‘Pitch up! Pitch up!’

‘Pitch up! Pitch up!’

Probe into plane crashes ‘reveals system flaw’, writes David Koenig

PRESSURE: A Boeing 737 Max 8 takes off during a test flight. Picture: Reuters
PRESSURE: A Boeing 737 Max 8 takes off during a test flight. Picture: Reuters

Boeing is facing mounting pressure to roll out a software update on its best-selling plane in time for airlines to use the jets during the peak summer travel season.

Company engineers and test pilots are working to fix anti-stall technology on the Boeing 737 Max that is suspected to have played a role in two deadly crashes in the last six months.

The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that investigators have determined that the flight-control system on an Ethiopian Airlines jet automatically activated before the aircraft plunged into the ground on March 10. The preliminary conclusion was based on information from the aircraft’s data and voice recorders and indicates a link between that accident and an earlier Lion Air crash in Indonesia, the newspaper said. Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment.

Soon after take-off – and just 137m above the ground – the aircraft’s nose began to pitch down.

According to the WSJ report, one pilot said to the other “pitch up, pitch up!” before their radio died.

The plane crashed only six minutes into its flight, killing 157 people – including Michael Ryan of Co Clare, who had been travelling as part of his work as an engineer with the World Food Programme on projects in the developing world.

Also this weekend, the New York Times reported that the Ethiopian jet’s data recorder yielded evidence that a sensor incorrectly triggered the anti-stall system, called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Once activated, the MCAS forced the plane into a dive and ultimately a crash that killed everyone on board, the newspaper said.

An investigation of the Lion Air flight suggested the anti-stall system similarly forced the plane’s nose down – more than 20 times – before it crashed into the sea.

The Max remains grounded worldwide and airlines are losing money by cancelling flights.

Most Wall Street analysts are betting that the planes will be flying again in less than three months, while noting that it could take longer in countries that plan to conduct their own reviews of Boeing’s upgrade instead of taking the word of the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration. Analysts say Boeing will pay about $2bn after insurance to fix the plane, pay crash victims’ families and compensate airlines that had to cancel flights.

Boeing has stopped Max deliveries during the grounding, which cuts into cash flow – Boeing gets most of its money for a plane upon delivery. Outside estimates of the cash-flow drain range from $640m to $1.8bn a month, but Boeing will get that money eventually unless airlines cancel orders.


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It is difficult and unusual for airlines to switch an order from one aircraft manufacturer to another. Boeing and European rival Airbus form a duopoly that dominates commercial airplane sales. Airlines that considering switching from the Max to the comparable Airbus model, called the neo for new engine option, would fall to the back of a years-long backlog line.

“We believe a wholesale cancellation is unlikely if for no other reason than the inability of Airbus to deal with the influx,” said one aviation analyst. Boeing has about 4,600 unfilled Max orders, making up the bulk of a huge backlog that the company values at $490bn.

Then there is the potential cost of lawsuits stemming from October’s crash of a Lion Air Max 8 in Indonesia and the March 10 crash in Ethiopia. In all, 346 people died. Already one law firm has filed seven lawsuits against Boeing in federal district court in Chicago; six were filed on behalf of families of passengers on the Lion Air jet and one by the family of an Ethiopian Airlines passenger.

The tragedy-filled introduction of the Max is reminiscent of troubled early histories of other planes. In 1979, for instance, the FAA grounded the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 following accidents involving a poorly designed cargo door that could spring open during flight and a crash in Chicago – still the deadliest aviation accident in US history with 273 lives lost – that ultimately was blamed on poor maintenance practices by American Airlines. After changes approved by safety regulators, the three-engine DC-10 returned to the skies.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was grounded by overheating batteries in 2013, but after Boeing fixed the problem it became a favourite among airlines and passengers. The same thing could happen with the Max, which entered service just two years ago – as long as there are no fresh accidents.

© Associated Press

Sunday Independent

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