John J. Bastiat / March 18, 2019

Are Third-World Pilots Being MAXed Out?

As theories solidify for recent deadly airline crashes, we wonder if the right question is being asked.

On Oct. 28, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610, a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX-8 operating under the Indonesian carrier’s certification, plunged into the Java Sea 12 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. Just this past week, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — another brand-new 737 MAX-8 — crashed into the Ethiopian desert only six minutes after takeoff, killing all 157. Beyond these tragedies costing the lives of almost 350 people, what do we know so far? That no one wants to fly on a 737 MAX. That the MAX‑8 is grounded worldwide. That Boeing’s stock took a nosedive. And that’s about it.

This is not to say speculation about the causes of both tragedies isn’t rampant. Most message traffic and finger-pointing centers on the so-called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). This system, incorporated into all 737 MAX aircraft, is supposed to force the nose of the aircraft down to regain airspeed when the aircraft is near a stall. The prevailing theories are that the system malfunctioned in each case and forced the noses of both aircraft into steep dives from which neither pilot crew managed to recover.

MCAS was installed on all MAX aircraft to address issues posed by its engines and nacelles, which were redesigned for the new plane. These new features changed the aircraft’s flight dynamics such that MAX aircraft to tend to pitch up slightly when power is applied — thus Boeing had to add MCAS to meet FAA certification requirements. The system automatically pushes the nose down, but only in flight, near a stall, and with the flaps up and the autopilot off. The system deactivates when the pilot uses the aircraft’s electric trim system (a rocker switch on the control column), but if the near-stall condition still exists after the pilot releases the switch, MCAS reactivates. Unfortunately, Boeing did not include a description of this system in its flight manuals, likely on the theory that pilots have too much to worry about with things over which they have control, let alone having to learn about systems that operate automatically and over which the pilot normally has no control.

The problem with such aircraft accident theories is that they are just that: theories — speculation, more accurately — that may or may not be valid, let alone well-thought-through. Until Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee — aided by Boeing and GE Aviation engineering teams as well as U.S. aviation authorities (the FAA and NTSB) — determines the actual, smoking-gun cause of the mishap, any peanut-gallery, causal speculation is likely to be counterproductive.

But it isn’t counterproductive to ask this elephant-in-the-living-room question: Were either pilot training or pilot experience factors in these crashes? The MAX fleets have been grounded without yet having full understandings of either disaster, and we still have no idea whether and to what extent pilot error played a role in either crash. Isn’t asking about the pilots’ training and experience, then, a legitimate question? Both tragedies occurred in developing nations. In Lion Air’s case, the first officer and captain had plenty of experience: 5,000 and 6,000 hours, respectively, corresponding to six or seven years’ flying experience. However, in Ethiopian Air’s case, although the captain had amassed over 8,000 flight hours, the first officer had accumulated a mere 200, most of which accrued during just a few months of introductory flight training.

Thus, a good — but tough — first question to ask might be, “In a dangerous situation like that of Ethiopian Air, how effective do you think the first officer is likely to be?” To take this question a step further and to be completely unvarnished, isn’t the captain operating more-or-less “solo” at that point? Would the result have been different with two pilots, each with 8,000 hours? We may never know. But the idea of putting a 200-hour pilot as second-in-command of an aircraft that can hold roughly 200 people should raise eyebrows and generate no small amount of soul-searching within aviation circles.

Another question that must be asked is, “Why, with the overall track record of the MAX, have these two incidents occurred only in the Third World?” This is not a racist question. It’s one attempting to get at a central issue: Are developing-nations’ pilots receiving adequate training for flight anomalies?

This author has amassed roughly 20,000 flight hours over 30 years in USAF fighters, general aviation aircraft, and a major U.S. air transport carrier. And in discussions with pilots of several other major U.S. carriers, the response has consistently been along the lines of, “If something goes wrong with the stab [the stabilizer at the tail of the jet, which controls climbs and descents], I simply hit the "Stab Trim Cutout” switches, kick everything off and fly it like a Cessna [i.e., a representative low-tech airplane].“ The idea is that if the trim automation on the MAX isn’t functioning as a pilot would expect, he/she can disengage it and fly the aircraft manually. American air-transport-carrier-trained pilots seem to be universally aware of this remedy. Developing nations’ pilots may or may not be, but the training and experience they receive should be thoroughly reviewed before these pilots return to fly the MAX.

None of this explains or excuses Boeing’s role in these two tragedies. Our guess is that Boeing’s culpability and liability hasn’t even really started, though its stock price has taken a pathfinder plunge, potentially telegraphing how those outcomes might be shaping up. Regardless of whether MCAS is ultimately found to play a role in either or both accidents, that Boeing chose not even to include a description of how MCAS works — let alone corrective action for MCAS faults — will likely tarnish Boeing’s reputation in the public eye, at least for a time. In the long run, Boeing is a solid company with great people: Recovery will be painful, but eventually we’re confident Boeing will regain its good name.

As to the training-and-experience question, we must await the complete results of both investigations. Even so, we hope we’re not the only ones asking it.

Update 4/4/19: The Associated Press reports, "The crew of the Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed shortly after takeoff last month performed all of the procedures recommended by Boeing when the plane started to nose dive but could not control it, according to a preliminary report released Thursday by Ethiopia’s government.” That seems like a pretty solid answer, at least in this case, that pilot error was not to blame here.

Update 4/23/29: Or is it? Vaughn Cordle, CFA and Don McGregor, USAF Maj Gen (Ret) make the case for pilot error.

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