Deadly Boeing crashes raise questions about airplane automation

Two Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, a variant of the world’s most popular jetliner, crashed within six months of each other in a stunning rate of failure that raises questions about the airplane’s automated systems.

Preliminary data from the first crash, Lion Air Flight 610, suggests that the automated system forced the plane into a steep dive soon after takeoff. At least half a dozen pilots have complained about unexpected nosedives from the system.

To be sure, automation is widely used in commercial aviation and has been praised for making the skies much safer. But there are growing concerns among pilots and safety experts that the industry is relying too much on automation, especially overly complex systems. Boeing, meanwhile, is facing questions about its decisions to withhold information from regulators about the anti-stall technology implicated in the Lion Air crash.

“Certainly, the industry is aware and has been for decades, that the introduction of automation is a double-edged sword,” said Clint Balog, a former test pilot who researches human performance, cognition, and error at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “It has certainly had tremendous benefits to safety and aviation. But there are some downsides to it as the technology gets complex.”

U.S. Grounds All Boeing 737 MAX Aircraft After Viewing New Satellite Data Photo by Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

Look up at the sky: close to a third of commercial airplanes in the air right now are Boeing 737 jets. It is the best-selling airplane in history, having safely carried close to 20 billion passengers in its lifespan.

But that legacy of safety is now threatened. Last Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed a few minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. It was the second such tragedy involving a Max 8 in five months, following the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia that killed all 189 passengers and crew.

In response, airline regulators around the world have grounded the plane as investigators continue to sift through the wreckage of both crashes to determine what went wrong. That investigation is ongoing, but it has focused on the Max 8’s stall-prevention system, apparent maintenance lapses, and potential pilot error.

A preliminary report from Indonesian investigators indicates that Lion Air 610 crashed because a faulty sensor erroneously reported that the airplane was stalling. The false report triggered an automated system known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). This system tried to point the aircraft’s nose down so that it could gain enough speed to fly safely. A warning light that would have alerted the crew to this discrepancy before takeoff wasn’t part of the optional package of equipment on Lion Air’s Max 8 aircraft, according to The Air Current. To be clear, the warning light was part of an upsell strategy, and now nearly 350 people are dead.

Once in flight, the Lion Air crew was unprepared for the automated response set off by the faulty angle-of-attack data. The pilots fought the automated system, trying to pull the nose back up. They did not succeed.

Initial reports suggest that the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash occurred under similar circumstances. Despite this information, the Federal Aviation Administration declined to follow the rest of the world’s lead and ground the Max 8 until Wednesday when the agency reversed course, saying it had received new satellite data that showed the flight track of Ethiopian Airlines 302 was similar to that of the Lion Air 610. Both planes struggled to maintain altitude in the minutes after takeoff.

These tragic accidents bring a recent streak of unprecedented airplane safety to an end. Not a single person perished in a commercial passenger jet crash in 2017, making the year an extraordinarily safe one for flying. In the meantime, experts are raising questions about airplane automation and where the technology is heading.

Lion Air Flight Crashes Into Sea Off Jakarta
Colleagues of victims of Lion Air Flight 610 throw flowers during visit and pray at the site of the crash on November 6th, 2018, in Karawang, Indonesia.
Photo by Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

President Trump awkwardly gestured toward this issue on Tuesday, tweeting that airplanes had become too complex. “Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT,” Trump said in a series of tweets that didn’t specifically reference Boeing or the crashes. “Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain.”

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg reportedly spoke to Trump that same day, urging him not to ground the Max 8. Trump eventually bowed to pressure, but not before praising the Chicago-based aerospace company, calling it “a great, great company with a track record that is so phenomenal.”

Is Trump right? Did these new automated systems that were necessitated by upgrades to the Max 8’s engines compromise the airplane’s safety?

According to Balog, there are two intractable problems in existing airplane technology: “automation transparency” and “automation complacency.” With automation transparency, airlines and manufacturers struggle to properly educate pilots on the latest automated systems. This problem gets worse as the technology gets more advanced. But when they eventually catch up, pilots are found to overuse of automated systems, which leads to complacency and a degradation of manual flying skills.

“But these are not new questions raised by these two crashes,” Balog said. “These are questions and issues that the industry has been aware of for a long time, and is doing its best to address and is doing so successfully.”

In a report commissioned by the FAA several years ago, pilots were found to struggle with manual flying tasks and, in some cases, fail to keep pace with changing technology in the cockpit. As a result, some pilots lack the knowledge or skills to properly control their planes, particularly in unusual situations.

There have been notorious examples of this, most recently, the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013. Afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crew did not appropriately understand the aircraft’s automation systems, which contributed to the accident that killed three people and injured 187.

Balog said the process starts with the airplane manufacturers since they are the ones creating and installing these new systems. Early evidence suggests that Boeing may have failed to provide adequate information to the airlines regarding its new anti-stall technology implicated in the Lion Air crash. A high-ranking Boeing official told The Wall Street Journal that “the company had decided against disclosing more details to cockpit crews due to concerns about inundating average pilots with too much information—and significantly more technical data—than they needed or could digest.”

At least half a dozen pilots have reported being caught off guard by sudden descents in the Max 8 jet. One pilot said it was “unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” according to an incident report filed with a NASA database.

Boeing’s response has been to update the Max 8’s flight control systems, pilot displays, operation manuals, and crew training. But since the jetliner is temporarily grounded on a near-global scale, it’s unclear how that update will proceed. On Thursday, Boeing paused delivery of the Max 8 to customers in the aftermath of the FAA’s decision to ban the aircraft.

In the meantime, the aviation industry is inching closer to fully autonomous airplanes. “The basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available,” Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president of product development, said at the 2017 Paris Air Show. The company, along with others in the flight industry, are hard at work on artificial intelligence systems that are capable of making even more of the decisions pilots make. Boeing has been experimenting with such a system in simulation and in test planes.

Autopilot has become more advanced over the years, but even still, the idea of a completely pilot-less aircraft will be too much for most people to grasp. But that doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Urban air mobility, the buzzy phrase to describe the development of electric flying taxis in cities, is on the horizon, and autonomy will play a big role.

Balog doesn’t think these recent accidents will be enough to derail that momentum.

“Commercial aviation is going to become more and more automated,” he said. “These crashes, in my opinion, simply aren’t going to change that in the short term.”

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