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Air safety: Global redcard for faltering jetliner

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Uche Usim, Abuja

“If you’re booked on a flight, ensure it is operated by any other aircraft than the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner. Even at the point of boarding, abort the trip once you discover you’re about to hop into that airplane”.

That is the new conspiracy theory built around the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft by an obviously frightened flying public.

The fear springs from the rubbles of two fatal crashes involving that brand of sophisticated jet that wiped out 346 souls cumulatively in just four months.

The first disaster was in October 2018 when Lion Air JT610 crashed into the Java Sea off Indonesia, 12 minutes after takeoff. It killed 189 persons. The second accident occurred in Ethiopia (ET 302) on March 10, six minutes after takeoff killing all 157 souls onboard. Similar airplane of about two years old involved in near-similar fatality crushed operators’ spirit and slashed the stock price of Boeing by about 10 per cent.

After what seems eternal foot-dragging, the United States Federal Aviation Administration finally identified similarities between the two disasters leading it to ground all Boeing 737 MAX planes last Wednesday.

In its emergency order, the FAA said new information about the crash of ET 302 “indicates some similarities” between the two disasters that “warrant further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause that needs to be better understood and addressed.”

President Donald Trump said that the United States will ground all Boeing 737 MAX planes immediately, thus becoming the last country to bansuch flights with Boeing 737 Max 8.

Trump said: “Pilots have been notified, airlines have been all notified. Airlines are agreeing with this. The safety of the American people and all people is our paramount concern”.

Nonetheless, Nigeria last week joined over 50 other nations like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, China, South Africa, Europe, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore and others to ban the dreaded jet.

While investigators strive to unravel the real cause of the mishaps, various aviation experts, passengers and regulatory bodies have sifted through the debris of the fatalities and concluded it was better to ground the MAX 8 jetliners as a precautionary safety measure.

They are not joining a bandwagon of the usual refrain that investigators must be allowed to complete their work before an action as heavy as grounding jetliners can be taken.

They also implored the iinvestigators to thoroughly close all gaps, regardless of the fact the reputation of a multi-billion dollar aircraft manufacturing company may be at stake.

At the centre of these two air disasters is a new system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), designed to point the aircraft’s nose downwards when it identifies a risk of stalling.

MCAS is an alien system to the Boeing 737’s family that has existed for over 50 years.

The 737 MAX version, comes with a larger and more efficient engine that delivers a further 14 per cent fuel efficiency and had to be fitted further forward under the low wings of the 737. This potentially may cause the plane to stall and that means the plane stops flying and starts falling. In order to avoid this, Boeing installed the new MCAS software.

Unfortunately, the MAX is a brand new aircraft type with scanty operating history. Unlike previous-generation 737s, investigators cannot point to decades of safe flight by this model. To the contrary, 0.5 per cent of the MAXs delivered to customers have now crashed in the first two years of service – denting it with the worst safety record of any modern jet.

Of grave concern to the global aviation community is the fact that Boeing is yet to officially ground the MAX jets, making it about the only establishment still swearing to the sophistication and safety of its product.

By stoutly defending it, experts are accusing the aircraft maker of putting profit ahead of safety because it has over 5,000 firm orders of B737 MAX jets and has only delivered about 350.

Analysts feel Boeing was treading carefully not to provide room for its closest rival, Airbus to snatch its market share.

Boeing said: “We understand that regulatory agencies and customers have made decisions that they believe are most appropriate for their home markets.

“We’ll continue to engage with them to ensure they have the information needed to have confidence in operating their fleets.”

United States officials say the recent government shutdown played a part in the delay of Boeing’s software update for its 737 MAX aircraft, which the company said it had been working on over “the past several months and in the aftermath” of Lion Air Flight 610 that went down in late October over the Java Sea off Indonesia.

It added that the process was underway before the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash which killed 157 people.

In any case, airline operators believe grounding the fleet of 350 MAX 8 worldwide will not have a catastrophic effect in air travel because it is not yet a model on which the global air transport system relies.

In Nigeria, the Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika, told journalists after the last Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting that there was no cause for panic regarding Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 since no operator flies them in Nigeria at the moment.

He added that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, whose mandate it is to issue air safety advisory, has since advised foreign airlines and crew not to fly the MAX jet into Nigeria until  Boeing responds and the actual cause of the crashes is determined.

“Regarding Air Peace and Arik orders, whether those orders were confirmed or intent, it is to our knowledge at the Ministry that they won’t be in the country until the next two years or so. And this is enough period to sort out whatever problem it is with that plane. The world of aviation will not be sleeping, just as we in Nigeria will not be sleeping. And it is normal standard practice that once a particular aircraft type is involved in accident back to back, it is withdrawn from the market and see if there is something they are doing wrong. And if it is confirmed that a particular problem say for instance, landing gear, they will issue an instruction to ground such plane worldwide until the problem is fix.

“So, this case is no different. We pray for the souls of the departed, and pray that the industry will continue to be safe and secure. We promise you that we are alive to our own responsibility which is to secure lives and property as a government”, he concluded.

A seasoned aviation consultant and former Spokesperson of defunct Nigeria Airways, Chris Aligbe in a telephone interview with Daily Sun urged Boeing to immediately ground all B737 Max 8 jets in operation because the two major crashes occurred in quick succession and have glaring parallels.

He said: “When the first crash involving Lion Air happened, no one bothered this much. The initial finding showed a system failure. Now, a second crash has occurred and what Boeing is to do is ground all Max 8 jetliners worldwide.

“Most countries have already grounded that model of jet till further notice. The malfunction might be from the manufacturers end. It shouldn’t fly until Boeing checks out what is actually wrong. “Good a thing that the black-boxes of the crashed Ethiopian Airlines have been recovered for analysis. If it is the same system failure thing, then  Boeing will have to go back to drawing board.

“Mcdonnel Douglas’ DC 10 jet had issues many years ago. The doors used to open in the air. It happened twice. It happened airborne. FAA said MD should go to Boeing to get the door issue sorted. Those things happen. That is the correct thing Boeing should do. Airbus seems to have advanced in cockpit technologies by their fly by wire package. It removed cockpit Engineer and replaced by computers.

“In Europe, the Max 8 has been grounded because they have so many of them. They should correct that thing. All CAAs will be interested in what happens at last.

ET is not just any airline. It’s a major maintenance organization of Boeing. It won’t be because of carelessness. It’s a new aircraft barely six months old. People who are panicking are not just expressing genuine fears that should be addressed to avoid unnecessarily cancelling orders of fear”, Aligbe said.

Also commenting on the matter, the Managing Director of Top Brass Aviation Limited, Roland Iyayi told Daily Sun that the government banning the Boeing 737 Max 8 from the country was more of a knee-jerk reaction because Nigeria does not have sufficient data to make such a decision.

“If you look at the number of MAX 8 in Europe, it’s huge. So, in terms of probability and possibility of a crash, it is higher there. In Nigeria, only ET flies the Max 8, so the percentage is insignificant. But all the same, government will say it is in the best interest of safety. Let’s wait for the investigation report”, he stated.

A retired Air Force pilot and C130 trainer,  AVM Femi Ayeni (rtd) described the crash as a battle between man and computer.

“All these system upgrades came up as a result of pilot error or man error. System error (MCAS) happened to Lion Air”.

Steven Wales, an international aviation analyst while analyzing the Lion Air JT610 crash said, the Alpha Vane sensor measuring the angle of attack (AOA) on the Captain’s side was reported to be faulty.

“So, they changed it. That fault was reported from the equally harrowing flight from Bali to Jakarta. On the fateful final flight, the plane which arrived from Bali the night before, had the sensor changed, and then it took off in the morning.

“No one knew what was really wrong with the plane, or about the new MCAS software. No one. Not the maintenance personnel, and in fact not even the pilot. He apparently wasn’t trained on it yet. So they flew the plane and once in the air, the faulty sensor told the computer that the plane was stalling. The computer then, without the pilot ever knowing pushed the nose of the plane down further, while the pilot was trying to raise the plane.

“In this battle between the pilot and the computer, the computer won. And the pilot, the crew, and the passengers lost and they died. The plane was too low, and the pilot didn’t have enough air to raise the plane and fly it. The computer literally flew the plane into the ocean.

“A few weeks later, Boeing issued an update on the plane, and informed that should the plane have an issue with it’s AOA sensors, one of the ways to stop the computer was to switch it off!

Apparently 189 lives could have been saved, had the pilot known about the software, and flipped a switch to turn it off.

“Improper handling of the MCAS system is likely to be its favoured line of inquiry; in other words, pilot error. The company is wrong to be so confident in this conclusion, and the FAA, America’s aviation regulator, is wrong to allow MAXs to keep flying”, he said.

Martins Rivers,  an aviation contributor said when news of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 broke, industry pundits queued up to issue the usual refrain that investigators must be allowed to complete their work. Grounding the fleet without pinpointing the cause of both crashes, they said, would be premature.

“No one disputes that, in isolated incidents, it is best to gather firm evidence before taking the drastic step of grounding a whole fleet.

Modern aircraft – and the MAX is as modern as they come, at just two years of age – are certified to extraordinarily high safety standards. Investigators won’t say it, but they know that inherent design flaws in any of the latest generation of aircraft are almost never to blame for crashes. Pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and even passengers are far more likely to be the weak link in the chain.

“Confidence in the MAX has been so high that many in the industry presumed it innocent until proven guilty in the aftermath of Lion Air Flight 610. But that faith has been shattered by the second crash. Why? There are numerous statistically improbable similarities between the two crashes: identical aircraft type; identical stage of flight; near-identical age of aircraft; similar reports of airspeed and altitude inconsistencies; similar reports of pilots requesting to return to the airport but being unable to do so; and clement weather.

“That is either incredibly coincidental, or a sign of a common thread running through the two. The FAA has now confirmed the speculation which pundits were so keen to dismiss: that MCAS is a relevant factor in at least one of the crashes, and that regulators deem its safety sub-optimal by dint of mandating software improvements.

“From a risk-mitigation perspective, the potential human downside of further deaths vastly outweighs the potential commercial upside of continuing to fly the planes.

“Remember that MCAS is a brand new system that Boeing designed as a workaround for complications relating to the MAX’s engines. It is supposed to solve the type’s higher risk of stalling when compared with previous-generation 737s. It achieves this by automatically tipping the nose downwards in certain circumstances, blurring the boundaries between a fault with the aircraft (for executing a maneuver) and a fault with the pilot (for improperly reacting to the maneuver).

“Journalists specializing in aviation are qualified to report basic facts such as this, and to place them in a historical and operational context that promotes readers’ understanding. We are not qualified to interpret crash data or to issue safety advisories from our desks.

“That is why it was right to give Boeing and the FAA sufficient time to digest the facts and formulate an initial response. That window of opportunity, however, has now passed. The company and the regulator have so far chosen not to ground the MAX – a decision that is rejected by most of the countries that deploy the aircraft, from Australia to Mongolia, from South Africa to Argentina.

“Boeing says it respects the differences of opinion around the world.

“But it insists that because the FAA is “not mandating any further action” in relation to the airworthiness of the MAX, it feels it does “not have any basis to issue new guidance”. In other words, it will not ground the fleet because the regulator is not forcing it to do so.

“Based on a rational interpretation of the available facts, and informed by years of reporting on the airline industry, I believe that to be the wrong call. I believe it is possible, for as-yet undetermined reasons, that the MAX may pose a danger to passengers in its current design specification. I believe, therefore, that grounding it may save lives.

“When a building is on fire, first responders do not stand idly by while investigators conduct forensic research. They jump into the building and take urgent measures to stop the flames spreading.

“Boeing needs to demonstrate that passenger safety is its overriding priority. It needs to take a financial hit and ground the MAX fleet immediately”, he said.

The post Air safety: Global redcard for faltering jetliner appeared first on The Sun Nigeria.

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