Trump’s neutered FAA partly to blame for Boeing MAX8 catastrophe

The FAA System Handbook principles of safety effort graphic that compares cost to effort in order to save the most lives in the most cost effective manner.
The FAA Cost vs Safety graph – was it used properly when assessing Boeing MAX 8 sensor failure?

The twin crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft have pointed a very bright spotlight directly on the Federal Aviation Authority along with the world’s biggest aviation company.

And rightly so. While 2017 was free of commercial airliner crashes, only two major accidents have occurred since that year – and both involved Boeing MAX 8s.

In October 2018 the Lion Air crash that claimed 189 lives near Jakarta Indonesia and on March 10 an Ethiopian Airlines crash ET302 that killed 157 just outside Addis Ababa.

Just to put this in perspective, no other commercial aircraft has been implicated in as many deaths so rapidly since 1966.

Since the second accident which appears to have been waiting to happen, all Boeing MAX 8 and 9 aircraft have been grounded, and some airlines have begun to cancel orders. That is a real problem for Boeing. Over 360 are now being used by Airlines across the world, including almost 100 in China alone.

In the days of yore, we would hear about a Russian disaster every few months, now, nada. Nothing. Just two American-built planes gyrating shortly after takeoff, their pilots grappling with an automated system they weren’t told about. What a singularly terrifying experience for the few minutes they had left in life, trying to problem solve clinging onto a bucking bronco.

There is a flood of speculation about the cause, the horizontal stabiliser trim going rogue courtesy of a misreading sensor, about the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), pilot training and 737 MAX 8 certification.

TRUMP FAILED TO INSTALL AN FAA DIRECTOR SINCE JANUARY 2018

Perhaps we should fixate on the issue which is directly before us: A lack of FAA Director. And because there’s only an Acting Director, there is only an Acting Administrator. This is damaging to flight safety despite what the FAA will say, and the fault lies directly at Donald Trump’s door.

He has failed to install a full-time Director at the FAA preferring instead to hesitate by announcing an Acting Director. Now Dan Elwell may be a superb Airline lobbyist, and a former captain at American Airlines, but he is not the full-time leader of that Agency or else he would have been installed as such. Ditto Carl Burleson who’s technically the second in command. Also acting.

Both are symbols in a cypher-filled world.

Like other agencies, Trump has played politics with people’s lives and in this case, it’s no different. Instead of understanding that leaders are crucial to a proper functioning independent system, he prefers the logic of Mussolini – install a man (probably) who will nod in unison to his demands of loyalty before sanity. Keep ’em guessing. Hahahahaha. “I’ll get around to nominating my puppet when I feel like it…”

Aviation is the one sector where game playing is tantamount to playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded AK47. Trump has been doing just that.

This is not speculation. The FAA last had a full-time director in January 2018. We aviators awaited the new leader of one of the most respected international agencies, which has built its name on a value system around safety that virtually no other can emulate. But in vain. And since then it has committed a gross act of administrative amateurism and been eclipsed in decision-making by the Chinese, the EU and even South Africa’s Comair which pulled its Boeing Max8s before the FAA eventually and begrudgingly agreed to do so.

Ironically because Boeing said so, following a Trump Tweet.

A DANGEROUS GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

The result is the FAA failed to process Boeing’s request for an urgent certification of new software in January 2019 following the Lion Air Crash in Indonesia that killed 139 people in October 2018. That’s because the Agency was hamstrung by the government shutdown, caused by a president who ignored his own advisors and refused to sign an extension of spending deal because he didn’t get money for a wall.

That is a bit like a baby throwing its toys out of a moving aircraft directly at the people walking across a tightrope at 37 000 feet.

I don’t care for American politics much, it’s a place that appears to be a step away from full-blooded violence. In its place is a media civil war between the Democrats led by people like CNN, and Republicans led by people like Fox. Attend any dinner in America these days and you’ll hear both sides quote their favourite “facts” about why the other side is conspiring in some way or other. Both are dripping in diatribe and distastefully biased, dumbed down, feckle-minded and draped in self-indulgence. It’s like watching dogs with down syndrome.

But what really has happened is that authority has been destroyed as Trump allowed the FAA to wallow in a kind of blind holding pattern.

While the speculation around airlines not purchasing redundancy, their MAX 8 simulators missing the crucial MCAS training software (upgrade to follow FAA/Boeing getting a wriggle on), the fact that in both crashes the First Officers were far less experienced than is usually the case (a few hundred hours total flying time), and a failure to laterally think, it really is about how the hell did the FAA pass Boeing’s new plane as good to go for pilots just to read a few pages on an iPad?

I find this shocking, and there is no way around this moment, folks.

Why did the FAA basically allow Boeing in 2016/17 to conduct its own safety audit of the new system? Why did Boeing cycle through a few senior staff who warned that the MCAS could lead to a Catastrophic result if redundancy was not ensured by duplicating sensors? Eventually they found senior staff who were willing sign their names alongside the phrase “Hazardous” when the safety handbook outlined the threat as “Catastrophic”?

The FAA published a handbook in 2000 outlining what is the cost of safety versus a hazard analysis. Here is the safety section.

Table 3.2.2 of the Severity Definitions for FAA AMS Process. Someone really screwed up here by citing the Boeing 737 MAX8 sensor failure as “hazardous” when it was actually “Catastrophic”.

Why was this not used by the FAA? It preferred to take Boeing at its word?

A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE IN A PISS CAT

Let me expound. As a pilot of Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft, I am not in the world of Commercial Aviation, I’m a General Aviation pilot. What professionals call the pilot of a “piss cat”. These cats that wee, however, can surprise even the best of ATPL trained 10 000 hour wonk. That’s why some of my friends who fly airlines, also fly .. piss cats.

It keeps you alert, makes you think, gives you real stick feel for how an aircraft is responding. Makes you lateral when all about you are literal. And the more computers you get, the more literal you get.

Recently a new Garmin 1000 SR22 was introduced to the bunch of planes for rent at a hangar I fly from, and I dutifully signed up for a conversion. This was a 2 hour minimum conversion because of two main reasons.

  1. The Garmin 1000 is a tricky beast when you’ve used Avidyne Avionics and Garmin 430s.
  2. The new Cirrus has an automated roll recovery installed.

It’s point 2 that I want to explain. And it’s one of the reasons why the FAA and Boeing are now in a spot of bother. Cirrus is safety obsessed as their airplanes are slippery beasts when everything is high and hot. IF you get the numbers wrong, you’ll incipient spin into the deck at low altitude.

So I had to take off and fly the Cirrus with Garmin 1000, and do a beyond steep turn passed 60 degrees, to feel the crazy sensation of a plane pulling you back to safe and level EVEN THOUGH THE AUTOPILOT WAS DISCONNECTED.

I was truly shocked and amazed. I asked the instructor where I could switch off this automation and he said proudly

“You can’t”

“What happens” I said “If I’m flying straight and level and because of a sensor misread or software malfunction, it suddenly decides to turn me to the right or left believing I’m in a turn too steep?”

“It won’t happen” he said.

I made a mental note to approach other instructors in future when conducting further training.

Since that conversation I look askance at the aforementioned Cirrus, while flying it I’m always aware that the plane may decide to take over my flying duties without my permission.

The reason why I do so is because it has a CAPS system – a rocket that fires a parachute out of the top of empennage that will save my life if the plane decides to be stupid. I have a redundancy to cover the eventuality that the computer on board goes rogue, thus I will continue to fly the Cirrus with Garmin1000 and automatic roll recovery and deploy ‘chute where necessary.

Unfortunately for the pilots on board both Boeing MAX 8s – no-one had a parachute.

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