Atlas Air crash should spark an overdue debate about piloting

Recent releases from the US National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the Atlas Air Boeing 767-300F fatal crash in February 2019 contain a vital message to the industry about loss of control in flight (LOC-I).

Unfortunately, the message could be overlooked, or not taken seriously, as it has been many times before.

The Atlas Air crash, however, finally negates a common reason for unconsciously dismissing the seriousness of a LOC-I accident.  This unconscious dismissal, among “Western” observers at least, is caused by the mindset that says: ‘It happened to a non-Western carrier’; the implication being ‘What would you expect?’.

Such pilot reactions to the Lion Air and Ethiopian 737 Max accidents flooded the web, particularly in the USA, and are still out there. The latter two accidents, however, involved an aggravated version of LOC-I, precipitated by a confusing technical distraction.

Right now, in the Atlas Air investigation, the NTSB is testing evidence that suggests pilot disorientation by somatogravic illusion might be pivotal in what happened. During descent toward its destination airport the aircraft finally dived steeply and at high speed into the surface .

A synopsis of the basic accident details can be found on the Aviation Safety Network.

A common example of somatogravic illusion – which is an acceleration-induced illusion – is the feeling that airline passengers get when their aircraft begins to accelerate along the runway; they perceive the cabin to be tilted upward, but a glance out the side window shows the aircraft is level, the nosewheel still on the ground.

Visual input, if available, is the dominant human sensory input, and it will correct the illusions caused by the reaction of the body’s balance organs to a linear acceleration.

The Atlas Air 767 freighter was inbound to Houston Intercontinental airport from Miami, and the flight phase in which things began to go wrong was a routine descent, the crew receiving vectors to avoid weather. As the aircraft was descending, in cloud, through about 10,000ft, cleared to 3,000ft, the crew were flying a vector heading of 270deg, and were told to expect a turn north on a base leg to final approach for runway 26L. All pretty normal.

There was a pilot call for “flaps 1”, the aircraft leveled briefly at 6,200ft, climbed very slightly, and its airspeed stabilised at 230kt. But shortly after that the engine power increased to maximum, and the aircraft pitched about 4deg nose up.

It is at this point that somatogravic illusion appears to have kicked in powerfully with the pilots. They had no external visual horizon because the aircraft was in cloud.

According to the NTSB, almost immediately the aircraft began a dramatic pitch down to -49deg, driven by elevator deflection. The airspeed ultimately increased to 430kt, and although the pitch-down angle was eventually reduced to -20deg, impact was inevitable.

The factor the NTSB is examining now is what triggered the sudden – apparently unwarranted – massive power increase. The cockpit voice recorder has captured a sound that may indicate the activation of the go-around button on the power levers. But neither of the pilots mentioned a need for go-around power.

About ten seconds after the power increase, caution alarms began to sound. The inquiry says the control column remained forward for ten seconds. According to FlightGlobal.com: “The aircraft transitioned from a shallow climb to a steep descent. Five seconds after the alarm commenced, one of the pilots exclaimed, ‘Whoa’, and shortly afterwards, in an elevated voice: ‘Where’s my speed, my speed’. Three seconds later, a voice loudly declares: ‘We’re stalling.’”

The flight data recorder gives the lie to the pilot’s stalling perception, because the angle of attack at that moment was safely below the stalling level.

During these remarks the thrust levers were brought to idle for about 2s, then were advanced again to their high power setting. During the transition from nose slightly up to nose steeply down, there were negative g-forces for nearly 11s.

Puzzling unknowns still lurk: like why a pilot exclaimed “where’s my speed?” when the indicated airspeed was rapidly increasing. Was it a fault of instrumentation, or of pilot instrument scan or perception at a moment of confusion?

The simple fact is that, every time a big engine-power increase takes place in flight, forward acceleration combined with a pitch-up moment caused by the underslung engines, is inevitable.

Just as inevitable – if this happens at night or in cloud – is somatogravic illusion in the pilots. “For this reason,” says the NTSB, “it is important that pilots develop an effective instrument scan.”

Develop? It’s a bit too late to develop a scan!

Recognising that acceleration brings with it the risk of disorientation, pilot conditioning should be to ignore all other sensory inputs except the visual, and with no external horizon that means concentrating totally on instruments, believing them, and controlling aircraft attitude and power accordingly.

Recurrent training must keep pilots alive to this risk, and to its remedy, but it clearly does not do this at present. Not for Asian, African nor for American pilots.

LOC-I has, since the late 1990s, been the biggest killer accident category for airlines. LOC-I linked to somatogravic illusion has frequently occurred, two of the most dramatic recent examples being the March 2016 FlyDubai Boeing 737-800 crash at Rostov-on-Don, and the August 2000 Gulf Air Airbus A320 crash at Bahrain International airport. Both occurred at night; both involved a go-around.

The FlyDubai pilot reaction to somatogravic illusion was a dramatic push-forward into a steep dive, like Atlas Air, and the aircraft smashed steeply into the runway.

The Gulf Air manoeuvre was an abandoned night visual approach from which the captain elected to climb and turn into a 3,000ft downwind leg to make a second approach. In the latter case, the changes in attitude and power were less dramatic, but as the captain advanced the power and began the climbing turn to the left over the night sea, he would have lost the airfield and town lights and had to transition fully to instruments. The aircraft described a shallow spiral into the dark water.

Somatogravic illusion makes instrument flying essential, but more difficult because of the need to reject the balance organs’ misleading input. A clear natural horizon in daylight completely overcomes those misleading feelings, and although the instrument panel – especially in modern flight-decks – provides an intuitive visual display, it is artificial and still not as compelling as the real thing.

But there is a long list of LOC-I accidents in the last two decades that involved more subtle sensory inputs resulting in pilot disorientation, and everybody died just the same.

Think of the old expressions associated with instrument flying skills.

First, there is its antithesis: “Flying by the seat of your pants.” Anybody who believes that is possible in IMC or on a moonless night is fated to die.

Then there is the original name for the skill: “Blind flying”; that was in the days before the artificial horizon was invented, when the airspeed indicator, altimeter and turn-and-slip indicator sufficed for accurate flying, possibly assisted by a vertical speed indicator.

Further clues as to the fascination – even mystery – surrounding early blind flying skills are the descriptions of what it feels like when things are going wrong: “The Leans” described the situation in which your perception of what the aircraft is doing is not what the instruments tell you. Finally there is the extreme example of “The Leans”: Americans used to call it “vertigo”, Europeans “disorientation”. That is when your senses are screaming at you that the situation is not what your instruments say – you don’t even know which way up you are.

Nothing has changed just because aircraft now have LCD displays.

It is time to go back to basics, to re-discover pride in precision manual instrument flying, and regain that skill which no pilot truly believes s/he has lost, but which automated flying has stolen away silently, like a thief in the night.

PS: Good blind flying is not a stick-and-rudder skill, it’s a cognitive skill.

 

 

 

 

 

Muilenburg: Returning Max to service ‘will be an international decision’

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg says the successful return to service of the company’s 737 Max series depends on international consensus among the many national aviation authorities (NAA) that will see the aircraft operating in their countries.

Not just the US FAA.

As a reminder, the 737 Max series fleet was grounded in March as a result of findings from the investigations into to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines fatal crashes, respectively in October 2018 and March this year.

Speaking this week at Boeing’s Seattle Delivery Centre, Muilenburg declined to predict a return-to-service date, explaining: “Dates are uncertain because we are going for a global recertification.” That means unanimity – near or absolute – has to be achieved.

Boeing aircraft being prepared for delivery at Boeing Field, Seattle

He emphasised the point: “If we do not coordinate this [return to service] we may see some disaggregation, and I don’t think that’s a future any of us wants to see.”

Muilenburg is confident the combined hardware and software changes Boeing has developed for the Max will satisfy the FAA and the multinational Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB).

The primary causal factor of the Lion Air crash was erroneous triggering of its manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) by a faulty angle of attack (AoA) sensor, according to the Indonesian final accident report. It is at the MCAS that Boeing’s efforts have been directed.

More on MCAS later.

Boeing test pilot and VP Operations Craig Bomben, who flew the 737 Max first flight and has coordinated development activity on the type since the accidents, described the essential difference between the original MCAS and Boeing’s proposed replacement: “We’ve moved from a very simple system to an intelligent system.”

In both the accidents MCAS – triggered by a faulty or damaged AoA sensor which wrongly indicated a high AoA – reacted by providing nose-down stabiliser rotation that took the pilots by surprise. They did not understand the reason it kicked in. Their efforts to reverse the strong nose-down pitch did not succeed, and because both these events occurred just after take-off, the loss of height quickly resulted in impact with the surface.

Bomben said the new “intelligent” system has two AoA sensors instead of one, and if their readings differ by 5.5deg or more, MCAS is not triggered at all.

But if it is correctly triggered, the system now “operates only once per AoA event”, according to Bomben, and when it does trigger stabiliser movement, it memorises how much displacement has taken place, so if it were triggered again it would take account of existing stabiliser displacement and will not apply more than a safe cumulative limit.

But why is MCAS – which is unique to the Max – required at all? Boeing insists it was not fitted as an anti-stall system, because the aircraft already has stall warnings and stick-shakers.

The purpose of fitting MCAS, Bomben explained, was to compensate for a slight change in the low-airspeed aerodynamics of the 737 Max compared with the NG.

MCAS was only designed to trigger in an unlikely (but obviously possible) combination of circumstances that can cause the aircraft’s centre of lift to move slightly further forward, altering the weight-balance equation. It only happens when the Max is at low airspeed with the flaps up, and is being flown manually.

At low airspeed (200kt or thereabouts) – and flapless – the aircraft would be at a high angle of attack and close to the stall. FAA regulations require that one of the cues to the pilot of the approaching stall is that there should be a linear increase in the required column force versus displacement response.

In the Max, however, at a certain point in this sequence the centre of lift shifts forward a little, providing a slight nose-up pitch force, therefore the stick force does not continue to increase, so MCAS is designed to kick in with some nose-down trim to restore the linear increase.

If MCAS doesn’t kick in, the aircraft is still easily controlled without it, but the required progressive stick-force cueing is lost.

In technical and regulatory terms, MCAS seems to be a lot of fuss for very little purpose, but the painful fact is that the original MCAS played its part in bringing down two aeroplanes and killing 346 people.

Muilenburg’s confidence in the fix is, so far, based on more than 100,000 hours of development work on the new solution, plus 1,850 flight hours using the new software, 1,200 hours of refining the results in the simulator, and 240 hours of regulatory scrutiny in the simulator.

Meanwhile, if Muilenburg cannot predict when the world will approve the 737 Max’s return to the air, what is happening to its production at present? The aircraft had won more than 5,000 orders, and fewer than 400 have been delivered.

The Max series, despite the grounding, continues to roll off the production line at Boeing’s Renton plant near Seattle, at a rate of 42 per month. The factory is capable of turning out 57 a month, but Boeing is keeping the rate lower for now. Despite this, Renton has seen no staff layoffs, says Boeing.

The completed aircraft, however, go into storage at Moses Lake or San Antonio desert sites, because the manufacturer’s own sites at Renton, Everett and Boeing Field are full.

Muilenburg said every 737 Max grounded or in store awaiting modification will have an individual entry into service programme, and that in the meantime the engines, systems and cabin of all the aircraft are regularly being run and maintained.

But will they still have that “new plane smell” when the airlines take delivery?

A Max in production at the Renton plant, its unique split winglet close to the camera

 

What the Max story says about safety oversight today

Yesterday the US Federal Aviation Administration joined most of the rest of the aviation world in grounding the Boeing 737 Max series of aircraft, the very latest version of the established 737 series. What took it so long?

Having entered service in May 2017, by early March this year the Max had suffered two fatal crashes within five months. This is extraordinary for a new commercial airliner today.

Evidence from the preliminary report on the earlier of the two accidents suggests a technical failure precipitated it. The first event, in October 2018, involved a nearly-new 737 Max 8 belonging to Indonesian carrier Lion Air. It crashed into the sea near Jakarta within about 10min of take-off. The second accident, on 10 March this year, involved an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft of the same type, and it plunged into the ground within six minutes of take-off from Addis Ababa. Pilots of both aircraft radioed that they were having trouble controlling the aircraft’s height, and this was evident on flight tracking systems.

The FAA issued its grounding order on 13 March. This was three days after the Ethiopian crash,  two days after China, Ethiopia and Singapore had banned Max operations, and a day later than the influential European Aviation Safety Agency – and many other states – had done the same.

Does this demonstrate that there are different safety standards – or safety philosophies – in different countries? Or does it suggest that the relationship – in this case – between the safety regulator and the manufacturer is too close?

On 12 March, resisting calls to ground the aircraft, the FAA said: “Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.”

The next day it stated: “The FAA is ordering the temporary grounding of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft operated by U.S. airlines or in U.S. territory. The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site [of the Ethiopian crash] and analyzed today. This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to FAA this morning, led to this decision.”

The safety principle behind aircraft design, for more than half a century, has been that all systems should “fail safe”. This means that any one critical system or piece of equipment, if it fails, will not directly cause an accident. This is achieved either by multiplexing critical systems so there is backup if one of them fails, or by ensuring that the failure does not render the aircraft unflyable.

The preliminary report from the Indonesian accident investigator NTSC suggests that a factor in the sequence of events leading to it was a faulty angle of attack (AoA) sensor. This device, says the report, sent false signals to a new stall protection system unique to the Max series of 737s, known as the manoeuvring control augmentation system (MCAS). According to the report, these signals wrongly indicated a very high AoA, and the MCAS triggered the horizontal stabiliser to trim the aircraft nose-down. Finally, the crew seems not to have known how to counteract this nose-down control demand.

The implication of the NTSC report – not the final verdict – is that the MCAS was not designed according to fail safe principles: a single unit failed, causing a software-controlled automatic system to motor the powerful horizontal stabiliser to pitch the aircraft nose-down, and it kept on doing this until the crew could not overcome the pitch-down force with elevator.

At that point disaster could still have been prevented if the crew had been familiar with the MCAS, or with the drill for a runaway stabiliser trim. But the MCAS would not have been expected to trigger at climb speeds during departure. The result was that in this case the crew failed to act as the final backup safety system.

In the months immediately following the Indonesian crash some pilot associations in the USA whose members operate the Max publicly claimed that there was a widespread ignorance among Max-qualified pilots of the very existence of the MCAS, and also many assumed that a runaway trim could be dealt with in exactly the same way as it was for all the earlier 737 marques. Actually the drill is quite different for the Max, as Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have pointed out. There is more detail on the MCAS in the preceding item in this blog – “This shouldn’t happen these days”.

Somehow, therefore, many 737 Max pilots in Boeing’s home territory had found themselves un-briefed on a system that was unique to the Max. They claimed lack of detail in the flight crew operations manual (FCOM), which described the system’s function but did not give it a name. US pilots who converted to the Max were all 737 type-rated and had flown the NG marque, but their conversion course to the Max consisted of computer-based learning, with no simulator time.

This ignorance among US pilots was soon corrected because the issue got plenty of intra-industry publicity, so if a US carrier pilot suffered an MCAS malfunction the crews would have known to apply the runaway trim checklist, and select the STAB TRIM switches to CUT OUT. Was this confidence about US crew knowledge the reason the FAA was able to maintain its sang-froid over grounding for longer than the rest?

On the other hand it is not a good principle to use a pilot as the back-up for a system that is not fail-safe.

In the 1990s there were several serious fatal accidents to 737s caused by what became known as “rudder hard-over”. This was a sudden, uncommanded move of the rudder to one extreme or the other, rendering the aircraft out of control, and unrecoverable if it happened at low altitude. The problem was ultimately solved by redesigning the rudder power control unit, for which there was no backup, thus no fail-safe.

If a Boeing product has a fault the responsibility is Boeing’s, but it is equally the FAA’s. The FAA is the safety overseer, and should satisfy itself that all critical systems are fail-safe and that the manufacturer has proven this through testing.

If America has an image it is that of the can-do, the entrepreneurial risk-taker. Why would Boeing or the FAA be different? One of the FAA’s stated values is this: “Innovation is our signature. We foster creativity and vision to provide solutions beyond today’s boundaries.”

The world has benefited from the USA’s risk-taking culture which has driven some aviation advances faster than they would have occurred in other more risk-averse cultures like that of Western Europe. An example of this is the massive extension of ETOPs (extended range twin engine operation) with the arrival on the market of the Boeing 777, which ultimately drove the four-engined Airbus A340 out of the market and influenced the early close-down of the A380 line. Boeing and the FAA took the risk together, and together they got away with it.

Is the 737 Max going to prove to be the one Boeing didn’t get away with? Time will tell.

But is certain Boeing will find a fix that will get the Max back in the sky. And although this episode, if it runs the course it seems likely to follow, will damage Boeing, the damage will be far from terminal. The company has an unbreakable brand name by virtue of being so good for so long, but trust will have suffered.

In the world at large, the art and science of safety oversight is changing dramatically. Technology is advancing so fast that the traditional system of close oversight by the regulator cannot work without stifling innovation, so “Performance-Based Regulation” (PBR) is the new watchword. Basically this means that the regulator prescribes what performance and reliability objectives a system or piece of equipment should meet, and the manufacturer has to prove to the regulator that it meets them. This is fine, providing that the regulator insists on the testing and the proof, and has the expertise and resources to carry out the oversight.

Although lack of oversight resources in the FAA seems unlikely, it would be a global disaster if it occurred. The same would be true of other national aviation agencies (NAA) in countries where aviation manufacturing takes place.

That risk of under-resourcing NAAs is a serious worry for the future, because all the signs are that most countries consider it a very low political priority, especially at a time of budget austerity.

 

This shouldn’t happen these days

In the last five years, statistics for fatal accidents to commercial passenger jets were so low they looked set to prove that a permanent zero fatal accident target was achievable.

Technology is accepted to be the main contributor to these remarkable safety performance improvements. The superb engineering and smart systems in the latest jets made them as different from their predecessors as today’s generation of automobiles is from cars of the 1970s.

But, on 29 October 2018, Lion Air flight JT610 crashed only about 12min after take-off from Jakarta, Indonesia. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8 that was delivered by the manufacturer to the airline less than three months before, one of 11 of this new marque in its fleet.

That was a shock, but when on 10 March this year another almost new 737 Max 8 also crashed within a few minutes of take-off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia under circumstances that appear similar, a chill went through the entire aviation community.

Ethiopian Airlines has grounded its 737 Max fleet, Singapore has banned Max operations in its airspace, and the Chinese aviation authority CAAC has grounded all Maxes registered there – almost sixty of them. And on 12 March Australia, Ireland, France, Germany and the UK added themselves to the rapidly growing list of those who had banned operation of the type. Late on 12 March the biggest blow fell: European Union body the European Aviation Safety Agency has banned all 737 Max 8s and 9s from its skies except to fly, empty, to maintenance bases. The agency argued that it cannot be ruled out that the Ethiopian accident was caused by the same failure as that which appears to have caused the Lion Air crash. And, shortly before midnight, India had joined the doubters.

Now Latin America has begun a wave of groundings and, as a result, by the end of the Western European day on 12 March more than a third of all Maxes in service around the world had been affected by effective groundings. There has never been an event like this, where the original certificating authority has declared an aircraft airworthy but much of the rest of the world has decided it is not so confident.

Back to the accident issues. The two take-off airports couldn’t have been more different, one at sea level, the other at an elevation of more than 7,000ft, but in both cases it was daylight and the weather conditions were benign.

Both aircraft were seen to dive to impact.

The Indonesian investigator (NTSC) issued a preliminary factual report that doesn’t pretend to provide a verdict on the cause of the Lion Air crash, but suggests that a factor in the sequence of events leading to it was a faulty angle of attack (AoA) sensor. This device, says the report, sent false signals to a new stall protection system unique to the Max series of 737s, known as the manoeuvring control augmentation system (MCAS). According to the report, these signals wrongly indicated a very high AoA, and the MCAS triggered the horizontal stabiliser to trim the aircraft nose-down.  The crew seems not to have known how to counteract this nose-down control demand.

The NTSC did, however, provide fine detail about malfunctions on same airframe on the previous day (28 October), when almost exactly the same sequence of events occurred, including the signal from the faulty AoA sensor to the MCAS. But on that occasion the captain stopped the nose-down stabiliser trim rotation by selecting the STAB TRIM switches to CUT OUT, and then proceeded safely to the scheduled destination.

Some pilot associations in the USA whose members operate the Max have professed publicly that there was a widespread ignorance among Max-qualified pilots of the very existence of the MCAS, and also among them was an assumption that a runaway trim could be dealt with in exactly the same way as it was for all the earlier 737 marques. Actually the drill is different for the Max, as Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have pointed out.

The MCAS was developed for the Max because its more powerful engines are heavier and fitted further forward than those on earlier marques, affecting the aircraft’s centre of gravity and thus its behaviour at low speeds approaching the stall, so the manufacturer wanted to boost stall protection. It looks as if Boeing had either not foreseen the potential effect of a false high AoA indicator input to the MCAS, or it had failed to warn pilots clearly what that effect could be and how to react. The FAA also, it appears, had not anticipated this.

After the Lion Air crash the FAA put out an emergency airworthiness directive requiring operators of the Max to make clear to pilots the procedures for dealing with a runaway stabiliser trim. Boeing maintained that information was already available.

Pilots converting from earlier 737 marques to the Max are not required to undergo a new full type rating course or simulator sessions, because all 737s are deemed to have sufficient commonality to operate under the same type rating. Thus 737-rated pilots being prepared for the Max are required only to undergo a brief academic “differences course”. For example Southwest Airlines pilots had done their differences course entirely online, and American Airlines the same.

On 11 March, a day after the Ethiopian crash, the FAA revealed it has required Boeing to solve the software problem – and if applicable the hardware – that at present means that a false AoA input can trigger the MCAS stall protection when it is not needed, effectively causing a stabiliser pitch trim runaway. Meanwhile it has declared that the 737 Max series is airworthy.

But if it were to be found that there is a common cause of these two Max crashes – whatever that cause is determined to be – the implications for the manufacturer and the airlines are significant, given the massive size of the order book for 737 Max series aircraft.