Last October, a Boeing 737 Max 8, operated by a low-cost Indonesian airline called Lion Air, crashed after takeoff from Jakarta, killing everyone on board. Then, on Sunday, an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crashed near Addis Ababa, under eerily similar circumstances, killing 157 people from more than 30 countries.
The million dollar question is whether these accidents are linked, and whether Boeing’s 737 Max, the newest and most sophisticated variant of its venerable 737 line, harbors a deadly defect.
Reports of the Lion Air crash point to a flaw in something called MCAS, which stands for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, an automatic system designed to keep the plane's nose from pitching upward at too steep of an angle. The problem occurs when faulty data sense an impending aerodynamic stall when there isn't one, triggering the plane's stabilizer trim — stabilizers are the wing-like horizontal surfaces beneath the tail — to force the nose down.
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Essentially, evidence suggests that the Lion Air pilots lost control of their ability to maintain level flight and failed to recognize what was happening in time to disconnect the errant system.
Did the same thing happen in Ethiopia?
Grounding their Boeing 737 Max fleets
At this point it's impossible to know, but certainly things are pointing in that direction, and a growing number of countries are worried enough to have ordered the grounding of their carriers' 737 Max fleets. If the investigators do determine a link, there's quite a bit at stake — for the plane’s manufacturer, for the world's airlines and for the traveling public. Boeing will need to implement a fix, be it a hardware solution, a software solution or both, in a process that is likely to take weeks or longer.
In the meantime, is the Max safe to fly? The short answer is yes. Why the Ethiopian pilots didn’t simply override the errant MCAS, if in fact that’s what they were dealing with, isn’t understood. Perhaps, like the Lion Air crew before them, they were simply overwhelmed by a cascade of warnings, faulty messages and unstable aircraft movements.
But disconnecting the system is, or should be, pretty straightforward, and passengers can take some comfort in knowing that Max pilots everywhere, together with the various airline training departments, are acutely aware of the issue and how to deal with it.
The outright grounding of an aircraft model is unusual but not unprecedented. New jets are sometimes beset by technical issues in their early days of service. Normally these problems are minor, if expensive, nuisances (engine problems plagued the first 747s, for example). But there have been catastrophic instances too.
Despite headlines, air travel is remarkably safe
We remember the Comet, the world's first commercial jet, and the stress-crack disasters that led to its grounding and redesign. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was plagued by troubles from the start, including a poorly designed cargo door that killed 346 people in the horrific Turkish Airlines crash in 1974. Five years later, all DC-10s in the United States were grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration after the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 killed 271 people at Chicago's O’Hare International Airport — to this day, the deadliest crash ever on U.S. soil, excluding the 9/11 attacks. More recently, the 787's debut was marred by a series of battery fires.
For the airline passenger, these can seem like scary times. Air crashes, perhaps more than any other type of catastrophe, have a way of haunting the public’s consciousness, particularly when the causes are mysterious.
My best advice, maybe, is to take a step back and look at this through a wider lens. The fact is, Lion Air and Ethiopian notwithstanding, air travel has never been safer. Out of 35 million commercial global flights in 2017, only two ended in accidents resulting in deaths of passengers.
Since the Lion Air incident, two fatal crashes in five months is tragic, but in decades past it wasn’t unusual to see a dozen or more air disasters worldwide in a given year. Nowadays, two or more is downright unusual.
In the United States, there hasn’t been a large-scale disaster involving a mainline carrier in a decade — an absolutely astonishing statistic. There are far more planes, carrying far more passengers, than ever before, yet the accident rate is a fraction of what it once was. Despite the recent headlines and until we know more information, then, airline passengers should fly easy.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Airline pilot: Is it still safe to fly in a Boeing 737 Max? Don't worry about it just yet.