South African History Podcast – Episodes 6-11 taking us from Mapungubwe to van Riebeeck

From Mapungubwe to the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, the series explores the history from various perspectives.

When Mapungubwe emerged from the increased trade between central south Africa and the East Coast seaboard including ivory, skins and eventually, gold around 1000AD. 

Unlike areas of Africa further north and north west, slave trade did not impact this region for a number of reasons. The main is distance. Each mile further south from the main Arabian, Asian and European – then American centers of slavery meant was a threat to the survival of those unfortunate souls seized as slaves by intermediaries. 

So Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were not crucial in the trade of humans over the centuries, their power lay in goods rather than people. 

We heard too how by the start of the eleventh century Mapungubwe culture had shifted from the Complex Cattle Pattern where each settlement featured a large cattle kraal in the centre – to something very different. 

The spatial expression of status and the greater social distance between elite and commoner was expressed through the trade and storage of valuable products that replaced cattle as items regarded as most important. 

While ivory had been traded for hundreds of years, gold became extremely important to the Mapungubwe people. Gold plated rhino statuettes, a bowl and scepter have been found in the grave or what we think was a royal cemetery on the Mapungubwe main settlement hilltop. 

In more modern Shona ethnography, the black rhino is a symbol of political power and leadership so there is some speculation that the golden rhino found in the grave pointed to an important burial site. These royal burial sites are also smothered in some thing else … thousands of gold and glass trade beads. 

The area today would not really be able to sustain large-scale grain production. The location of elite and commoner settlements here throughout the tenth to the thirteenth centuries AD sheds light on how the scale of agricultural production was achieved. 

It’s all geography of course. Besides finding a place where water flows, these people also setup their settlements near alluvial gold that was washing down the rivers draining the gold rich geology of the Zimbabwe plateau to the north.  So these folks were looking out across a landscape that had gold, and an extensive flood plain close to the Limpopo River just upstream from the junction with the Shashe River.

Development of the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni in Southern Africa

Combine this with a continuing trade to the southeast African coastline and particularly Europeans from the 1500s, what Simon Hall calls the historical anonymity that veils much of the first millennium starts to slip. 

It is now that we can begin tracing the origin of the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni speakers. Cultural remains of people who are regarded as those of ancestral Nguni speakers first appear around 1100AD along the coastal regions of KwaZulu Natal, while Sotho and Tswana speakers are linked to Bushveld habitats north and south of the Soutpansburg from about 1300AD. 

As with our other links, its all about pottery, ceramics if you like, and other cultural items. 

Starting 1000 years ago, we begin tracking these people as they migrate over the land – leaving their homesteads to be covered by hundreds of years of South African weathering only to be unearthed by some lucky person in the 20th or 21stCentury. 

Stand back for a moment and consider our journey so far. First we heard about the geological change, then climate shifts, then we covered the earliest known hunter-gatherer people who left their mark on the land over 100 000 years. The earliest farmers migrated to southern Africa around 2000 years ago, then by 500 years ago pastoralists’ could be found in the Karoo with their sheep and dogs. 

Cattle begin arriving around 500AD and pastoralists dominate the west of the country with its arid conditions suited to livestock but these people did not work iron like those in the East – the wetter summer rainfall areas. 

By 900AD the central region is trading with East African ports, which leads to larger empires if you want to use that word which can be found by 900 through to 1300AD. 

It is now that the more modern people of South Africa can be identified more precisely, the Nguni, the Sotho, the Tswana. 

Standing back once more and looking from above so to speak, its clear that the Sotho and Tswana people populated South Africa from North to South. 

But the Nguni people on the other hand are a completely different kettle of fish. We know enough to say there is no continuous record of settlements and homesteads between the early farmer phase of the Ntshekane as they’re known and these pioneer Nguni folks.

What this means in a nutshell is that although there were ancient people who farmed living in KwaZulu Natal, they were not the same as the new arrivals who spoke a form of early Zulu and eventually isiXhosa. 

However, it does mean that the origins of both the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni speakers appear to be broadly related. The impetus that was behind the movement must have come from the north of the Limpopo. 

Mystery about main cause of southward expansion

The frustrating thing is we just don’t know why they began moving south from the areas as far north as Lake Malawi except because of what is known as fission within kin groups. 

Khoe farmers as well as Dutch settlers also followed a form of Fission – which means sons of powerful men leave the homestead to setup their own settlements away from their parents. They moved into virgin territory at times – at others they would bump into existing ancient farmers and coopt them – or fold them into the new culture. 

Once they were established in South Africa distinctive Sotho/Tswana settlements appear between the 14th and fifteenth centuries spreading south. 

These Sotho and Tswana were actually part of a new frontier farming community – as strange as that may sound to the modern ear. There is not a great deal of oral history about the first century or two of this intermingling where the ancient first farmers were overtaken by the Sotho and Tswana. 

There is a subtle incorporation of some early iron Age decorations into the style of Sotho/Tswana pottery and in eastern Botswana we know they shared the landscape at first. 

The fifteenth century was a busy time – and not just for the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni people’s beginning to spread around southern Africa. 

Further afield, in Europe, moves were afoot that would have a cataclysmic effect on global history – it was the time of Portuguese and Spanish expansion. Soon thereafter to be followed by the Dutch, French and English. 

The arrival of the Portuguese

In Episode 6 and 7 we heard how Portuguese explorer Bartolemeu Dias had rounded the Cape and landed at Mossel Bay in November 1488. He was the first person to sail around the continent to the South and his journey revolutionized commerce in Europe – and southern Africa. 

Dias dropped anchor in Mossell bay and as his men filled their water barrels, they were approached by Khoe herders who were nearby. 

There appears to have been some sort of confrontation, stones were thrown, and when the Portuguese fired back with a cross bow, one of the Khoe herders had been killed. 

This was an ominous sign for future relationships. The first contact between Europeans and traditional Khoe herders ended in violence. It is not clear exactly what set this off but neither group could speak the other’s language which didn’t help. 

Dias sailed onwards to Algoa Bay, then satisfied he’d rounded the tip of Africa, sailed home again passing Cape point and the future location of Cape Town on the way back. 

As he journed home and just beyond the southern tip of Africa, Dias’ ships were hit by gale force winds and a major storm – so naturally  he gave the Cape the name “Cabo de Todos los Tormentos” or Cape of Storms. 

When he returned to Portugal King Joåo was delighted to hear about the route, but not exactly pleased with the name –  but he had a good eye for public relations and ordered it  changed to “Cabo de Båo Esperanza” or Cape of Good Hope – a name which remains in use to this day. I ended last episode by explaining how name changes are a natural human compulsion and King Joao was no different. 

Dias then tried to drum up support for another expedition down South but he faced a challenge. Other explorers were more interested in a direct route westwards across the Atlantic to the New World – the Spanish were dominating this route and were already plundering South America and King Joao rejected Dias’ plans for more Cape exploring. 


By 1500 the ancestral Tswana settlements were well established below the 5000 feet contour line of South Africa and to the north of the southern grasslands of the Free State. 

These folks built their homesteads along the lower reaches of hills closer to the rivers whereas the older people, the first farmers, tended to build their homes a little higher. They were still utilising the central Cattle pattern layout. The preservation of these earliest Tswana sites is poor and yet we have found evidence of sorghum and millet agriculture. 

IT was a mixed farming system here in a well-resourced habitat. Some of the more interesting finds are around Marico in North West province where early Sotho and Tswana are also backed up by the Hurutshe oral tradition 

The Barolong were associated with this region too and predate the time when increased population meant a fission process that led to the formation of the BaRolong. Most of these early 1500 Sotho/Tswana homesteads appeared to be self-sufficient.

They are also missing a core ingredient which is always found in south Africa when people are linked to the eastern ocean trade network.

Glass beads. 

History of South Africa podcast episode 5 – The Mapungubwe empire emerges from Indian Ocean trade networks in southern Africa

This week’s episode delves into the origin of the Mapungubwe empire which emerged from the Limpopo valley close to the Shashe River starting around 900AD and reaching its apogee around 1200AD.

First we take a look at what was happening in the West around Namaqualand and the present day Western Cape.

The distinction between the eastern and well-watered part of the country with summer rainfall and good soils, and the more arid western region with its mainly winter rainfall is critical to understanding the spread of domesticated grains and livestock. 

Pastoralists who farmed cereals are called Agro-pastoralists and these people preferred the Eastern region with its higher rainfall. 

Sheep and later cattle herding pastoralists favoured the west initially.

This is one of separation points in South African history because the western people never did manage to manufacture their own iron-implements they merely bartered these when required. 

They exchanged iron products from the Tswana and Sotho as well as the isiXhosa who were able to manufacture iron implements and weapons. 

The western peoples including the khoe and San, manufactured stone implements in the same way their ancestors had done for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Then the arrival of the first livestock, sheep, can be traced to the western reaches of South Africa around Namaqualand roughly 100BC or 2100 years before the present.

Settlements and villagers the first thousand years AD were largely self-sufficient, in the second millennium empires began to grow. 

One of the most visible empires has left its legacy on the landscape – the Mapungubwe state at the junction of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers where ancestral Shona speakers molded clans and tribes into a powerful system. 

This empire grew large because of trade with the merchants on the eastern seaboard, as well as the deepening trade with central Southern Africa. Remember we are not fixating on borders as they now exist, we must understand the region based on climate, soils, rainfall, landscape and people able to walk across thousands of miles of landscape largely unhindered. 

Mountains are rivers were boundaries, not cartesian maps. In the south, Nguni and Sotho as well as Tswana speakers expanded their power bases in the summer rainfall regions beyond the coastal areas and bushveld and finally into the highveld. 

The History of South Africa podcast is available on all main podcast platforms including iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

History of South Africa podcast Episode 4 – 1000 years of Pottery and ivory trade across southern Africa as farmers fan out over the coastal lowlands

The Central Cattle Complex layout of a early Iron Age Settlement – from Simon Hall: History of SA published by Cambridge University

This is episode 4 and we’re at the point where the first farmers arrived in Southern Africa 2000 years ago. AS we now know, prior to this event, there was broad cultural continuity in the hunter-gatherer groups going back another 10 000 years at least.

The movement of farmers into the eastern summer rainfall areas in the first one thousand years AD took place as the climate stabilised.

The ancestors of these first farmers domesticated sorghum and millet in the Sahel north of the equator and then brought their new skills southwards as they migrated.

Dispersion of early iron age farmers in Southern Africa following coastal plain and lowlands. Image: Cambridge History of South Africa.

When Bantu-speaking people arrived in southern Africa they integrated at times with the local population– the San and Khoe. This is proven by the incorporation of the hunter-gatherer clicks in both Zulu and Xhosa. You don’t assimilate parts of foreign languages without adopting something of the culture.

We heard last episode how important pottery has been in tracking what happened and when. On the basis of the style of pottery, three separate streams of movement into South Africa have been investigated.  They’re known as the Phillipson’s Chifumbase Complex and is the research into deposits of shards of pottery that represent migrating people traveling and living from place to place on the landscape.

Two of the streams have a common origin in East Africa known as the Urewe Tradition.

Lydenburg Heads

The least controversial of the three is called the Kwale Branch linked to two distinct phases.

One was the Silverleaves which dates between 250 AD to 430AD and the second, the Mzonjani between 420AD to 580AD.

The pioneer phase involving these agriculturalists was centred on the coastal plains of southern Africa and many were found in present day KwaZulu Natal particularly around the Tugela River.

Here the Mzonjani settlements are distributed in a line along the coast and none are more than six kilometers from the beach.

History of South Africa podcast – Episode 3: 6000 year-old hunter-gatherer ochre and the first Bantu farmers arrive in Southern Africa

This episode we’re moving forward into the early stone age as it’s known and much of our story covers the period after the last ice age which ended 10 000 years ago.  

Prior to this the oceans had subsided as ice covered much of the world – leading to the coastline along the Indian and Atlantic seaboard of South Africa moving around one hundred kilometers out to sea beyond today’s beaches.

That poses a challenge as we investigate origins of man and woman on the sub-continent. Much of the archaeological evidence is now under hundreds of feet of sea water way offshore.

We do have some material inland, as well as the shellfish middens that began to appear much later in the record which allows us to piece together an increasingly accurate picture of what was going on.

South Africa’s prehistory has been divided into a series of phases based on broad patterns of technology. The primary distinction is between a reliance on chipped and flaked stone implements which is referred to as the Stone Age which begins with the peolithic period 2.5 million years ago – that’s the early stone age.

The middle stone age starts 150 000 years ago and ends around 30 000 BC, while the late stone age ends 2000 years ago.

That is when new people arrived in South Africa who had the ability to smelt iron weapons and tools – the Iron Age had arrived with these farmers from central Africa.

The first peoples of the region predated both the San and Khoe and of course we have no clear idea of their language. But we do have Mitocondrial DNA evidence and cultural artifacts.

First, let’s consider Hunter-gatherers who foraged along the seashore for shells and fish, and cooked seafood over fire -the original people of this land.

As there are a lot of hollowed caves along the South Eastern coastline of South Africa, many were extended and improved by the people living in them.

These caves in the sea cliff some high above sea level providing an extremely safe environment against enemies or predators. And it was in this relatively warm environment that new born babies could stay in the crib for at least one year without having to fend for themselves; thus it is believed that modern humans started to deliver helpless infants kept safely in these crevices.

Human language was developing at the same time. Specialists say it is plausible that the frequent use of the tongue to  produce click sounds contributed to the unique mandible of modern humans. As I explained last episode, the most diverse range of sounds humans make is by those who speak the San and the original Khoe languages which leads linguists to summise this diversity indicates these are directly linked to the earliest languages spoken by humans.

These hunter-gatherer societies which lasted tens of thousands of years were going to find their lives  changing inexorably from around 2000 years ago.

That is when sheep and then cattle, as well as domestic plants including sorghum and millet first spread to southern Africa.

They were brought into the region by people who migrated from the north, from central and central west Africa. By analysing the remains we have a much more accurate picture of what daily life was like than you’d expect considering we don’t have written evidence.

The Chifumbaze Complex – origin of pottery and iron in Southern Africa. Note how both meet around the Limpopo River.

The evidence however, is stored in the science of archaeology.

And so some of these hunter-gatherer units were transformed into a mixed society as the pastoralists and farmers spread. Others retained their ancient ways.

These new people brought new ideas.

The herders, to be technical, are people who maintain domestic stock and are mostly mobile – moving from graving area to grazing area.

Pastoralists and farmers, on the other hand, are more sedentary and mix agriculture with the use of domestic animals.

This differentiation will become clearer as we go along this journey together. But it is crucial because the history of South African followed a trail based on the interaction of these types of people.

History of South Africa podcast episode 2 – A scenic swoop through the landscape

The origin of humans is directly related to Klasies River Mouth, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Sterkfontein, Makapansgat and then northwards.

Like the rest of Africa south of the Sahara, the landscape features a dominant high central plateau surrounded by coastal lowlands. Any glance at a proper map will show you that.

One of the more prominent features is the  Great Escarpment between KwaZulu Natal and Lesotho otherwise known as the Drakensburg. That was caused by lava flows which are more resistant to weathering than conglomerates or sandstone.

Most of this lava has eroded away but a small patch remains and covers much of Lesotho today.

This mountainous area has a major part to play in our story, although these days South African’s are pretty disparaging about the tiny mountain kingdom.

Some regard it as the tenth province. That would be an historical mistake although Lesotho is utterly dependent on South Africa for its income – but that wasn’t always the case.

Consider what happened when the Boers first arrived at Basotho King Moshoeshoe’s door. The trekkers were escaping from British rule in the 1830s.

The Boers bartered meat and other goods for grain from the Sotho.

At that point migrating Dutch were not very good at planting or growing grains in sustainable volumes but much better at livestock management.

They were more like the Khoekhoe and San – less like the Xhosa and Zulu. This fact will sit most uncomfortably with those who believe some races are somehow genetically predisposed to be more effective farmers than others.

The Lesotho mountains were eroded in the south West by tributaries of the Orange River which drain the highlands away from the escarpment, making it rugged and particularly scenic landscape as the rivers head off to the Atlantic Ocean.

These mountains can rise to ten thousand feet with the highest peak of Thabana Ntlenyana at 11 500 feet.

Not a place to drive an ox-wagon then which is why settler movements have been funnelled to the east and west of Lesotho. It is also why Lesotho survived politically. More about this later.

The escarpment slopes away to the west and is flat – tilted slightly higher in the east then sloping gently downwards to the west at about 1000m above sea level.

The downward slope to the south is less pronounced while the plateau also slopes northwards towards the Limpopo Lowveld which is less than 500m above sea level.

This episode can be found on Spotify, Google Podcasts and iTunes.

History of South Africa podcast – Geology, climatology, anthropology, archaeology & ancient history

This episode is less history and more geography

Parts of South Africa feature some of the oldest rocks you will find anywhere on the planet. In what is now the Mpumalanga province near Barberton for example where igneous or volcanic rock peeps out from the bottom of the famous escarpment and if you strike it a lusty blow with your trusty geological hammer, you’ll chip bits of 3.5 billion year old sedimentary rock known as the Barberton Greenstone Belt formed in the Archaen age.

History by definition is about humans. But humans live by eating animals and vegetation directly associated with the soil and climate so we must take a quick geological tour around Southern Africa then understand what changes in climate occurred.

How will that work?

Every week I will present an episode which follows the history of South Africa chronologically. Everything that happens follows a time line which makes more sense because that is how time works. So the series will track South African events starting with a broad overview of the geological origin which obviously predates humans by billions of years.

The lay of the land.

This series won’t necessarily stop at the modern borders of what is South Africa as that’s just a couple of lines on a map. The sub-continent extends the reach of humans both across the land and the sea so we will have to track the past with an eye on what I suppose is more like a satellite image than an old fashioned map.

Blinded by bias

In this series I’ll view events from the perspective of variable shades of black and white. The real truth about history, particularly early South African history, is that its more about brown and pink than black and white.

Those those who think our history is only black and white are simplifying everything blinded by their modern bias which developed inexorably as settlers in the sub-continent tried to differentiate themselves from others.

“Huge swathes of South Africa are now dominated by people who’s skin tone is a delightful caramel…”

Unfortunately this still happens which is rather peculiar since a quick whip around local white DNA shows an awful lot of black mixed into the chromosomes. Don’t tell the ethnic fundamentalists that, it will drive them to extremes of denial. A quick whip around of black DNA does the same. Huge swathes of Southern Africa are now dominated by people who’s skin tone is a delightful caramel. Most try not ask too many questions, particularly if you’re a modern race fundamentalist blindly believing in “purity”.

Too bad for you my friend. If you think you’re “pure” African, think again.

And “pure” white? Sorry for you too. These blind myopics will discover that survivors of Portuguese ship wrecks setup entire clans amongst the Xhosa people before 1600. Their blood is mingled with those of the Pan Africanists of Cofimvaba.

Love and marriage

The marriages between early Boers and Khoekhoe were convenient for both. Later the odour of racism permeated settler logic as they became terrified of being tarred with the Khoesan brush. This was not the initial perception of Portuguese and Dutch who took up carnal relations with Africans of various hues.

A delicate swab at the back of the mouth and all your ancestors will be revealed.

The University of the Witwatersrand Origins Centre is probably the most distinguished in Africa. Take a chance and head off there if you can to discover your past.

My DNA emanates from Eastern Turkey and western Iraq, its Mesopotanian. But its also French, English and Algerian. We humans are a conglomerate of genes, a concoction of loves, a chronology of intermingling.

At times Africans controlled settlers, at other times, British, Dutch and even French administrations rejected white colonials and their politics. It turned into what we see today where judging the past through the politics of the present mutates the truth.

Melanin fades or darkens based on geography and the amount of sun a few generations experience and our world is based on millennia and not a single generation’s limited cognitive awareness of the recent past.

The original people

So our history is tens of thousands of years old, and our human DNA the most diverse on earth. The caves on the South East coast of the continent have middens going back tens of thousands of years before modern humans  departure from Africa. Our ancestors walked out of Africa into the Middle East and Europe, South East Asia, Australasia and ultimately the Pacific islands.

And what’s more, genetically its now known that there was someone like Eve. A female progenitor who can be called the Mother of all the Nations.

We must be proud of this. Here in South Africa we are the warehouse of the world’s genetic diversity. The further from Southern Africa you travel, the less diversity is found.

The transhumant journey is now believed to have started around 70 000 years ago and the Pacific Islands were finally colonized by humans only around 1300 AD.

“Themes in one epoch become the laughing stock of the next“

That is a long time to be shuffling about the earth, poking a stick into pools and eating mussels and clams. Then sharpening the stick further and spearing a fish. Then daubing poison on a small stick and shooting a passing Springbok. It is all chronological with the emphasis on LOGICAL. So this is the reason why the podcast series History of South Africa is following time and not themes. Revisionists love to fixate on themes like colonialism, political change, gender. The real world is not sliced and diced like a cheap pizza.

It is full of dead-ends, corners, grey bits. Themes in one epoch become the laughing stock of the next.

A journey through the past that begins in Africa.

The mystery of MH370 & Malaysia’s hapless response

Graphics Generated by AHeneen

Flight MH370 was a Boeing 777-200ER on a scheduled flight operating between Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in China that disappeared on the 8th March 2014 with 239 people on board – 227 passengers and 12 crew.

In command was 53-year-old Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah from Penang – who’d been flying since 1981 when he joined Malaysia Airlines as a cadet. By 1983 he became a second officer He was promoted to captain of Boeing 737-400 airliners in 1991, captain of Airbus A330-300 in 1996, and captain of Boeing 777-200 in 1998. His total experience was 18 365 hours.

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The co-pilot was 27-year-old First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid who joined Malaysia Airlines as a cadet pilot in 2007, then became a second officer of Boeing 737-400 airliners two years later. After flying as First Officer on Boeing 737-400s and Airbus A330’s in 2012, he trained to be a first officer on board Boeing 777-200 aircraft.

He was far less experienced with 2 763 hours total flying time.

Because of Malaysia’s notorious cockpit resource management issues, the co-pilot would have deferred constantly to the Captain, unlike where I fly for example where you fail tests if you don’t question the Captain’s faulty decision-making.

And Flight 370 was Fariq Abdul Hamid’s finally training flight – the next he was supposed to take was an exam so that means he would have been even more sensitive to commands than usual.

It’s the captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah who has been scrutinised the most closely since the crash. There are salacious stories about his philandering and the fact that his wife was about to leave him taking their two children.

The pilots last made voice contact with air traffic control at 01:19 Malaysian Standard time when it was over the South China Sea, less than an hour after take-off. This was precisely at a reporting point. How convenient.

It disappeared from air traffic controllers’ radar screens three minutes later as it appeared both ACARS and the Transponder were switched off, but was being tracked by military radar as it suddenly dived in a south westerly direction.

It turned steeply to the left or north, then turned again to the South West in a manoeuvre which takes some skill or the plane either stalls at that height, or goes into a spiral dive.

At the time that the transponder and ACARS stopped functioning,  the military radar followed the plane until 01.35 – eight minutes after the turn, when it was flying at 35,700 ft on a 231° magnetic heading, with a ground speed of 496 knots.

The military radar track shows that the plane then flew back over northern Malaysia its altitude fluctuated between 31000 and 33000 feet.

The Boeing 777-200ER then turned steeply to the north west and flew over the Andaman sea between Malaysia and Indonesia where the last primary radar signal was picked up at 02 hundred hours 22 heading towards the Nicobar Islands,  200 kilometres north of Bandah Aceh province of Indonesia.

AT that stage it was flying at 29 500 feet and around 490 knots, apparently it appeared to be flown by hand as the altitude was changed by more than 4000 feet over a few minutes. Or the autopilot had been coded incorrectly and was jumping about which is highly unlikely.

Why did the pilots switch off the transponder and ACARS simultaneously or within seconds at the precise point that they were required to change frequency  and report to Vietnamese Air Traffic?

Cockpit of 9M-MRO by Chris Finney

This is such a coincidence that even though lacking correlation with other data, you have to ask – who was so well briefed that they knew to switch off the tracking information at the point of handover?  How could someone in the back of the plane know this unless they were carrying GPS devices – and then make their way into the flight deck, break the door down, overpower those inside, all after the captain who’s voice has been positively identified, had just announced the flight was at a reporting point?

Think about this logically – its almost impossible that seconds later, the transponder was switched off along with ACARS?

It had to have been one of the pilots who cut the communication I’m afraid.

Whomever did this could have bought themselves a few minutes before Vietnam ATC realised MH370 who had been handed over to them, was not attempting to make contact.

At 01:38 MYT, Ho Chi Minh Area Control Centre contacted Kuala Lumpur Area Control Centre to query the whereabouts of Flight 370 and informed them that they had not established verbal communication with Flight 370, which was last detected by radar at waypoint BITOD. That’s over the South China Sea between the two countries.

They continued phoning each other for another 20 minutes as the mystery deepened.

At first Malaysia thought the plane was over Cambodian air space, to the west of Vietnam.

The Boeing had actually turned the opposite direction and at times flew over the southern border of Thailand where it meets Malaysia’s northern territories.

We do have a tiny bit of data about what happened next. The planes’ Rolls Royce engines were pinging the INMARSAT satellite every hour with information. The problem is, this only provides a single point of data not four like GPS, so investigators could only see where it was on a line of latitude, but not whether it was north or south of anywhere.

The secondary ACARS is a measure of the transmission time to and from the airplane measuring the plane’s distance from the satellite. Because it’s a single bit of data, it can’t pinpoint a single location but rather all equidistant locations—a roughly circular set of possibilities.

Think trigonometry.

Given the range limits of MH370, the near-circles can be reduced to arcs across the world but only read hourly.

The most important arc was the seventh and last one or last hour —defined by a final handshake tied in complex ways to fuel exhaustion and the failure of the main engines.

The seventh arc stretches from Central Asia in the north to the Antarctica in the south.

It was crossed by MH370 at 8:19 a.m., Kuala Lumpur time. Calculations of likely flight paths place the airplane’s intersection with the seventh arc—and therefore its end point—in Kazakhstan if the airplane turned north, or in the southern Indian Ocean if it turned south.

It was agreed that Kazakhstan was unlikely because the Boeing would have flown through quite a bit of military radar space.

So it was decided, correctly as we now know, that MH370 followed the southern Arc.

But that’s a vast area.

Why did the transponder and ACARS disappear from air traffic control radar at the same time? Transponders send information about planes altitude, direction and speed constantly and are provided this data by the flight computer.

So how do you switch a transponder off in a Boeing 777-200ER? 

Simple, you flick a switch. ACARS is a completely different baby as I’ll explain.

Transponders are accessible for a number of reasons. On the ground, they tend to cause radio interference with so many planes on apron, taxying, taking off, landing.

When pilots are cleared onto the runway to take off, part of the drill is to turn on the Transponder and in propeller driven planes, to check the fuel boost pump is on and the strobe light is turned on.

We have a little mantra called LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION – which my instructor hated by the way. Lights are the strobe, camera is the transponder, and action is the fuel boost pump.

At the same time, ATC picks up the transponder number which is a four digit number – usually when flying in the circuit its 2000 but could be any four digit number and is provided by ATC or Radar information facilities.  It’s called squawking a number – imagine a duck sending out a squawk letting other ducks know who and what it is.

Except for the three recognized emergency transponder signals. Squawking 7700 tells radar that you have an emergency of some kind, 7600 means you’ve lost comms, and 7500 means the plane has been hijacked.

In MH370 the transponder was off, no-one squawked any of the emergency codes.

It turned into the most expensive  search operation in aviation historyand was suspended after yielding no evidence of the aircraft other than some marine debris on the coast of Africa and islands.  It cost $155 million with Malaysia coughing up 58% of the total cost, Australia 32%, and China 10%.

The report also concluded that the location where the aircraft went down had been narrowed to an area of 25,000 km2 by using satellite images and debris drift analysis.

But over the past six years, debris definitely linked to MH370 has washed up – and eventually at least 20 pieces were positively Id’d as coming from the plane registration 9M-MRO.

In-air break-ups of Commercial Airliners

The Wright Flyer. Source: Library of Congress

In episode 10 of Plane Crash diaries we investigated in-air breakups of aeroplanes – caused by poor flying, poor design, or poor maintenance and bad weather. In some cases all four of these together.

However as with all things aviation, every accident leads to an equal and opposite reaction .. to misquote the great Sir Isaac Newton.

That reaction luckily for us, is called Aviation safety standards. The terrible truth is that people die and then safety improves.

So let’s start with the 32 year-old Charles Rolls. He was one half of the great Rolls-Royce engine company but his end was rather unfortunate.

He was killed when the tail of his Wright Flyer aircraft fell off in 1910 in Bournemouth and thus was unceremoniously ushered into aviation history as the first to die in a British air accident. And he was one of the first Englishman to die in what became known as in-air break up. The Wright Flyer was a copy of the original Wright Brothers plane that flew at Kittyhawk in 1903.

That didn’t stop Rolls-Royce from turning into developing the world’s top turbine engines but it put paid to the Wright Flyer which was largely out of date anyway by then and Rolls’ demise proved it was not really built to last.

Probably the most famous of all in-air break ups involved the notorious de Havilland Comet. It took three catastrophic failures all within a year before the airliner was grounded.

Launched by BOAC in 1952, the Comet was the world’s first jet airliner and was an attractive plane too. Aviation buffs swooned over its swept back look, the modern jet liner was born and it could fly right across the Atlantic without a stop.

However, it had a serious flaw. The windows and doors.

At that time the way in which aircraft fuselage expanded and contracted due to the huge pressure differences was not well known and the engineers built a defect into the Comet.

They had rectangular windows. We now know all plane windows are rounded in shape, and that’s for a reason and you can thank the Comet for the safer windows we enjoy on board our commercial flights.  

In 1953 and 1954, three Comets broke up soon after take-off killing everyone on board. Two of these break-ups took place over the Mediterranean while the plane was climbing to its cruising altitude and a third crashed in a thunder storm on a flight from Calcutta to Delhi in India.

In January and April 1953 the two that crashed in the Med took off from the same airport – Rome’s Ciampino. At first there were thoughts about sabotage, perhaps explosives.

De Havilland Comet. Beautiful but lethal. Source: Wikipedia.

However after the Comet crashed in India, the plane was grounded. An extensive programme that followed has since been copied in many plane crash investigations. The probe was led by Sir Arnold Hall who was director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Engineers rebuilt the recovered wrecks on the ground, and then subjected the hull of a new jet to pressurisation tests in a massive water tank.

Rebuilding wrecks on the ground is now standard practice.

Eventually, Sir Arnie and his team of boffins discovered what had been going wrong. Cracks developed in the fuselage around the doors and window apertures as the plane was subjected to pressure changes mimicking take offs and landings.

The rivets around the doors and windows could not take the stretching forces and all three plane’s had literally blown apart at the seams in mid-air. Doors that were rounded were fitted – similar to what we now see on all aircraft, while the windows were also changed.

The Comet was redesigned and then renamed the Nimrod which continued flying more than sixty years after the maiden Comet flight in 1949.  Used mainly by the military, the Nimrod continued in various forms until 2011 deployed as an advanced and dedicated airborne early warning platform and maritime patrol aeroplane.

Across the Atlantic, aviation engineers in the United States were watching the terrible Comet crashes with a great deal of interest.

Britain may have launched the first commercial jet, but America was going to make air travel its own.  Boeing and Douglas were the two manufactures to benefit from the new safety rule of building with round doors and windows.

Engineers in the United States  took note of the new designs and were able to incorporate these into the hugely successful jetliners made by Boeing and Douglas that were to dominate not just transatlantic but global long-distance services.

As some have said, it was the passengers of the three Comets who paid for Boeing and Douglas’ research – with their lives.

We will leap forward to the 80s for our next example.

One of the most incredible in-air failures ended with almost everyone surviving. In April 1988, part of the fuselage of an Aloha 737 flying from Hilo to Honolulu shredded at 24,000ft.

Route of Aloha Airlines flight 243 which was flying from Hilo to Honolulu. Source: NASA.

A flight attendant was swept overboard – everyone else survived.  Imagine sitting in the open air with nothing between them and the ocean except for a safety belt.

The Boeing 737 had reportedly experienced more than 89 000 re-pressurisation changes.

This led directly to the Federal Aviation Authority setting up the National Aging Aircraft Research Programme. Testing defects in design, the effect of corrosion, resonances in different metals and so on, the Aircraft Structural Test Evaluation and Research facility was launched.

Predicting where and after how long structures would fail due normally to repetition, helped increase safety in aviation.

That may be so, but it took a 1991 accident to kick start a proper global culture of aviation safety.

The mid-air break up of the Continental Express Flight 2574 – an Embraer 120 Brasilia, was a scheduled domestic passenger airline flight operated by Britt Airways from Laredo International Airport in Laredo, Texas, to Houston Intercontinental Airport  or IAH in Houston, Texas.

With terrible timing for later events, on September 11, 1991, the Embraer, crashed, killing all 14 people on board. The aircraft wreckage hit an area near Eagle Lake, Texas which is located approximately 65 miles west-southwest of its destination of Houston.  

Flight 2574 wreckage map. Source: NTSB report.

Initial reports suggested a bomb was the cause of the plane coming apart, but the National Transportation Safety Board found the real cause were missing screws on the horizontal stabilizer.

It’s always horrible to consider that the crew consisting of Captain 29-year-old Brad Partridge and first officer 43-year-old Clint Rodosovich together with 33-year old flight attendant, Nancy Reed did nothing wrong.

Both Partridge and Rodosovich were experienced pilots with 4,243 flight hours and 11,543 flight hours (including 2,468 hours and 1,066 hours on the EMB 120 Brasilia).

The EMB 120 took off at just before ten past nine in the morning of  the 11 September and were cleared to cruise at 25 000 feet.

At a few minutes to ten after reaching the cruising altitude, Houston Air Route Traffic Control Centre reassigned 24 000 feet. Then as it continued descending for Houston Intercontinental Airport descending through 11 500 feet at around 260 knots, the leading edge of the left horizontal stabilizer separated from the airframe.

The plane pitched down dramatically, rolling around its axis and the left wing folded like cardboard. The fuel escaped and ignited. Mercifully it is believed all passengers and the pilots lost consciousness in the massive G-forces that were produced in the spin.

The crippled craft fell in southeast Texas exploding on impact. The wreckage was spread over almost four square miles – some even making it to the Colorado River many miles away.

IT was the maintenance crew who were blamed. The previous evening they were working on the stabilisers but there had been a shift change and the screws that were removed from the horizontal stabilizer had not been replaced.

This led to major changes in safety inspections before during and after maintenance.

The FAA conducted a National Aviation Safety Inspection Program (or NASIP) of Continental Express’ maintenance program. Because the failure to inspect the parts after the shift changeover was recorded, NASIP processes were then regarded as deficient.

The big change linked to the in-air break up of this plane was the dramatic turning point in Safety Culture in the United States. That had a knock on effect worldwide.

Safety culture became the watchword, then in April 2000 the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, or AIR 21 was launched.

The most important part of the bill was the inclusion of the “Aircraft Safety Act of 1999,” which proposed to help stop the practice of manufacturing, distributing, and installing fraudulent aircraft parts. I’ll feature this terrible scourge in a future podcast too – how grey parts have caused many accidents.

A break-up of a plane over Peru deserves special mention at this point. As you’ll hear in this series, there are many examples of a single person surviving a plane crash. And this is one of them.

Today we hear about the extraordinary story of Juliane Koepcke. She was 17 years old and sitting in the window seat next to her mother on board a Lansa Aircraft flight 508 from Lima in Peru to Pucallpa in the middle of the Amazon Rain Forest.  

The final destination was a town further on called Iquitos.

It was Christmas eve 1971 and Juliane had just written an exam. More about that in a moment.

Lansa Flight 508 was a Lockheed L-188A Electra turboprop, registered OB-R-941, operated by Lineas Aéreas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima  or LANSA for short.

The plane took off from Lima then  flew into a thunderstorm just over the Andes. The storm was accompanied by turbulence. It’s thought that a bolt of lightning then struck one of the fuel tanks and it exploded, tearing off the right wing.

The Lockheed went into a spin and disintegrated.

All 91 of the 92 passengers and crew were killed, except for one – Juliane Koepcke.

Juliane Koepcke in 2019. Source: Munich University.

The German teenager was thrown out of the plane still strapped to her seat. As film maker Werner Herzog said, she didn’t leave the plane, the plane left her.

Juliane later re-countered how she remembered falling head first with the seatbelt digging into her stomach and a canopy of trees spiralling towards her.

Then she lost consciousness but woke up the next morning on the floor of the rainforest.

She had dropped two miles through the air and had a broken collarbone, a gash on her leg, a small cut on her arm and a mild concussion. But she could walk.

Juliane had a much bigger problem. She was stuck in the middle of the rainforest with only a small bag of sweets. Worse, her glasses had been lost and she couldn’t tell the difference between a leaf and a wriggling snake.

But she knew quite a bit about jungles – even as a 17 year-old. You see She was the only child of biologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke and ornithologist Maria Koepcke. When Juliane was fourteen, her parents left Lima to establish a research station in the Amazon rainforest.

She became a “jungle child” and learned survival techniques. But German educational authorities disapproved and ordered the family to send her back to Deutsche Schule Lima Alexander von Humboldt to take her examinations which she did a few days before the crash.

IT was because of their demand she write exams in Lima that the child of the jungle ended up falling into the jungle.

Of course she was surrounded by a long list of animals, plants and insects that were deadly. Somehow she survived for ten days and was eventually  found by forest workers on January 3rd 1972. She had no boots, no machete, no glasses.

Really an incredible story.

Koepcke became an international sensation. The young German then decided it was all too much and took a decision to disappear by 1973.

Eventually she remerged in 2011 when her memoir of the crash called When I Fell from the Sky,  was published. Juliane is still alive and is a mammologist who specialises in Bats and lives – I hope – a quiet life as librarian at the Bavarian State collection of Zoology in Munich.

While the lightning strike which is still known as the deadliest in aviation history, it’s also an example of poor decisions by the air crew. Instead of diverting because of thunder storms the LANSA captain decided to continue because of pressure to meet the holiday schedule.

Get there-it is its called in aviation. Get there even when its wiser to wait.

Peruvian investigators cited “Intentional flight into hazardous weather conditions” as a cause of the crash.

There’s another I have to mention and it involved something known as Clean Air Turbulence which led to an in-air breakup of a commercial airliner.  

In the case of BOAC flight 911 callsign Speedbird 911, clean air turbulence produced

an estimated 7.5Gs that caused the Boeing to disintegrate over Mount Fuji in Japan on 5th March 1966. 

Clean Air turbulence will be covered in a future podcast, but needless to say there’s no warning.

All 113 passengers and 11 crew perished.

The Boeing was still climbing out of Tokyo and had reached 16 000 feet when it hit the massive clear air turbulence flying at 370 knots.

Analysis of wreckage allowed the accident investigators to determine that the vertical stabiliser attachment to the fuselage failed first. Then the port side horizontal stabiliser failed as the plane spun to the left.

BOAC Flight 911 intended route. It crashed shortly after take-off. Source: ASN Aircraft Accident Database.

A short time later, the ventral fin and all four engine pylons failed followed by the remainder of the empennage.  

The aircraft then entered a flat spin, with the forward fuselage section and the outer starboard wing breaking off shortly before impact with the ground.

An 8 mm film exposed by one of the passengers was recovered from the wreckage. It showed pictures of the Tanzawa Mountains and Lake Yamanaka, followed by two empty frames and then apparently images of the aircraft’s interior, before ending abruptly.

Tests suggested that the two empty frames may have been the result of structural loads of up to 7.5 g momentarily jamming the camera’s feeding mechanism.

Investigators did find stress cracks in parts of the tail assembly. But even without the cracks, the plane would have broken apart. What really put paid to the Boeing was the wind and Mount Fuji.  High winds flowing over the 12 388 foot peak meant tricky air currents in the vicinity.

I’ve hit winds over mountains – in one case was flying past the Magaliesburg mountains in South Africa’s Gauteng province. I was cruising at 140 knots on the leeward side – more than 5 nautical miles away and two thousand feet above the peaks. Suddenly  the plane rolled viciously 60 degrees to the right – hit by turbulence. I’d hit clean air turbulence courtesy of the mountains.

That was what is known as mountain waves and all pilots are wary of strong winds and flying in the vicinity of mountains, particularly down-wind where currents eddy and whirl like powerful ocean waves around rocks.

The BOAC flight had other strange facts. IT took off less than 24 hours after Canadian Pacific Airlines Flight 402 crashed and burned on landing at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. In fact in a chilling moment, passengers on BOAC speedbird flight 911 had looked out on the still smouldering wreckage of Flight 402 immediately before taking off for the last time.

The victims included a group of 75 Americans working for the Thermo King company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on a two-week company sponsored tour of Japan and Southeast Asia.

There were 26 couples travelling together in the group, and 63 children were orphaned as a result of the accident.

In a macabre coincidence, five passengers cancelled their tickets at the last moment to see a ninja demonstration – they were researching a movie. The five were in Japan scouting locations for the fifth James Bond film called  You Only Live Twice.

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

With that slightly ominous fact ringing in our ears, it’s time to end. Please check out the blog Plane Crash Diaries which I’m sprucing up at the moment. You can send me messages through the site.

Next episode will cover fires in flight – and one of the examples will include South African Airways Flight 295 – a Boeing 747 that some say was carrying questionable cargo which caught fire leading to separation of the tail section and an in-flight break up.

Once again changes were made – IATA moved to end the practice of flying passengers on board aircraft that would also carry cargo. The so-called Boeing Combi type.

So until then, aviate, navigate and communicate safely.

The MAX 8 catastrophe for Boeing: A thirst for profit undermined a culture of safety

PK-LQP, Lion Air’s MAX 8 involved in the 2018 accident – photographed in September 2018 ©Wikipedia

Welcome back to Plane Crash Diaries with me your host Desmond Latham.

This week it’s the terrible crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 – one in October 2018 and the other in March 2019 which appears to have been caused by two main things.

On is an automated trim called the Movement Characteristics Augmentation System and the other is the shocking failure by one of the world’s most well known manufacturers – compounded by a cosy relationship between the Federal Aviation Authority and the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer.

While the accident reports are awaited, there is enough information from both FAA and Boeing itself to cover this as an example of poor design, poor safety management, and poor oversight  – particularly when it comes to risk analysis.

Since the accidents Boeing has announced a slew of changes to its quality control process, including the announcement in September that a new Safety Committee was being created led by Boeing veteran Beth Pasztor. Too little too late for 349 people.

Boeing has built a name around allowing pilots to fly their planes, whereas Airbus had designed their planes around more automation, but back in the mid 2000s something really radical happened at the American plane manufacturer.

Somewhere in the engineering process, someone decided it would be a good idea to let the plane have the last say when it came to control – and imbedded the Manouvreing Characteristics Augmentation Software into the system. This was to prove catastrophic for 349 people – two entire plane loads of passengers and crew were killed because of this MCAS design fault.

The two accidents I’m covering this week are still fresh in the minds and therefore we must proceed with extra caution. Anyone who follows aviation closely and is objective will find the actions of some involved tantamount to criminal negligence.

So starting this tale with the Lion Air of Indonesia crash in October 2018.

Let’s begin by pointing out that Indonesia has an abysmal aviation safety record – probably one of the worst records in recent memory.

All of Indonesia’s airlines were blacklisted by European Union air-safety regulators and banned from entering EU airspace in 2007 because of concern over lack of regulatory oversight in Indonesia.

Lion Air was allowed back into the EU zone after a safety audit in 2016.

A database compiled by aviation analytics firm FlightGlobal shows that before the JT610 disaster, Lion suffered 11 major accidents since 2002: the total loss of five aircraft, five accidents that resulted in major damage, and one minor loss.

These accidents were caused by a host of reasons, but included poor maintenance and poor flying with pilots making basic errors on flap selection for example, as well as complete failure of situational awareness. So it would be easy to write off the first MAX 8 crash as another example of ramshackle Indonesian aviation culture.

But the Boeing Max 8 crash was different.

Lion Air Flight 610 was a scheduled domestic flight from Soekarno–Hatta International Airport in Jakarta to Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang only 440 kilometres away.

The Boeing 737 Max took off on 29 October 2018, carrying 189 passengers and crew.  The flight’s cockpit crew were 31 year-old captain Bhavye Suneja, who had flown with the airline for more than seven years and had over 6,000 hours of flight experience including 5,176 hours on the Boeing 737); and Indonesian co-pilot Harvino, who had 5,174 hours of flight experience, 4,286 of them on the Boeing 737.

The six flight attendants were also Indonesian.

The captain was at the controls of Lion Air flight JT610 when the jet took off from Jakarta, and the first officer was handling the radio.

While the cockpit voice recording has never been released, sources quoted by Indonesian and other media confirm the following took place.

Two minutes into the flight, the first officer reported a “flight control problem” to air traffic control and said the pilots intended to maintain an altitude of 5,000 feet, the November report said.

The first officer did not specify the problem, but according to at least one source airspeed was mentioned on the cockpit voice recording, and a second source said an indicator showed a problem on the captain’s display but not the first officer’s.

The captain asked the first officer to check the quick reference handbook, which contains checklists for abnormal events.

For the next nine minutes, the Boeing continued to sound alarms about stalling, and the MCAS pushed the nose downwards.

The captain fought to climb, but the computer, still incorrectly sensing a stall, continued to push the nose down using the plane’s trim system. Normally, trim adjusts an aircraft’s control surfaces to ensure it flies straight and level.

It appears to all that the crew did not know MCAS was causing the problem. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that a lack of training in this failure compounded what is now known to be an example of bad technical design.

According to sources quoted by Indonesian media, the crew thought only about airspeed and altitude – because that was the only thing they talked about.

Near the end, the captain asked the first officer to fly while he checked the manual for a solution.

About one minute before the plane disappeared from radar, the captain asked air traffic control to clear other traffic below 3,000 feet and requested an altitude of “five thou”, or 5,000 feet, which was approved.

As the 31-year-old captain tried in vain to find the right procedure in the handbook, the 41-year-old first officer was unable to control the plane.

The flight data recorder shows the final control column inputs from the first officer were weaker than the ones made earlier by the captain.

The Indian-born captain was silent at the end, all three sources said, while the Indonesian first officer said “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is greatest”.

The plane then hit the ocean at high speed, killing all 189 people on board.

The accident site was located 34 kilometres or 18 nautical miles off the coast of the island of Java. Investigators examining the Indonesian crash are considering how a computer ordered the plane to dive in response to data from a faulty sensor and whether the pilots had enough training to respond appropriately to the emergency, among other factors.

On 28 November, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) released its preliminary accident investigation report.

After airspeed and altitude problems, an AoA sensor was replaced and tested two days before the accident.

It confirmed reports the day before where pilots had experienced the same conditions with the MCAS pushing the nose down in the same plane.

The air crew on that flight had switched off the electrical engine which drove the trimming and continued with manual trim.

The runaway stabilizer non-normal checklist was run, the electric stabilizer trim was turned off, and the flight continued with manual trim; the issues were reported after landing.

But the crew on 29th October didn’t follow the same procedure.

Shortly after takeoff on 29 October, issues involving altitude and airspeed continued due to erroneous AoA data and commanded automatic nose-down trim via the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

The flight crew repeatedly commanded nose-up trim over the final ten minutes of the flight.

Boeing issued a statement shortly afterwards pointing to the successful troubleshooting conducted on 28 October as evidence that the MCAS did not change runaway stabilizer procedures, and emphasised the longstanding existence of procedures to cancel MCAS nose-down commands.

What Boeing failed to mention was that it had also removed a crucial Angle of Attack sensor failure alarm which had existed in a previous version of the Boeing 737. They have not explained why this was done but its clearly to reduce costs for operators. Airlines could buy an upgrade that involved a sensor failure alarm.

This is going to haunt the company in future litigation.

Investigators who analyzed the flight data recorder after the October 29 crash uncovered a fault between two Angle of Attack Sensors located on the nose of the plane.  

It was the first major accident involving the new Boeing 737 MAX series aircraft, introduced in 2017, and the deadliest involving a 737, surpassing Air India Express Flight 812 in 2010.

It is the deadliest accident in Lion Air’s 18-year history – even for an airline dogged by incidents and accidents.

The first victim was identified two days after the crash then the flight data recorder was located on 1 November and recovered for analysis. The Cockpit voice recorder was eventually located in Mid January 2019.

Preliminary investigations revealed serious flight control problems that traumatized passengers and crew on the aircraft’s previous flight the day before the accident, as well as signs of Angle of attack (AoA) sensor and other instrument failures on that and previous flights, tied to a potential design flaw involving the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) of the 737 MAX series.

As a result, the United States Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing issued warnings and training advisories to all operators of the 737 MAX series to avoid letting the MCAS cause an abrupt dive similar to the Lion Air flight.

But neither the FAA nor Boeing thought it apt that the MAX8 be grounded.

Jaw dropping – at the time as I reported on this crash it was pretty clear from initial reports by all involved in the previous flight that the MCAS system was causing a disturbingly dangerous situation.

Shortly after the Lion Air Crash in November  2018  The Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing and the FAA were planning to publish warnings about erroneous angle of attack indications on cockpit instrument displays of the 737 MAX in response to the Lion Air accident.

The Federal Aviation Administration then issued an emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD) requiring that amended operating limitations and procedures relating to erroneous data from an AoA sensor be inserted into the aircraft flight manual of each 737 MAX aircraft, and urged all airlines operating Boeing 737 MAX 8s to heed the warnings.

But they still did not advise an urgent training intervention. But some pilots I followed at the time were already calling the plane to be grounded.

During difference training, pilots of American Airlines and Southwest Airlines converting from earlier Boeing 737 Next Generation models to the 737 MAX were not informed of the MCAS linked to the fatal crash, leaving them concerned that they were possibly untrained with respect to other differences.

In November 2018, Aviation Week reviewed the 737 MAX flight crew operations manual and found that it did not mention the MCAS.

American Airlines’ Allied Pilots Association and Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association were also caught unaware. The Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing had “decided against disclosing more details to cockpit crews due to concerns about inundating average pilots with too much information”.

This is truly gobsmacking. All we do as pilots is deal with information – you tell us what is likely to go wrong and then we practice for these eventualities. What you don’t do is keep it a kind of secret because we’re .. in Boeing’s words .. average.

On 15 November, the US Air Line Pilots Association representing 61,000 pilots, urged the FAA and NTSB to ensure pilots receive all relevant information addressing a “potential, significant aviation system safety deficiency”.

This was still before the Ethiopian crash. No-one took much notice.  

But the United Airlines branch of the Airline pilots association said the MAX 8 should keep flying – despite reservations from more conservative pilots I was following at the time. They alleged the MCAS implication was mere speculation. They did this because they flew many MAX 8 planes and to ground them would have .. yes.. a big financial impact.

I wonder what they think now, this union. They put their own members in mortal danger by ignoring clear signs of technical failure merely because of business interests.

Tsk Tsk.

In an internal message on 19 November, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg defended the Flight Crew Operations Manual as describing the MCAS relevant function.

But Boeing was taking heat -Lion Air co-founder and former CEO Rusdi Kirana  reportedly considered cancelling Lion Air’s outstanding 190 Boeing aircraft orders worth some $22 billion at list prices over what he viewed as an attempt by Boeing to blame Lion Air for the crash.

On 31 December, the family of the first officer filed a lawsuit against Boeing, claiming negligence. The lawsuit also claimed that the aircraft’s sensors provided inaccurate flight data, causing its anti-stall system to improperly engage, as well as Boeing not providing proper instructions to pilots about how to handle the situation

In March 2019, victims’ families reported irregularities, saying that Lion Air pressured them into signing away their rights to seek legal recourse for under-compensation.

But Boeing’s horror year was about to get worse, as the March 10 2019 crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Max 8, Registration ET-AVJ was blamed on the same MCAS-linked errors.

The other really horrible reality for passengers and crew on the next MAX 8 crash in Ethiopia was these advisories were not fully implemented. And they also pointed to a serious problem with the plane design.

Flight ET 302 was a scheduled international passenger flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi.

ET-AVJ photographed in February 2019 ©Wikipedia

The aircraft took off at 08:38 local time with 149 passengers and 8 crew on board – many of the passengers were United Nations staff.

The captain of the plane was 29 yeqra-old Yared Getachew who had been flying with the airline for almost nine years and had logged a total of 8,122 flight hours, including 1,417 hours on the Boeing 737.

He had been a Boeing 737-800 captain since November 2017, and Boeing 737 MAX Captain since July 2018.

At the time of the accident, he was the youngest captain at the airline. But he wasn’t the youngest crew member, that was first officer, Ahmed Nur Mohammod Nur who was, 25.

Nur was a recent graduate from the airline’s academy with 361 flight hours logged, including 207 hours on the Boeing 737.

The fact that the First Officer did not have the usual 1500 hours minimum which most airlines demand may have contributed to the factors leading to this accident. That is clearly speculation – however I’ll read to you from other global airlines minimums

For a major airline in the USA the minimum requirements are typically 1,500+ hours total time, 1000+ hours pilot in command of a turbine aircraft, 1,000 hours multi-engine time, and an ATP rating. The average new-hires have 4,000-5,000 hours total time.

Ethiopian airlines like many other developing nations, is trying to fast-track its own nationals into the cockpit. The lack of experience is only a problem when there’s a problem or a crisis.

And ET 302 had an emergency.  

One minute into the flight, the first officer reported a “flight control” problem to the control tower. Two minutes into the flight, the plane’s MCAS system activated, pitching the plane into a dive toward the ground.  

The pilots struggled to control it and managed to prevent the nose from diving further, but the plane continued to lose altitude. The MCAS then activated again, dropping the nose even further down. The pilots then flipped a pair of switches to disable the electrical trim tab system, which also disabled the MCAS software.

However, in shutting off the electrical trim system, they also shut off their ability to trim the stabilizer into a neutral position with the electrical switch on the top of their control wheels.

The only other possible way to move the stabilizer would be by cranking the wheel by hand, but because the stabilizer was located opposite to the elevator, strong aerodynamic forces were making this almost impossible at high speed.

As the pilots had inadvertently left the engines on at full takeoff power, which caused the plane to accelerate to over 500 miles an hour, there was further pressure on the stabilizer. The only way it would be able to move by hand would be to throttle back significantly which they never did.

The pilots’ attempts to manually crank the stabilizer back into position failed.

Three minutes into the flight, with the aircraft continuing to lose altitude and accelerating beyond its safety limits, the captain instructed the first officer to request permission from air traffic control to return to the airport.

Permission was granted, and the air traffic controllers diverted other approaching flights.

Following instructions from air traffic control, they turned the aircraft to the east, and it rolled to the right. The right wing dipped as the turn steepened – they were beginning what is known as a spiral dive.  

At 8:43, having struggled to keep the plane’s nose from diving further by manually pulling the control wheel, the captain asked the first officer to help him, and turned the electrical trim tab system back on in the hope that it would allow him to put the stabilizer back into neutral trim.

However, in turning the trim system back on, he also reactivated the MCAS system, which pushed the nose further down rapidly.

The captain and first officer attempted to raise the nose by manually pulling their control wheels, but the aircraft continued to plunge toward the ground.

The aircraft disappeared from radar screens and crashed at almost 08:44, six minutes after takeoff.

Flight tracking data showed that the aircraft’s altitude and rate of climb and descent were fluctuating.

Several witnesses stated the plane trailed “white smoke” and made strange noises before crashing. The aircraft impacted the ground at nearly 700 mph.

There were no survivors.

It crashed in a farm field near the town of Bishoftu, 62 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa.  The impact created a crater about 90 feet wide and 120 feet long, and wreckage was driven up to 30 feet deep into the soil. Wreckage was strewn around the field along with personal effects and other bits from inside the plane.

Personnel from Interpol and Blake Emergency Services, a private British disaster response firm contracted by the Ethiopian government, arrived to gather human tissue for DNA testing, and an Israel Police forensics team also arrived to assist in identifying the remains of the two Israeli victims of the crash.

The black boxes were both recovered on the 11th of March. These were sent to Paris for inspection by the BEA, the French aviation accident investigation agency.

Twenty two people on board were affiliated with the United Nations, including seven from the World Food Programme alone.

Both Addis Ababa and Nairobi have offices of UN agencies, and Addis Ababa has the head office of the African Union.

Notable victims on-board included the Italian archaeologist and Councillor for Cultural Heritage of Sicily, Sebastiano Tusa, and Nigerian-Canadian academic Pius Adesanmi.

Slovak politician Anton Hrnko lost his wife and two children in the crash. All of these families are seeking answers to serious questions and Boeing is in the firing line.

The MCAS system was implicated in the second Crash on 10 March 2019 – following which all 737 MAX aircraft were grounded worldwide.

But it was in China, the EU and Canada that the grounding began – not the United States. This is really a shocking indictment of both the FAA and Boeing. The initial reports clearly showed a real technical problem with MCAS and I followed commercial pilots who were flying the MAX8 and who were extremely angry with both Boeing – and their airlines for hesitating at this point.

The initial report showed that there were two speeds in the cockpit in both cases – indicating the Angle of Attack Sensor was to blame for the initial failure – followed up by MCAS responding aggressively as it was designed. What compounded these accidents was the sets of air crew who had not been trained in MCAS failure of this sort.

But the real problem began with Boeing and its rushed re-design of the 737 which Boeing fast-tracked to compete with Airbus which was making inroads with its A320 single aisle class of plane.

Because the redesigned 737 had bigger CFM International LEAP engines, it meant they needed to be placed higher and further forward in relation to the wing than the previous 737 models.

This destabilises the aircraft pitch at higher angles of attack – so to deal with this, the engineers designed the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) for the 737 MAX series.

Scientific American and the Wall Street Journal reported that former Boeing engineers expressed the opinion that a nose down command triggered by a sensor single point of failure is a design flaw if the crew is not prepared, and the FAA was evaluating a fix of the possible flaw and investigating whether the pilots’ transition training was adequate.

Engineers flagged this is a possible catastrophic failure, but Boeing eventually noted the failure as critical. The first has red flags, the second orange.

This is the crux of the legal case that Boeing will face in the future.

A malfunction in the AoA sensors could lead the MCAS system to believe that the aircraft is stalling when it wasn’t, causing it to dip the aircraft’s nose to recover from a non-existent stall even in level flight.  At high altitude that was bad enough. Close to the ground this was, as we’ve seen, catastrophic.

The terrible fact is that no other plane type since the disastrous Gloucester Meteor crashes of 1966 that the same commercial plane had been implicated in two fatal accidents within five months of each other.

Soon after the Ethiopian Airlines crash,  Brazil, China, and India grounded the Max 8.

The European Union followed shortly afterwards, but the FAA continued to dither which is really unforgivable. The US was particularly slow to act.

While Boeing has announced a new safety process led by veteran Beth Pasztor, their legal problems are only just beginning.

A Congressional panel wants to interview the engineer who filed a scathing internal ethics complaint alleging that company management blocked key safety improvements during the aircraft’s development due to cost concerns.

U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members want to interview engineer Curtis Ewbank’s.  The engineer has written a 5000 word report into safety failures.

As a possible cover-up of serious lapses is possible – it appears Boeing kept the Engineers report secret from the Transportation Panel and this along with other obvious mis-steps by the manufacturer are going to come back to haunt CEO Denis Muilenburg and his fellow executives – along with the shareholders.

I’ve reported and followed this story very closely since October 2018 and I am absolutely horrified by Boeing’s actions. As a pilot Boeing is close to my heart, its always been an aircraft that elevated pilot skill above automation – but MCAS is going to be seen as a kind of software driven robot gone mad – combined with a company that preferred quick profits to proper risk analysis.

The damages claims will end up running into the tens of billions of dollars. Boeing’s good name is forever sullied by these two accidents and the company’s muddled response – let alone the FAA’s apparent complicity.

And by the way, in late September 2019 another problem was discovered in Boeing 737 NGs, whch predate the MAX 8.  The pickle fork attaches the plane’s fuselage, or body, to the wing structure and manages forces. A failure of the part in flight could pose a serious risk.

Boeing’s bad news continues.

I’ll be following this story as it unfolds in the future..

Boeing reveals it disconnected crucial Sensor failure alarm on MAX8

Boeing is bracing for another bit of bad news after it was revealed that Southwest Airlines first learned about the crash of a Lion Air MAX 8 that a special alert warning of malfunctioning sensors was no longer a standard feature on the latest 737s.S

According to Federal Aviation Administration officials, they were not aware of this change either.

Boeing 737 MAX8 aircraft have two “Angle-of-Attack” or AOA sensors on the left and right of the plane’s nose. Initial reports on the two MAX8 crashes indicate that in both the right sensor appeared to have been mis-reading the flow of air by up to 60 percent.

Boeing said initially that airlines would have to pay more for the sensor alarm, but what it did not say was that the sensor-failure alarm had been disconnected entirely. But there’s more folks.

Both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing’s that crashed killing 346 people did not have the alarm failure system which is known as AOA disagree alerts. The big problem is that Boeing and the FAA certified a plane that had no redundant fail-safe.

That is like reading about aviation in 1956. Just after the war, when men were men and pilots were gods of the air, afraid of nothing.

Passengers are much more discerning these days than the early pax – they now have social media to keep them abreast of the latest machine faux pax.

That hasn’t stopped Boeing from acting like it is the middle of 20th Century when it comes to crisis management. What is making things worse for Boeing is the publication of its Emergency Airworthiness Directive in November 2018 after the Lion Air Crash that for some reason, was not escalated properly through the industry.

All Boeing MAX jets, both the 8 and 9, are grounded pending a software fix followed by pilot retraining. Or maybe no pilot retraining, because already Boeing has mobilised its useful twit brigade of aviation bravados to suggest possibly that this is not required.

Yes, dear reader, even in 2019 a large international company based in the U.S.A. is trying to convince reasonable people that there’s no danger in cutting another corner.

Boeing has not indicated why it made the decision to remove the sensor failure alarm. However, the manufacturer was aware of error reading problems.

IN November 2018 it released an airworthiness directive indicating that:

“This emergency AD was prompted by analysis performed by the manufacturer showing that if an erroneously high single angle of attack (AOA) sensor input is received by the flight control system, there is a potential for repeated nose-down trim commands of the horizontal stabilizer. This condition, if not addressed, could cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane, and lead to excessive nose-down attitude, significant altitude loss, and possible impact with terrain.”

The airworthiness directive called for aircrews to be provided with runaway horizontal stabiliser trim procedures under certain conditions. But the Ethiopian crew flying the plane in the March crash were not provided with these new procedures.

The Directive also advised that:

“In the event of an uncommanded horizontal stabilizer trim movement,
combined with any of the following potential effects or indications
resulting from an erroneous Angle of Attack (AOA) input, the flight crew
must comply with the Runaway Stabilizer procedure in the Operating
Procedures outlined the following would happen:

Continuous or intermittent stick shaker on the affected side only.
• Minimum speed bar (red and black) on the affected side only.
• Increasing nose down control forces.
• AOA DISAGREE alert (if the option is installed).
• Autopilot may disengage.
• Inability to engage autopilot.

If any aircrew experienced these conditions, then Boeing issued the following procedure to recover :

Disengage autopilot and control airplane pitch attitude with control column and main electric trim as required. If relaxing the column causes the trim to move, set stabilizer trim switches to CUTOUT.

If runaway continues, hold the stabilizer trim wheel against rotation and trim the airplane manually.
Note: The 737-8/-9 uses a Flight Control Computer command of pitch
trim to improve longitudinal handling characteristics. In the event of
erroneous Angle of Attack (AOA) input, the pitch trim system can trim
the stabilizer nose down in increments lasting up to 10 seconds.

In the event an uncommanded nose down stabilizer trim is experienced
on the 737-8/-9, in conjunction with one or more of the indications or
effects listed below, do the existing AFM Runaway Stabilizer
procedure above, ensuring that the STAB TRIM CUTOUT switches
are set to CUTOUT and stay in the CUTOUT position for the
remainder of the flight.

An erroneous AOA input can cause some or all of the following
indications and effects:
• Continuous or intermittent stick shaker on the affected side only.
• Minimum speed bar (red and black) on the affected side only.
• Increasing nose down control forces.
• AOA DISAGREE alert (if the option is installed).
• Autopilot may disengage.
• Inability to engage autopilot.

Initially, higher control forces may be needed to overcome any
stabilizer nose down trim already applied
. Electric stabilizer trim can be used to neutralize control column pitch forces before moving the STAB
TRIM CUTOUT switches to CUTOUT. Manual stabilizer trim can be
used before and after the STAB TRIM CUTOUT switches are moved

The higher control forces part of this directive are very important, as in both accidents it appears the pilots could not overcome the stabiliser because of air speed.

That is an incredible directive, pointing to the probable causes of both accidents according to both Boeing itself, and initial accident reports.

What we have to ask is this:

Why did the Ethiopian Airline officials not institute this Directive as per the Emergency documentation as soon as possible after the November release?

When both accidents end up in court, which they will, this is going to be difficult for aviation officials to explain. The manufacturer may be to blame for releasing an aircraft to service with a single fail-safe which as we all know is probably criminal.

Using the phrase “hazardous” instead of “catastrophic” to describe the effect of a failure of the system is also going to be quite hard to explain to judges and juries.