A Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner. Photo: Twitter
A Boeing 737 Max 8 jetliner. Photo: Twitter

The crash of Lion Air Flight 610 last month was obviously tragic in and of itself, with the loss of nearly 200 lives. But it has shone a spotlight – albeit an all too dim one – on a problem that extends far beyond one Indonesian airline and one American aircraft manufacturer.

Investigators suspect that a software system called “MCAS” may have caused or at least contributed to the crash. You probably don’t have any idea what MCAS is, or what it does. The problem is, neither do many pilots, or airline operators. Because in the aviation industry, secrecy is the name of the game – a game that can be deadly.

Lion Air Flight JT610 departed Jakarta’s Soekarno Hatta International Airport on October 29, at 6:20am local time, headed for the popular tourist destination of Pangkalpinang, off Sumatra – normally a short one-hour flight.

Bhavye Suneja, of Delhi, India, was captain of the new Boeing 737 MAX 8, which had only been in service two months. Suneja had 6,000 hours of flight experience, while his co-pilot, named only as Harvino, had 5,000 hours. A relatively experienced crew.

With good weather forecast for the entire journey, it had all the markings of another routine flight. Takeoff was routine, the 737’s Leap 1B engines powering it upward to an altitude of 900 meters, when things went very wrong.

Carrying 189 passengers and crew, Flight JT610 slammed into the Java Sea, reportedly at a very high rate of speed, just 13 minutes after takeoff.

The flight crew didn’t even have time to issue a Mayday call, such was the suddenness of the event. There were no survivors – rescuers found only body parts and pieces of wreckage.

Silent software

While the investigation is still in its early stages, and officials are not issuing any conclusions at this point – all possibilities will be looked at, including terrorism – a software system has become the subject of intense controversy.

As the search continued for valuable clues, Boeing, the maker of the 737 – deemed one of the safest in the world – publicly admitted that a standard, silent piece of software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, was installed on the computer systems of all MAX 8s.

Unfortunately, Boeing never told anyone – not the operators, not the pilots, and certainly not the flying public. It was never mentioned in the flight manual, the essential bible for commercial pilots.

In short, designed to work silently in the background, the system corrected for a larger engine, installed higher and further forward, in the event the aircraft’s nose drifted too high, at risk of stalling.

There was only one problem: Coupled with a malfunctioning angle-of-attack (AOA) indicator or airspeed indication, experts now say the MCAS system could be fooled into issuing incremental stabilizer nose-down commands.

Worst-case scenario – a nose-down, 600-knot impact into terrain.

A sobering thought, as we learned that the aircraft in question had AOA/airspeed indicator issues on its previous four flights.

In fact, the British Broadcasting Corporation has reported that Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee said an angle-of-attack sensor had been changed on the aircraft the day before the crash.

While software problems are rare in today’s commercial aviation market, they do happen. The problem is, airlines and aircraft manufacturers remain secretive – a fact that is only too obvious in the wake of the Lion Air crash.

Captain John Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Union (SWAPA), pulled no punches on the issue, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

“We’re pissed that Boeing didn’t tell the companies and the pilots didn’t get notice obviously, as well,” said Weaks. “But what we need now is to make sure there is nothing else Boeing has not told the companies or the pilots.”

Disaster averted – sometimes

Secrecy and the lack of transparency are not new among aircraft manufacturers.

Several years ago, a large, twin-engine, wide-body jet was headed for a major destination in Asia with a full load of passengers. The name of the North American airline and the destination will be kept confidential, to protect the identities of the pilots and crew.

It was evening, and the flight attendants had finished serving dinner – everyone was settling down to a quiet flight. And then, it happened …

The LCD glass-cockpit screens that display crucial information for the pilots, such as airspeed, altitude, location and other data, went blank, leaving the aircraft virtually blind.

The captain said, “We’re dead,” stood up, and went to the toilet, leaving the shocked junior co-pilot alone in the cockpit, to fend for himself.

Luckily, the latter was a landing specialist – one of the best the airline had. A man who could land in almost any weather condition, when called upon.

He immediately took over communications, and, using what controls he still had – the backup instruments – he was able to bring the big bird down safely in the black of night. Disaster averted.

Suffice to say, the incident caused a major panic. The aircraft manufacturer discovered that the computer has simply rebooted itself – in mid-flight. Something it had never done before.

A fix was created and installed in every aircraft around the world. If not for one of the crew who spoke of the incident to a confidant, no one would ever have known. Even the passengers didn’t know.

Going back a few more years, in the late 1990s … an Air Canada Airbus A340 jetliner was departing Frankfurt, bound for Vancouver. After rotation, passengers heard a loud boom – the central landing-gear pod had literally fallen off the aircraft and landed in a field.

Air Canada quickly made contact with Airbus headquarters, only to find out that even it was not sure if the aircraft could land on the remaining three landing gear. It had never been tried.

But after flying around for two hours, burning off and jettisoning fuel, the crew lowered the remaining landing gear via manual gear-extension procedures and the plane landed safely. Disaster averted.

What happened after was most interesting. Nothing happened. Literally no media coverage whatsoever – exactly what the manufacturer and airline wanted. They had lucked out. No nasty PR issues to deal with, no grieving family, no lawsuits

What happened after was most interesting. Nothing happened.

Literally no media coverage whatsoever – exactly what the manufacturer and airline wanted. They had lucked out. No nasty PR issues to deal with, no grieving family, no lawsuits.

Later, it would be determined that certain taxi maneuvers were causing too much stress on the central gear pod, and new procedures were implemented. A similar incident has not happened since.

The 189 passengers and crew aboard Lion Air Flight 610 were not as lucky. The two pilots, despite considerable flying experience, were holding the wrong cards that day.

They had no knowledge of MCAS, and likely tried to fly the aircraft manually – possibly worsening the condition.

Indonesian officials have confirmed that the flight data recorder (FDR) has been retrieved, but authorities say it could take months to analyze the data. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) has yet to be located.

And while the world waits to hear the voices on that troubled flight, The Wall Street Journal reported a high-level Boeing official as saying the reason the company had decided not to provide the information on MCAS was so as “not to overwhelm average pilots with more information than they would need.”

Imagine. Even experienced CFIs – chief flight instructors – had no knowledge of MCAS on the Boeing 737 MAX 8.

Last week, the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) hastily released an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (EAD) outlining procedures should the condition ever reoccur – including shutting off the autopilot, setting stabilizer switches to cut out, and, as a last resort, physically manhandling the trim wheel “if the runaway continues.”

A chilling scenario with hundreds of lives at stake.

The suggestion was clear – even if you did everything right, the aircraft’s system could still prevail. Worse yet, if your last hope on a US$72 million state-of-the-art airliner was fighting the trim wheel, somebody had clearly missed the boat.

The incident left former Boeing engineers shocked and appalled.

Dwight Schaeffer, a former Boeing electronics engineer and senior manager who oversaw development of systems, including the 737’s stall-management computer, said the brief description in the FAA’s airworthiness directive “blows me away.”

“Usually you never have a single fault that can put you in danger,” Schaeffer told The Seattle Times. “I’ve never seen any such system.”

Peter Lemme, a former Boeing flight controls engineer, said it looked like a design flaw.

“To contemplate commanding the [horizontal tail to pitch the jet], nose down clearly is a major concern. For it to have been triggered by something as small as a sensor error is staggering,” Lemme told The Seattle Times. “It means somebody didn’t do their job. There’s going to be hell to pay for that.”

MAX facts

  • MAX planes are more fuel-efficient than older 737s, largely thanks to new engines.
  • The model comes in four different variants: -7, -8, -9 and -10, from the smallest to the largest.
  • MAX variants of the 737 are Boeing’s fastest-selling generation of airplanes ever.
  • The company has inked more than 4,700 orders for the variant of the single-aisle jet for more than 100 carriers worldwide.
  • Only 241 of those planes have been delivered to airlines.
  • It was the first crash ever for the Boeing 737 MAX 8.

– Source: ThePointsGuy.com

Dave Makichuk is a veteran writer and copy-editor with 35 years' media experience who lives in Calgary and freelances for Asia Times. A dedicated Detroit Red Wings, Tigers and Lions fan, Makichuk relishes his chosen role as enemy of the state, and defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.

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