Lessons from Flight ET 302 | Sunday Observer

Lessons from Flight ET 302

I had promised to keep away from writing about planes but alas, it was not to be. Call me morbid, but my favourite program on television happens to be National Geographic’s excellent series, Air Crash Investigation. I have learned a lot about planes just by watching this program. But one fact I knew even before I began watching this fascinating program – that every air crash, however tragic it may be, makes air travel safer as investigators recommend safety improvements and work culture changes.

But sometimes, we do not learn anything after one accident and fly on. The Lion Air crash a few months ago made ripples around the world and safety concerns were expressed, but the type of plane involved – Boeing 737 Max 8 – continued to fly from airports around the world. At least one operator used it on flights to Colombo too. It has taken another crash of the 737 Max 8, with an equally horrendous loss of lives, for airline safety regulators to order a grounding of the aircraft type and seek remedies or solutions.

The crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 just a few minutes into a journey from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with the loss of 159 lives is still making headlines around the world. Investigators now say that the crash bears striking similarities to the Lion Air crash just five months ago which killed all 189 people on board. Both planes were almost brand new Boeing 737 Max 8s. Almost 400 Max series planes worldwide have since been grounded and Boeing, which has a backlog of nearly 5,000 orders from the plane, has suspended deliveries to airline customers.

The question on everyone’s lips was – how can two brand new planes just fall out of the sky? True, a plane crash is most likely to occur when taking off or landing, not at cruising altitude. But in these two particular cases, the planes had not even climbed properly before hitting the ground. It was apparent that there was something seriously wrong with the plane in question.

Although the Ethiopian plane’s Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder (commonly called Black Boxes) are still being analyzed at France’s BEA (the French Air Accident Investigation Service), preliminary investigations point to a design and software flaw that was also common to the Lion Air crash. Boeing built the MAX partly to replace the ageing 737 fleet worldwide and also to compete with the Airbus A320neo series in terms of passenger numbers and fuel efficiency. This necessitated bigger engines than usual, which had to be fixed more forward in the wings.

Boeing engineers found that the heavier engines could create an aerodynamic imbalance, pitch up the nose and even force the plane into a stall, which is never a good thing when in the air. So they created a software to prevent that from happening, called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS)- an automated safety feature on the 737 Max 8 designed to prevent the plane from entering into a stall, or losing lift.

So-called ‘Angle of Attack’ sensors on the aircraft tell the MCAS to automatically point the nose of the plane down if it is in danger of going into a stall. This is done through horizontal stabilizers on the plane’s tail which are activated by the aircraft’s flight control computer. According to Boeing, MCAS does not control the plane during normal flight but ‘improves the behaviour of the airplane’ during ‘non-normal’ situations.

According to the flight data recorder, the pilots of Lion Air Flight 610 struggled to control the aircraft as the automated MCAS system repeatedly pushed the plane’s nose down following takeoff. The problem here was that the pilots knew nothing about this feature, as Boeing had not thought it fit to inform pilots specifically about it. Reports have now emerged that an off-duty pilot had saved the very same aircraft just a day earlier by advising the two working pilots to shut the automated system down. However, that information had not been made available to the two pilots who flew a day later.

However, Boeing did inform airlines and pilots about the system after the Lion Air crash on how to override this automated system. The Ethiopian Airlines pilots, who collectively had thousands of flying hours experience between them, probably knew about it. This deepens the mystery somewhat, but it is clear that whatever happened in the cockpit it happened so quickly that they only had time to request a turnaround to Addis.

Investigators sifting through the debris in the Addis Ababa crash found physical evidence that linked it to the Lion Air crash. Moreover, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which rather belatedly consented to grounding 737 Max planes after President Donald Trump personally intervened and went on national television, found satellite evidence that linked the two accidents.

There was a massive hue and cry over the mysterious loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 five years ago. Experts had pointed out that the plane was not properly tracked despite the availability of technology. Most airlines now subscribe to a service by satellite company Aireon where their planes are tracked by satellite in real time, so that ground controllers know exactly where the planes are.

Aireon’s system piggybacks on Iridium’s network of 75 satellites. Expected to become fully operational in a few weeks, Aireon can track airplanes anywhere on the planet. But the company’s data is already proving to be critical, as Aireon said in a statement that “the system was able to capture information associated with Flight 302.” The company is able to provide investigators with information about an aircraft’s location, velocity, altitude and more.

Known as an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, or ADS-B, Aireon’s technology in space constantly and passively receives information from any aircraft equipped with an ADS-B transponder – essentially an antenna on a plane that is sending flight data to space. This is a technology all plans on the planet must have, especially, after these twin disasters.

Now the US authorities are proving how the FAA certified the plane as being fit to fly despite the design and safety flaws. At this juncture, it is pertinent to note that President Trump questioned whether “today’s planes are too complex to fly”.

He does have a point there. With so much automation in the cockpit, pilots may not have all the skills necessary to do certain manoeuvres manually. This is why it is important to bring all pilots regardless of their aircraft type, up to date with safety producers both on the simulator and the actual plane.

Flying is no doubt the world’s safest mode of transport – you are much more likely to die on the road than in the air – but regulators, aircraft manufacturers and airlines must strive to make air travel safer. If more attention is paid to safety after these twin tragedies, more than 300 people may not have died in vain.