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Here’s the terrifying reason Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 is grounded across the globe

Here’s the terrifying reason Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 is grounded across the globe
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Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the sea off Indonesia because the pilot “lost (the) fight with his software,” Canadian Transport minister Marc Garneau chillingly told a Wednesday press conference announcing the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.

There is nothing wrong with the basic mechanics of the aircraft: Its engines, wings and control surfaces are all believed to be working fine. Rather, the passenger jet may have killed 346 people for the terrifyingly modern reason that human pilots were unable to override a malfunctioning computer.

The cause of the Lion Air crash — and the suspected cause of the recent downing of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — is a little-known piece of software known as MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.

The 737 MAX 8 has heavier and more fuel-efficient engines than prior editions of the 737, a change which causes the aircraft to pitch upwards ever-so-slightly after takeoff.

Rather than instructing airlines to warn their pilots of this quirk, Boeing simply equipped the MAX 8 with MCAS, a program that would automatically tilt the nose downwards to compensate.

In normal circumstances, the system is not a problem, but it only takes a minor maintenance error to turn MCAS into a deadly liability.

In the case of Lion Air Flight 610, the 737 MAX 8 had a faulty “angle of attack sensor”; a small blade sticking out of the cockpit that records the angle of the aircraft in flight.

An angle of attack sensor pictured on an Embraer 145. NASA

The sensor was wrongly telling the MAX 8’s flight computers that the aircraft was climbing much more sharply than it was. As a result, pilots were left wrestling with an aircraft that was repeatedly plunging itself towards the ground for no reason. A pilot can counteract the dive by pulling up on the control column, but MCAS will kick in again after only 10 seconds and once again tilt the plane downwards.

“If this is left unchecked (it) can lead to a potential nose heavy situation where it becomes almost impossible to manually raise the nose,” reads a November assessment of the Lion Air crash by Akan Bassey, a commercial pilot and blogger.

Indeed, the final minutes of Lion Air Flight 610 show the plane veering crazily up and down as the pilot fought with MCAS for control of the aircraft.

“The airplane tends to oscillate in this conflict between the software and the pilot,” Garneau, himself an experienced airman, said Wednesday.

Ultimately, the Lion Air 737 pitched itself forward 26 times before pilots ultimately lost control.

Adding to the confusion were stall warnings, in-cockpit alerts and faulty instrument readings, making it likely that the Lion Air pilots didn’t even know what was happening.

Relatives of those killed in the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 gather near the recovered personal effects of passengers and crew. Fauzy Chaniago / Associated Press

There is a series of complex steps that the pilots could have taken to override the MCAS system, but as the New York Times wrote in an analysis “these steps were not in the manual, and the pilots had not been trained in them.”

A Boeing official quoted by the Wall Street Journal said this was done due to fears of “inundating average pilots with too much information.”

However, while the manual may not contain MCAS-specific directions, a recent Boeing statement wrote that their manual “already outlines an existing procedure to safely handle the unlikely event of erroneous data coming from an angle of attack (AOA) sensor.”

“The pilot will always be able to override the flight control law using electric trim or manual trim,” it read.

Part of the relative mystery on MCAS is because it isn’t even supposed to be noticed by pilots, as it’s designed only to kick in during a potential emergency.

The program is a fail-safe designed to save the aircraft if it’s pitching too sharply, potentially putting it into a “stall”; a situation in which there is no longer enough air flowing over the wings to generate lift. As Boeing wrote in a recent statement , “MCAS does not control the airplane in normal flight; it improves the behavior of the airplane in a non-normal part of the operating envelope.”

Preliminary data from the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 shows the same doomed trajectory. “It became clear — to all parties, actually — that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines flight was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight,” Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said in a briefing this week.

A grieving relative is held back by others at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff on Sunday killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, Ethiopia, March 13, 2019. Mulugeta Ayene/AP

The worldwide grounding of the 737 MAX 8 is different than prior aircraft groundings. Not only are 737 MAX 8s crashing within weeks of leaving the factory, but signs point to them having no obvious material defects.

The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was grounded in the 1970s due to a faulty maintenance procedure that could cause engines to shear off the wing. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was grounded in 2013 because its lithium-ion batteries were catching fire. Most famously, the de Havilland Comet was grounded in the 1950s due to a design flaw that caused it to dramatically break apart in flight.

But in the case of the 737 MAX 8, the likely problem exists only in the aircraft’s programming, raising concerns of the perils of over-automation.

Ever since the Lion Air crash, 737 MAX 8 pilots have been expressing outrage that Boeing did not properly inform them of MCAS, particularly the possibility that the program could wrench control of an aircraft from human hands.

“We had NO idea that this MCAS even existed,” one anonymous American Airlines pilot . “I’ve been flying the MAX-8 a couple times per month for almost a year now, and I’m sitting here thinking, what the hell else don’t I know about this thing?”

An aircraft incident reporting database maintained by NASA is filled with multiple reports from MAX 8 pilots of the aircraft aggressively pitching forward soon after takeoff.

One pilot wrote of having to take special caution during takeoff to remove the “MCAS threat.” Nevertheless, that pilot still suffered an “undesired brief nose down situation.”

In another, a pilot called the MAX 8’s flight manual “almost criminally insufficient” and complained that Boeing had left pilots in the dark about the extent of the MAX 8’s automation.

“The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag,” read the report.

He routinely switches false beards, moustaches and hairstyles, even fake tattoos. She swaps wigs, scarves, glasses. Both have a catalog of fantasy names

I am reminded of the Gomery inquiry. Quid pro quos, greasy influence over civil servants, too much power in the PMO: It all seems awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

There’s not much anyone can do about it. In our system, the prime minister decides whether the prime minister should be held to account

In this occasional series, Jordan Peterson writes from his international speaking tour for his book, 12 Rules for Life
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