MAX Grounded. Now What?

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From the moment the Commerce Department got its governmental mitts on pilot licensing in 1926, politics and aviation have been inextricably entwined. But rarely is that on such naked display as it was Wednesday when the FAA announced that it was joining much of the rest of the world in grounding Boeing’s 737 MAX after holding out, for what, barely a day?

With anxious passengers voting with their dollars and feet, the grounding was unavoidable, especially after several prominent senators and eventually the president weighed into the normally sober and obscure world of airline regulation and airplane certification. A lonely beacon of restraint was flashed by the Flight Safety Foundation: "This globally haphazard approach to an important airworthiness issue was most unfortunate … global aviation safety is best served by timely, harmonized decisions based on facts and evidence, not conjecture, politics, or media pressure."

I don’t know if the grounding is the right decision, but I can’t make an argument against it. Pulling the MAX series from service at least has the benefit of turning up the heat on the Lion Air 610 investigation, which promises to shed the most light on whatever shortcomings the MAX may have, but somehow has failed to do so. And better now than later, when a larger population of aircraft pulled from service would have greater economic disruption. A handful of small airlines such as Cayman Airways are more affected than American or Southwest, but if the flying public is nervous, politicians smell the blood in the water.

In that context, the FAA’s statement about why it reversed course seemed odd. It said new evidence found at the site where Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed on Sunday was a factor, without saying what evidence that was. It also said that “enhanced satellite data” showed a flight profile similar to Lion Air 610, which crashed in October. Presumably, that included ADS-B data, but the term “imagery” was also used. Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said Wednesday that the FAA initially had only about three minutes of the flight track, but later got the entire track at which point it decided it clearly resembled Lion Air 610.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian authorities, who found the flight data and cockpit voice recorders quickly, didn’t seem in a hurry to get them to a European lab for readouts. They shopped for an investigative agency and eventually settled on the French BEA.

Married to data from Lion Air, what’s on those recorders may shed immediately useful light on what fix the MAX needs, if any. Regardless of how the much-maligned Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System—a stall-avoidance background auto-trim routine—functions or doesn’t function, Boeing played catch up after the Lion Air crash. Having failed to emphasize documentation on MCAS, it sent technical teams to many of its customers to explain the system and recommend additional training.

According to this report, Ethiopia Airlines pilots got that training. It refreshed what they should have already known: how to use the airplane’s trim cutout switches to arrest a runaway trim condition. Having just had that training and being aware of the Lion Air crash, it seems inconceivable that if the Ethiopian crash was related to MCAS erroneously commanding nose-down trim, the pilots wouldn’t have disabled the electric trim immediately.

The FDR/CVR will reveal if they did and if they did, something else is afoot. And it could be a serious design flaw. The history of airline crash investigations is replete with the unsuspected, the surprising and the utterly unlikely. Those of us forming opinions at a distance need to keep this in mind. Two crashes of a new type in quick succession could be a training issue or it could be something else entirely. Or both.

Also shedding more heat than light are several press reports on complaints about the MAX found on NASA’s ASRS site. Here are the actual filings. These sound sinister, but I’m unimpressed. Search ASRS for any other aircraft type and your eyes will glaze over reading about autopilot foibles and failures, pitch trim bobbles, altitude and course capture malfunctions and “what the hell is it doing now?” comments. A common theme in some of these reports—and present in the MAX complaints—is self-doubt about whether the pilots induced the error with a setup mistake. If that doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t flown much with autopilots. But of itself, it doesn’t exonerate the MAX’s MCAS or anything else. The reports may be just noise in the data.

One commenter complained about Boeing’s poor job of explaining MCAS and/or elucidating it in the AFM. The pilot unions seem onboard with that. Another thought that any airplane that needs a system like MCAS to fly is “a red flag.” Perhaps, but if that’s so, what about stick shakers and pushers or the myriad bank, pitch and speed protections in the Airbus fly-by-wire control law? Like those systems, MCAS is just another form of envelope protection. Even a Cirrus has it. Philosophically, we crossed that bridge years ago, even if Boeing might have mucked it up in the implementation or fielding.

In the wake of these two accidents, I’m sure we’re about to endure another round of pearl twisting about the role of automation in the cockpit. Personally, I’m not going there. Airplane designers and builders have a duty to get the human-machine interface as right as possible, and investigators have a duty to determine when they haven’t. But we're not going back.

A friend of mine is a training captain for a major airline and was in town last month. We had a long conversation about this topic and he pointed out that some pilots have just enough knowledge of the panel and systems to get by. And that may not always be enough. Flying with automation is the job, these days.