Two Boeing 737 MAX crashes an ominous sign for the company

Ethiopian Airlines ET302 accident site.

A Boeing 737 MAX operated by Ethiopian Airlines, flight number ET302 has crashed shortly after take off from Addis Ababa airport killing all 157 on board.

The initial reports sound ominous for Boeing. While it’s far too early to talk about the cause, it’s not too early to talk about the second time the same type of aircraft has crashed in similar circumstances.

The accident is similar to last year’s crash of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the Java Sea in October 2018, killing all 189 people on board. These two crashes involved the Boeing MAX 8 aircraft. The Seattle based manufacturer is working with investigators in the Lion Air matter.

Boeing was forced into a speedy production process when Airbus announced its new Airbus A320neo family of aircraft with improved fuel burn and operating efficiency. It took six year between 2011 and 2017 for Boeing to redesign, build and gain certification from the FAA for its new 737’s.

As usual the testing process was comprehensive. For example the Boeing MAX’s were put through 2,000 flight hours as well as three hours of ETOPS testing.

Three thousand simulated simulated flight cycles were conducted and at first there were a few problems with the engines. For one, they were delivered late by manufacturer CFM International. It was a joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines, a division of Safran of France.

The first delivery was a MAX 8 was to Malindo Air, a subsidiary of Lion Air in May 2017. Just over a year later, the Java crash occurred.

Source: Wikipedia

Norwegian Air also flies the MAX 8, and after a one year of service, 130 of these redesigned planes had been delivered to 28 airlines or customers and logged over 41 000 flights in 118 000 hours – flying over 6.5 million passengers.

After 2017’s spotless aviation record with no major aviation crashes, things changed on October 29, 2018 when Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the sea 13 minutes after take off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia.

This was the first crash involving a 737 MAX, and the aircraft was only delivered two months before the accident.

Afterwards, Boeing issued a safety bulletin advising airlines about how they should approach the automated systems which are now thought to have caused the Lion Air crash.

The FAA also issued an emergency airworthiness directive followed quickly by Boeing’s update for flight crew operations. The company said there could be a fault in the aircraft’s angle of attack system that could cause the aircraft to violently pitch nose down. What terrifies pilots is that this could even occur AFTER the automatic pilot was switched off and pilots were hand-flying the aircraft.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 path

Sensors in the aircraft apparently caused false data to be fed to the aircraft’s computer system, leading to it taking over the flight controls from a pilot even after he or she switched off the automated systems. The data erroneously reported that the plane had entered a stall, when in fact it was flying faster than the stall speed and the wings were not stalled at all.

This is catastrophic for aviators when faced with a threat at low altitude. You just don’t have time to press all the buttons, and I really feel for the pilots in both aircraft it it is indeed proven that the automatic system caused these crashes. It now appears that the electric stabiliser trim is what could have been pushed forward – and flight crews are told to switch these off when they hand-fly the plane.

Switching to manual trim is always the best way to fly, but in today’s busy cockpit perhaps in both instances the captain and first officer were concentrating and may have not had time to switch off the electric trims.

There are more similarities. Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX had only been delivered four months ago.

Wonderboom Plane Crash, a Qantas link and a Puerto Rican warning

It’s been two weeks since a classic twin engined Convair crashed near Wonderboom in Pretoria. Dramatic footage filmed from a smartphone inside the rapidly descending Convair 340 registration ZS-BRV has emerged as one of the passengers kept his phone rolling while the plane came down near Wonderboom Airport.

This is not for the faint hearted.

But its also incredible to hear the passenger, who could be one of the two engineers or other builders on board, talking normally as the aircraft lost altitude as it’s left engine spewed flames and smoke.

His calm manner is extraordinary.

While the CAA begins its investigation, we can surmise a few things.

  1. The left (port) engine appeared to be experiencing problems.
  2. The twin engined aircraft could not continue to fly with just one engine operating.
  3. The problems began during the ground roll before take off.

This aircraft had an interesting history.  It was registered first as a  Convair C-131D-CO Samaritan, which was the military version of a 340. While the CAA crash investigators apply their minds, we live in a free country and I’m applying mine.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 08.16.01.png
Convair with smoke pouring from left nacelle immediately after takeoff at Wonderboom Airport 10th June 2018. @PPRUNE.Org

Initial reports (which are unverified but fit the general evidence) indicate that a fuel line fractured on the left engine carburettor during the take off ground roll. Fire then burned through the oil lines, that led to a loss of pressure which meant the propellor couldn’t be feathered.

Feathering a dead engine

That’s a lot of aviation speak. When an engine fails, the propellor needs to be feathered to reduce the drag.  Think of it allowing the car wheel to continue spinning freely after the engine failing, instead of the wheel being locked or moving a lot slower than the others. What is actually going on is the blades of the propellor can be rotated parallel to the airflow to reduce drag in case of an engine failure.

This also reduces what is known as “adverse yaw” where the plane is pulled towards the dead engine.

There is an old saying in aviation – why does an aeroplane have two engines? So that when there is an engine failure, the working engine can take you to the location of the accident.

At Wonderboom, the Australian pilot then turned right downwind to avoid landing on the nearby built up area, in other words, they banked the plane towards the live engine. That is the correct technique, the incorrect is to bank against the dead engine.

They were trying to turn back to the runway, but on the base leg, lost too much height and plunged into a warehouse. The plane then broke apart after landing straight ahead, which definitely led to the saving of lives.  At least 18 passengers walked out of the fuselage, almost unheard of in a crash like this.

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ZS-BRV wreckage. @Twitter

While the two pilots survived the crash,  the flight engineer who was sitting in the middle or jump seat, was thrown through the windscreen and killed.

Qantas issued a statement saying A380 captains Douglas Haywood and Ross Kelly who is retired were critically injured.

“The pair boast more than 37,000 hours’ flying experience between them and more than 30 years’ service with Qantas,” the airline said in a statement.

“This news has shocked the Qantas pilot community and everyone’s thoughts are with the families. We’ve reached out and are providing whatever support we can.”

But one of the pilots has subsequently died, bringing the death toll in this unusual accident to two.

Puerto Rico Convair Crash

In Puerto Rico, another Convair CV-340/440-38 accident has thrown into sharp relief the challenges the plane experienced when flying with one engine operative.

The Convair in question crashed in a lagoon after suffering an engine failure which followed a fire. The airline, FreshAir inc, was criticised by Safety Board officials afterwards for lax maintenance and safety standards.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 13.29.17.png

That is unlikely to be the case in the Wonderboom accident, but we still await the findings there.

In the Caribbean example, the 1953 Convair CV-340 was powered by two Pratt & Whitney supercharged 18 cylinder radial engines which included full feathering props, fire detection warnings, and a fire extinguishing system for both engines.

It was being used for hauling freight in the Caribbean but pilots began to report issues. Firstly, the plane was underpowered and when empty, and experiencing an engine out, would only climb at 500 feet per minute.

They also warned that at sea level when fully loaded – the plane actually would not climb at all but only managed level flight.

In March 2012 the airplane took off from Luis Munoz Marin International Airport near San Juan in Puerto Rico after the pilots had filed a VFR or visual flight plan for the island of St.Maarten.

Minutes after takeoff, the First office told the tower they were declaring an emergency and requested to turn back to San Juan. As the pilots grappled with the plane, it appeared to lose height short of the runway and crashed into Laguna La Torrecilla.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 14.06.26.png

The plane had been loaded with 12,100 pounds of wheat and bread products. The plane was then estimated to weigh around 47,710 pounds. If so, that by itself would have doomed the aircraft as its maximum allowable takeoff weight was only 40,900 pounds.

They had conducted a double engine test prior to takeoff, not unusual for an old plane. I had the glory of flying a remarkble warbird, a Focke-Wulf FWP. 149D from Rand airport to Lanseria one day, and we doubled up on all the checks because of the aircrafts’ age, and the fact that it had not been flown for six months.

The pilot in command of the FreshAir Convair CV-440 in San Juan had flown more than 9 000 hours in the Convair CV-340.

It its findings the National Transportation Safety Board said that based on the captain’s history of antidetonation injection (ADI) and autofeather nonuse and the postaccident position of the autofeather switch, the flight crew likely did not use the ADI and autofeather systems during the takeoff and as a result, the accident airplane exceeded the maximum allowable takeoff weight of 40,900 lbs.

So it crashed.

Wonderboom Investigation continues

Returning to the accident on June 10th 2018 the Convair 340 ZS-BRV had not flown much over the last nine years.
It had been moved a few times between Lanseria and Wonderboom where it had been stored.
There is a propensity for older piston engines to become US or unusable suddenly and unpredictably when they are stored for long periods, then fired up and run at full tilt.
The investigation continues.

Canadian Airline crash in Saskatchewan and memories of a Botswana suicide

West Wind 2
West Wind ATR crashes after take-off. ©TSB Canada

It’s not every day that a commercial airliner plunges to the ground 1.5km after takeoff with 22 passengers and 3 crew on board. Amazingly, no-one died but the plane was pretty much left mangled in a forested area close to the runway after the accident on 13th December 2017.

How in the Dickens did everyone make it out alive? There are six critically passengers and one crewman injured but lets hope the miracle is complete. However operator West Wind airline has had its aviation certificate revoked as authorities inspect its operations.

The twin engine ATR42-320 Turboprop crashed after take off around 6.15pm just west of the Fond-du-Lac runway in a remote area of the country en route to Stony Rapids. What will surprise, nay shock, you is why the certificate has now been suspended and all aircraft grounded immediately. And furthermore, the ATR has an interesting side-note history when it comes to Botswana, but more of that later.

According to the Canada Transport Safety Board “deficiencies in the company’s operational control system” had been detected.

There are no specifics stated, but the deficiencies could include:

  • Maintenance issues
  • Weight and Balance setup
  • Icing
  • ATC and other communication problems
  • Hours worked by pilots, a lack of experience or other crew related deficiencies.

The final moments before the crash indicate quite a set of issues. The cabin crew are reported as saying something about the plane being overweight. They also appear to have suffered two engine “outs” in a short space of time but some speculation exists that one failed and the other was shut down to avoid a fire upon crashing.

It took less than three minutes from ground roll to accident.  The Transport Safety Board reported that the aircraft lost height and then descended into trees and slid for around half a kilometer before coming to rest in an upright position steeply tilted to the right.

The worst damage occurred to the left side of the fuselage which ruptured at seat row 3. The pilots were injured, one critically. It was night, and a young passenger who was drenched in aviation fuel found himself hanging upside down from his seatbelt. There was a large hole in the fuselage, and he released the belt and walked along a nearby road in moonlight.

ATRs have been involved in more than their fair share of accidents as they operate short haul routes in some of the world’s most dangerous places

There he found rescue vehicles and flagged them down. One of the injured passengers was only cut loose over three and a half hours after the accident. It’s really a miracle that all survived albeit some in serious and critical condition. Take a look at the photos of the ATR turboprop and be amazed. Every passenger was slightly injured as you can imagine if you see the damage below.

It was snowing lightly with a breeze from the West on take off, nothing too strenuous even for a light plane. But this aircraft has issues when the conditions cause icing on the wings.

The Canadian TSB is now conducting a full investigation including the following actions:

  • Examine data from the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder and other electronic devices to help determine the sequence of events prior to the accident
  • Gather and analyze weather information to understand to what extent weather was a factor
  • Examine aircraft maintenance records, pilot training, qualifications and proficiency records
  • Conduct follow-up interviews with witnesses, the aircraft operator and others
  • Review operational policies, procedures and regulatory requirements
  • Examine previous occurrences involving this type of aircraft and subsequent safety action taken in Canada, the United States and other jurisdictions

It’s the third, fourth and fifth bullet points that will probably lead to the discovery of what was behind this accident. But take a look at the background to the ATR Turboprop.

ATR 42-320

ATR42 320
An ATR 42-320 in Air France livery ©Wikipedia

This plane was developed as a short-haul regional airliner by both France and Italy. The ATR stands for Aerei da Trasporto Regionale or Avions de transport régional. The number “42” comes from the standard seating arrangement of at least 42 and up to 52 passengers. West Wind’s plane had 22 passengers, but was carrying quite a bit of cargo

It’s powered by two powerful Pratt & Whitney PR 121 engines but this variant was produced until 1996 so is more than twenty years’ old.

The Botswana connection

There have been 33 hull losses (or accidents where the plane was written off) as this plane as a short haul aircraft would be more susceptible to incidents flying from smaller airfields across the world. There was the 1987 crash on Conca di Crezzo in Italy which killed all 37 on board, then 1994 Royal Air Maroc suicide flight where the pilot disengaged the autopilot and crashed the plane into the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.

However, it was an incident in Botswana in 1999 which stunned the country. On the 11th October an Air Botswana captain Chris Phatswe boarded an ATR 42-320 at Gaborone Airport.  According to medical reports which have been released, he was suffering from the effects of HIV/AIDs and his license had been suspended.

He circled the airport and came on the radio demanding to speak to the President Festus Mogae, Air Botswana’s general manager, and other authorities.

After two and a half hours of flying the plane ran out of fuel. Phatswe then indicated he was going to glide the aircraft into the airport buildings, but ATC said there were many people in the building who’d die.

So instead, the pilot flew two loops and then gliding at 200 knots, ploughed into Air Botswana’s two other ATR 42s parked on Gaborone Airport apron – all three planes burst into flame and burned out. He died but no-one else was injured or killed.


11 Fearful Things, Doppler Radar & Lickspittle

Starting in January, the first fearful thing is Air Law & Operating Procedures.  Followed in no particular order by Meteorology, Flight Planning & Performance, Navigation, Instruments & Electronics, Principles of Flight, Human Performance, Aircraft Technical & General, Radio Aids & Communication.  These are all exams, good tribesmen and women of cyberania. The night Rating I hope to accomplish within two weeks, and Instrument Rating before the end of February.  That’s the last 2 of 11 Fearful Things.

Or a month an exam and is feasible – but challenging.  That’s because I’m 52.  Everything takes just a little longer to settle into my slowly atrophying memory cell, but that doesn’t mean its all bad.  In fact, my age is a kind of blessing.  Had this happened 20 years’ ago there’s no way I would be able to shoe-horn my hyper-active lifestyle into a proper aviation psyche.

While this is all very well, this is all happening as Aviation experiences one of its worst years for accidents in living memory.  Mostly concentrating in Malaysia.  MH370 remains missing somewhere (we now know) in the Southern Indian Ocean.  QZ8501 flying from Surabaya to Singapore and operated by Air Asia crashed early yesterday morning.  Wild speculation continues about the cause.

The reality is its the third major incident involving a Malaysian airliner.  The other two Malaysian aviation disasters this year involved the state-run company.  MH370 and MH17. The latter was reportedly shot down over Eastern Ukraine, apparently by Russian-backed rebels using a mobile ground-to-air missile.

So why consider taking up aviation at this point, you may ask?   I prefer to think of this in a different way.

The three Malaysian accidents are all linked to the culture of doing business in that country. If you consider how the disappearance of MH370 was mishandled by authorities you’d see a country in a curious malaise where the paternal hierarchy leads to Big Man problems inside the cockpit.  This is not my experience of aviation in South Africa. Sure there have been a couple of incidents involving corruption, but these have been rooted out and dealt with.   So far.

However, the SAA board fiasco is centred on executives.  The pilots and crew who fly are in some ways distant from these shenanigans because they don’t earn enough money to warrant some drooling ruling party connected lackey trying to steal a pilots license in order to garner a few rands in a dubious tender.  Its one thing to lie about your matric or some little BA degree from Unisa to plant your bum on a butter seat in the SABC or SAA executive, its another trying to lie your way into the cockpit of a commercial jet by flashing a bogus CV.

Ruling party connections won’t help you land a plane.  I’m waiting for some lickspittle type to try.  Then we can all watch as he or she flies straight into the granite cloud, screaming something about the aeroplane being reactionary.

Yes, the pilots are very well paid but compared to actually taking control of an executive position – its peanuts.

So we’re safe for the moment from the grandiose largesse-based bribery plaguing the upper echelons of SAA making its way directly into the cockpit.  The foot soldiers of aviation continue to ply their trade in an honest way because its just too difficult to make it all the way to captain and 10 000 hours by being “politically connected”.

These are the fine gentle-folk whom I would aspire to emulate and eventually don my commercial pilots license wings with matching flashing toothy smile.

But before leaving you, a note about in-flight Doppler Radar.  The Cirrus I plan to fly around tonight has the Garmin 1000 with a great deal of weather reading technical gadgetry.

This includes the pilot-adjustable horizontal scan angles of up to 120° allowing me to focus on trouble areas, vertical scanning which beads in on storm tops, gradients and cell buildup at various altitudes.  It also comes with Weather Attenuated Colour Highlight (or WATCH), which allows a pilot to identify areas beyond the radar’s capability that may contain even more hazardous areas of precipitation.

Garmin 1000 weather warning system.
Garmin 1000 weather warning system.

Which is all very well.  However, if you’re already at 32 000 feet and want to avoid a cumulonimbus towering to close to 50 000 feet, go around.  I’ll be tottering along at 7000 feet in a propellor driven plane and in a training area, which means I can skedaddle back to Lanseria if the weather gets bad. The Cirrus SR20 has a ceiling of 17 000 feet anyway.

So what happened to QZ8501?  Without resorting to rampant ill-informed speculation, reports from professional pilots and aviation authorities suggest the Airbus may have entered an area of extreme turbulence. Between that fact and the reality the plane has crashed, we await further information.

RIP those on board.

A note about safety – how performance dipped 40% this summer.

The CAA has distributed a note from the commissioner Poppy Khoza warning about the rate of accidents at the start of 2014.  Twelve accidents in January alone, and 10 in February – 20 people are dead both crew and pax. While I read the page feeling somewhat disturbed,  there was something in the public relations exercise that was pretty clear.  Are the plethora of training institutions operating out of smaller airfields featuring low hour instructors?  Or is the latest crop of pilots  gung ho? Are we now producing pilots who’re useless?

Too busy trying to survive to be Gung Ho. A lesson from history.  WWII female pilots.
Too busy trying to survive to be Gung Ho. A lesson from history. WWII female pilots.

Or something instrinsic to all of our experiences – the weather? We have had by all accounts an extremely  hot and dry summer.  In fact, in parts of the north west of South Africa,  a drought.  That may have all ended with the low pressure system overhead right now,  however for most of this Summer it has been blazing.  And many  of the incidents have occured at altitude.

In some cases,  performance levels of aircraft have been reduced by almost 40%. CDC aviation for example, where I fly the Cirrus,  issued a safety update to all pilots – caution.  Hot and High.

The density altitude was, on some days,  over 8500 feet!  The ground roll doubled as Lanseria is already fairly high at 4400.   The Cirrus 20 is no plane to muck around in when it comes to peformance and retardation. Combine that with a propensity to fly slow and low,  and disaster awaits.  Particularly in tight turns.  Particularly taking off and landing.  And that’s where, as usual,  most of these incidents this year have taken place.

Poppy is also fingering another fact.  The majority of accidents since 2006 feature pilots with fewer than 500 hours. That be me. But hold on.. lets take a closer look at a few more bits of data.  The CAA says its now going to concentrate on categories of pilot responsible for most accidents.  Many would say there’s overwhelming evidence to say the category of pilot who breaks the rules would be at the top of the list.

Really, really hot and extremely high.  Time for the turbo.
The Atacama. Really, really hot and well, extremely high. Time for the turbo.

Are you aware of the temperature and the reduced pressure and density altitude?  Do you know what that’s going to do to your aircraft?  Particularly in a turn?  What’s the new stall speed? The CAA says its going to look at some sort of induction programme for trainee pilots.  Well, sounds good.  But who’s going to induct? There aren’t enough CAA officials to inspect runways, let alone go through the thousands of would-be trainee pilots.   Who gets to induct the inductees?  Is there an FAA process?  Apparently yes. But back to our accident rate.

Thanks to the US Coast Guard for this pic of the CAPS system for Cirrus working.
Thanks to the US Coast Guard for this pic of the CAPS system for Cirrus working.  It may have been hot, but it wasn’t high.

Still, the fact remains – in early 2014 aviators took themselves out at the greatest rate in a decade.  No escape from that cruel reality. Are pilots becoming glorified pen-pushers who are forced to spend more of their cash paying for books and the ever-more-expensive exams than actually flying an aeroplane? Take the real cost of flying since 2009.  While income levels have largely languished, the cost of av gas has climbed from under R8.00 to R18.47 per litre.  That’s more than 200%.  Which means for pilots who aren’t part of SAA’s glorified BEE scheme arnd receive the taxpayers subsidy or don’t have mommy and daddy’s millions, its tough to put in the bare minimum which should be around two hours a week. And when the temperature rises above 32 and you’re now taking off from the African version of the Alps – beware.