation software to push the plane downward. The Lion Air pilots fought to raise the plane’s nose but were unable to, sending the plane crashing into the Java Sea.  Experts say the Indonesian pilots lost their battle with M.C.A.S.  because of the MAX's  faulty sensor readings.  (WSJ, March 13, p. A13).  

Note here that the Lion Air pilots accepting any faulty sensor readings given as correct is not "pilot error".   It is instead aircraft sensor error to which  the pilots responded accordingly, i.e. to elevate the nose. (See the graphic on the cusp catastrophe from my post of March 12th)

-  A McLean, Va.-based aerospace firm, Aireon, used its plane-tracking technology to help investigators get a clearer idea of the way the Ethiopian Airlines plane was moving and how that compared to the Oct. 29 Lion Air flight. Aireon, with help from Boeing and the National Transportation Safety Board, were able to refine the initial return of the satellites to create a description of the flight,”  This according to Acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell, who added: 

 “The track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close — and behaved very similarly — to the Lion Air flight.”

Aviation experts said the two planes' noses underwent multiple up and down motions after takeoff.  This motion, called "porpoising" by Col. Stephen Ganyard (USMC, Ret.), meant there were changes in the vertical velocity - and these changes were picked up by Aireon's images.   Why were these important and critical to the U.S. (as well as Canada) changing their tune on grounding? Because (WSJ, March 14, p. A12) the method:

"Uses equipment on satellites to track data transmitted by a plane's transponder, including a flight's speed, altitude, heading and position.  Updates are provided at intervals of less than 8 seconds to offer a global, near real time picture of flights.  Such data can be used to reconstruct a flight path and spot occurrences where planes fly erratically."

Such occurrence is plainly visible in the graphs for each airline shown at the top.  This was enough to convince first Canada, then the U.S. to act.  This Aireon LLC data still saved the day, as we now learned  (ibid.): "even if the Canadian government opted to ground the aircraft the FAA planned to refrain from further action."  In other words, the FAA was dug in to support Boeing's preservation of profits.
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference,  the FAA's Elwell  said delays in getting the damaged flight-data recorders to a place where information could be retrieved contributed to the "agency’s decision" to ground the planes.   

A lie, since the FAA itself made no such decision, it was a Trump order that did it. The FAA basically acted like passive dummies.  As the same WSJ account detailed (ibid.): "FAA and industry officials said Mr. Trump's statements came as a shock to agency managers".   Adding that: "hurried conference calls had to be arranged with agency officials after the president's announcement."   In other words, the FAA's zombots were caught flat-footed.  What they demonstrated was gross incompetence at best or ....deliberate malfeasance out of misplaced loyalty (to Boeing and the airlines)  - at worst. Take your pick!  

When you do,  don't forget the FAA certified this ridiculous "workhorse" jet  that suddenly takes control from pilots . Also,  Boeing’s software fix indicates that the plane maker shipped the 737 Max with a single point of failure, a potentially dangerous anomaly in aviation. And the Federal Aviation Administration, the illustrious "gold standard" for aviation safety,  approved it.

As one pilot put it:  "The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag."

Elwell did answer one question  ('Why isn't the U.S investigating the black boxes?) correctly when he said:  "Ethiopia is taking the lead — their soil, their aircraft, their airline.”  Well, no shit, Sherlock! Especially after we learned today (WSJ,  'FAA Faces Diminished Clout',  p. A8)  that, although "normal procedure would be for  black box recorders to be shipped to the U.S. to be downloaded"  (given Boeing made the aircraft):

 "The FAA's leadership failed to persuade Ethiopian government officials  that the U.S. would be an impartial arbiter of facts."   

Good  guess!

So you can't blame the Ethiopians  for wanting to ensure a neutral,  3rd party nation  with professional aviation analysts perform this critical job.  As opposed to a nation with conflicts of interest galore and a joke regulation agency.   Thus their sending the boxes to France,  as opposed to letting the U.S. agencies get into it and render conclusions that may not be faithful to the actual facts. This set up the immediate uproar on why U.S.  investigators didn't get first dibs.  Well, their whole performance in this fiasco spoke for itself.

Let's pause here  and let me say I also agree with the Ethiopians' decision. After all, what would they have thought after the FAA's unconscionable foot dragging on the grounding of the plane - when all other nations had done it?  So, pardon me for being a CT, but they didn't trust U.S. teams not to do a Warren Commission-style whitewash.  I.e. ending up with "no real data to prove systemic fault" so "all on pilot error".    

 This way, with the French, we're vastly more likely to get an objective analysis and conclusion, even if it strikes at Boeing's (and the U.S. carriers) bottom lines.  See e.g.


"Modern aviation is so incredibly safe, so to see two of the same types of new planes crash so close together should be concerning, if nothing else."

Meanwhile, Elwell's claim there is no systemic fault with the MAX 8 is bollocks, even given what we know thus far. Clearly, even his FAA admitted the automated system pushed the nose of the Lion Air plane down, oh, and the sensor displayed inaccurate readings at the outset.  The pilots repeatedly counteracted it and tried to pull the nose back up, only to be overridden by the system again. Each interval took about 15 to 20 seconds.

The knock on the Lion Air crew that they ought to have disengaged the MCAS is also irrelevant, given Boeing already admitted its flight manual was incomplete.  It didn't have all the information needed to do this or even let pilots know where the disconnect knob was located. As one furious pilot put it: "That part of the plane’s flight system is not described in our Flight Manual"   adding,  "It's inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.”

The public data for the Ethiopian flight is less clear and complete, but it appears (from the vertical speed graphs)  to show a similar signature — an interval where the plane was gaining altitude and then leveling out.  According to MIT aeronautics professor R. John Hansman:

Even from the available data, there are similarities between the Lion Air case and this case in terms of this 15 second periodicity. That would point toward a similar phenomenon. We’ll know more when we get the flight data recorder,” Planes like the Boeing 737 oscillate naturally, he said, because of turbulence and and other effects. But those swings have different time spans: either between five and eight seconds, or a minute or longer. The variations in the intermediate range of 15 or so seconds have no other obvious explanation." 

Don Thoma, the chief executive of Aireon LLC, added that it certainly showed something was wrong with the aircraft, and something they should take a hard look at.”

Oh, and "they" will.   

Not even mentioned up to now - but reported in today's WSJ (p. A8) is that the Pentagon and Air Force have "lost confidence in Boeing's ability to maintain quality control over a new aerial refueling tanker."   Boeing "delivered the first of the KC-46A Pegasus tankers over a year late, after a series of production and design problems left the company nursing $3.5 billion in losses.  The Air Force then suspended deliveries in February after finding tools and other debris left in some jets."

Charming, but alas that's not the end of Boeing's story.

 Another less known aspect (highlighted in a story in today's Financial Times)  is - in a rush to compete with Europe's Airbus -  Boeing chose to retain an older airframe and 'marry' it to a newer, marginally more fuel efficient engine.  That ploy - uniting old plus new-  was part of Boeing’s pitch to the F.A.A. and airlines: Because the plane's basic design was retained it could be handled like previous 737s, so pilots would not need to be retrained to fly it.

Cute,  but the  Boeing engineers then had to figure out a way to make the odd match fit properly.   So the engines were placed more forward on the wing,  altering the aircraft's lift characteristics, and placing more stress (at takeoff) on the horizontal stabilizers - oh and the jackscrews to control them.  

This in turn "led to the need for the introduction of the Maneuvering Chracteristics Augmentation System" (MCAS)"  - a combo  that at least one innominate aeronautics engineer (posting in a comment on a Monday WaPo piece),  claimed:  "rendered the airframe unstable, like putting a Rolls Royce engine into an old Edsel".

So this plane, from my perspective, needs a whole lot more than just a flight manual completion and re-do.  I look for it to be grounded at least 4-5 months, and maybe a lot longer if the black box analysis reveals what I believe it will: that the circumstances of the two MAX 8 crashes are systemic and directly (causally) related.  Also, that the aircraft's lift characteristics may have been adversely affected by the change in engine position to render it more prone to instability,  crashing. 

Boeing, to make it short, created a problem via pure expediency, then added a 2nd problem (the MCAS) to correct the first.  Thus, the Boeing bunch kept the old airframe but imparted bigger MAX engines and mounted them farther forward on the aircraft's wings.  Tests then showed a configuration that could push the nose upward toward a stall in certain circumstances. Then to compensate for that, Boeing installed the MCAS to automatically push the nose down to counteract those forces.   Trouble is,  you've now engendered two unnecessary complexities to an otherwise perfectly working (but less fuel efficient)  aircraft not there before, and made it potentially unstable.

So emphatically NO "pilot error".  But I warrant at least two design errors,  which I suspect an FAA, NTSB -led  investigation would have whitewashed to expedite the speedy return of the MAX.


by Eric Margolis | March 17, 2019 - 5:20am | permalink


How the FAA allows jetmakers to ‘self certify’ that planes meet U.S. safety requirements


How much did the FAA actually know about the technology, especially given its history of delegating to industry?” The FAA’s publication of pilot training requirements for the Max 8 in the fall of 2017 was among the final steps in a multiyear approval process carried out under the agency’s now 10-year-old policy of entrusting Boeing and other aviation manufacturers to certify that their own systems comply with U.S. air safety regulations.

In practice, one Boeing engineer would conduct a test of a particular system on the Max 8, while another Boeing engineer would act as the FAA’s representative, signing on behalf of the U.S. government that the technology complied with federal safety regulations, people familiar with the process said....

The process was occurring during a period when the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General was warning the FAA that its oversight of manufacturers’ work was insufficient.

In the years between the time Boeing launched the Max 8 design in 2011 and the first plane rolled out of production in 2016, the inspector general criticized the FAA’s handling of the “self-certification” system in three successive reports. The federal watchdog said in 2011 that the FAA’s system for deciding which technologies carried the highest safety risks was not effective. Investigators also said the FAA had not adequately trained company employees to spot noncompliance with safety requirements.


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