The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

More on the 737 MAX 8 crashes

Pilot and author James Fallows points out this Seattle Times article as a good explanation of how the Boeing-led safety process for the 737 MAX 8 airplane may have contributed to their recent accidents:

The FAA, citing lack of funding and resources, has over the years delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes.

Early on in certification of the 737 MAX, the FAA safety engineering team divided up the technical assessments that would be delegated to Boeing versus those they considered more critical and would be retained within the FAA.

But several FAA technical experts said in interviews that as certification proceeded, managers prodded them to speed the process. Development of the MAX was lagging nine months behind the rival Airbus A320neo. Time was of the essence for Boeing.

A former FAA safety engineer who was directly involved in certifying the MAX said that halfway through the certification process, “we were asked by management to re-evaluate what would be delegated. Management thought we had retained too much at the FAA.”

“There was constant pressure to re-evaluate our initial decisions,” the former engineer said. “And even after we had reassessed it … there was continued discussion by management about delegating even more items down to the Boeing Company.”

Wow, that sounds familiar. And this is why we need competent, well-funded regulators for safety-critical industries.

The Ethiopian government says they'll release the preliminary accident report in 30 days.

The world panics about an airplane

Two Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes have crashed shortly after takeoff in the last few months, killing hundreds of passengers and crew. As a result, the European Union, the UK, China, and other countries have grounded the model pending investigations. Notably, the FAA has not. In the US, only American and Southwest are flying the new plane.

This is, simply put, panic. But no one wants to be the guy who will get blamed if another one goes down, even though that is highly improbable.

The Lion Air crash in Indonesia back in October seems related to a software change in the 737 Max 8 that the pilots didn't know about. That accident is still under investigation. Obviously so is Monday's crash in Ethiopia, with the flight data and voice recorders only retrieved yesterday.

While the Washington Post runs a story about how similar the crashes appear, and the President spouting off about how planes are too complex to fly these days, I turn to fellow pilot James Fallows for a dose of reason:

In the Lion Air crash, the pilots apparently kept trying to pull the plane’s nose back up. The MCAS system kept pushing it down. The automated system eventually won. The question that’s not yet answered about that crash is why the pilots didn’t turn off or disable this system. Such fail-safe override controls are built into every automated flight system I’ve ever heard about. As Patrick Smith discusses in his post, it’s possible that the pilots didn’t understand how the new MCAS system worked, or what it would be trying to do. It’s possible that they didn’t know where the overrides were. It’s possible that … well, anything might have occurred.

Is this what happened in the Ethiopian Airlines case as well? Was the AOA-sensing system that triggers the MCAS flawed or broken? Were the automatic controls trying to push the plane down, down, down, while the pilots fought to keep it up? Did the pilots try to override or disable the system? (For instance, by lowering the plane’s flaps, which happens on every landing and is designed to automatically disable the MCAS system.) Were they caught by surprise and unaware of what that system was doing? Were they fully aware, but still unable to alter the fatal path down?

Or was something else, something entirely unrelated, responsible for this crash? Something that had nothing to do with this model of airplane, or these new automated systems? At the moment, I believe no one knows. That is what Boeing, the Ethiopian authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the world’s airlines are trying to figure out. There are enough differences between the two crashes—for instance, in the fluctuations in speed and altitude before impact—that the causes could turn out to be wholly unconnected.

Fallows links to "Ask the Pilot" Patrick Smith, with this also reasonable thought:

For pilots, dealing with the unwanted nose-down command would be, or should be, straightforward. The MCAS commands, faulty or not, can be overridden quickly through a pair of disconnect switches. Why the Lion Air pilots failed to do this, if in fact they did, is unclear, but unaware of the system’s defect in the first place, we can envision a scenario in which they became overwhelmed, unable to figure out in time what the plane was doing and how to correct it.

“Though it appears there’s a design flaw that Boeing will need to fix as soon as possible,” I wrote in November,“passengers can take comfort in knowing that every MAX pilot is now acutely aware of this potential problem, and is prepared deal with it.”

The Ethiopian accident, though, makes us wonder. With the Lion Air crash fresh on any 737 MAX pilot’s mind, you’d expect the crew to have recognized the malfunction right away and reacted accordingly. Did a disconnect somehow not work? Were they so inundated by a cascade of alarms, warnings, and erratic aircraft behavior that they failed to recognize what was happening? Or was the problem something else completely?

We won't know for a long time, in any event no sooner than the FDR and CVR data gets analyzed.

The last moments of winter

Today actually had a lot of news, not all of which I've read yet:

And now, good night to February.

Actually, it is rocket science: personal edition

One of my friends from high school, Beth Moses, today became the 571st person to travel into space:

Virgin Galactic sent three human beings on Unity for the first time in Friday's supersonic test flight, which reached three times the speed of sound on its way up. Just before the flight, Richard Branson's space tourism company told CNBC that astronaut trainer Beth Moses is on the company's spacecraft Unity, along with the two pilots.

"Beth Moses is on board as a crew member," a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman told CNBC. "She will be doing validation of some of the cabin design elements."

The mission launched horizontally, rather than the traditional vertical method of launching rockets. The jet-powered mothership Eve lifted the spacecraft Unity, taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Upon reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, the carrier aircraft released Unity.

MacKay and Masucci then piloted the spacecraft in a roaring burn. The flight pushed Unity to a speed of Mach 3, which is three times the speed of sound, as it screamed into a climb.

After performing a slow backflip in microgravity, Unity turned, gliding back to land at the runway it took off from about an hour earlier. Unity is the name of the spacecraft built by The Spaceship Company, which Branson also owns. This rocket design is officially known as SpaceShipTwo.

When Beth was in high school, she said she wanted to be an astronaut. After a long career at NASA she joined Virgin Galactic as their chief astronaut instructor. And today, she made history.

Congratulations, Beth! You're officially out of this world.

Beth Moses, center. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Cosma.)

Speedbirds in the news yesterday

From a longtime reader in the UK comes the story of British Airways (callsign: "Speedbird") celebrating the airline's 100th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Boeing 747 by painting one in its 1964-to-1974 BOAC livery:

Large crowds turned out at Heathrow on Monday to welcome the plane, decked out in livery not seen for four decades.

The plane will keep flying in its retro BOAC design until 2023, British Airways said in a statement.

Tuesday's flight retraces the first route a Boeing 747 took in BOAC colors.

Also yesterday, a Virgin Atlantic B787 caught an unusual jet stream over the Atlantic that propelled it to a record-breaking ground speed:

A Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles to London peaked at a whopping 1,289 km/h Monday evening 10,500 m over Pennsylvania. “[N]ever ever seen this kind of tailwind in my life as a commercial pilot,” tweeted Peter James, a jet captain.

It appears that’s a record for the Boeing 787-9 twin jet, which in the past has flown at speeds up to 1,249 km/h. The ordinary cruising speed of a Dreamliner is 903 km/h, with a maximum propulsion of 944 km/h. Any speed gained on top of that is thanks to Mother Nature’s helpful boost.

Although the plane didn’t remain in the “jet streak” — the zone of maximum wind embedded within the jet stream — for long, it still arrived 48 minutes early. And you might notice something suspect about the 1,289 km/h reading — it’s above the speed of sound (1,234 km/h). However, whether air travel breaks the sound barrier is dependent on its airspeed — not its ground speed.

Vroom.

Home sick and tired

I'm under the weather today, which has helped me catch up on all these stories that I haven't gotten to yet:

And now, I will nap.

We're #1 again!

At least by one metric, O'Hare has pipped Atlanta and gotten back to the top of the league table for total annual aviation operations:

O’Hare saw 903,747 flights in 2018, up 4.2 percent compared with the previous year, while Atlanta hosted 895,502 flights, up 1.8 percent, the FAA said. Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver were in third, fourth and fifth place, respectively.

O’Hare also handled more than 83.4 million passengers last year, a 4.5 percent increase over 2017, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Both O’Hare and Midway Airport together saw more than 105 million passengers, a new record, the city said.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is still No. 1 in terms of passenger volume, and has held the crown of world’s busiest airport by that measure for 20 years. But a travel industry analyst said the new numbers are “excellent news” for Chicago, which is embarking on an $8.5 billion O’Hare modernization.

The article implies to big factors in the statistic: first, O'Hare now has six parallel runways instead of six intersecting ones, meaning traffic can flow much more easily. But second, American and United rely more on smaller, sub-50-seat airplanes than Delta does, which means more operations but fewer enplanements. So, it's a mixed bag, good for Chicago in some ways but not great for travelers at O'Hare.

Aviation-induced snowfall

Yesterday, a combination of moisture and cold caused snow to fall in a singularly odd pattern near Chicago:

Although no widespread weather systems were in the area to crank out snow, flurries were still falling across parts of the area.

These unusual phenomena were thanks to a supercooled atmosphere interacting with exhaust from a power plant and also the air flow around commercial aircraft.

Farther to the north, a bizarre radar signature in the shape of a loop showed up just northeast of the Windy City, out over Lake Michigan. It turns out this dash of winter was caused by aircraft landing at O'Hare International Airport.

Observations from the airport at the time reveal a temperature of 22 degrees and a dew point of 17 degrees, both well below freezing. Additionally, the closeness of the temperature to the dew point meant the air was near saturation. There was 82 percent relative humidity at the time.

It's likely that supercooled water droplets were present in this air mass. That means the water vapor was below freezing but couldn't entirely transition into ice crystals because of a lack of particulates upon which to freeze.

In this case, though, an aircraft - or many aircraft - passed through this layer.

Meanwhile, police and firefighters closed streets around tall buildings in downtown Chicago yesterday as chunks of ice came crashing down on them. (On the streets, not the firefighters.) You can imagine the commute.