Going Direct: Sully Flies the 737 Max Sim and Why Boeing’s 737 Max Charm Offensive Is Smoke And Mirrors

Boeing 737 Max 8
Boeing 737 Max 8. Photo by pjs2005 from Hampshire, UK, rotated by the uploader [CC BY-SA 2.0] (]

You know your company is in trouble when well-known satire site The Onion sets its sights on your aviation company. In a recent story, the send-up site’s headline read, “Boeing CEO Admits Company Made Mistake By Including Automatic Self-Destruct Function On All 737 Max Planes.” It’s funny because it’s so close to the truth.

The Onion aside, the news these past couple of weeks have been good for Boeing. Let’s rephrase that. The news these past couple of weeks out of Boeing has been good. No, that’s not it either. To give it another try, let’s say that Boeing has changed course in its response to the 737 Max crisis. Nope. But it’s closer. How about this? Boeing has launched a multi-pronged PR campaign in a desperate attempt to salvage its image. That’s the ticket.

Oh, and Sully flew a 737 Max in a scenario similar to what the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air pilots encountered in their unsuccessful attempts to save the day, when MCAS, the disastrously conceived and implemented stability system in the 737 Max, went haywire when sensors failed. More on that in a second.

Oh, and Boeing still doesn’t have a firm timetable for getting the 737 Max, grounded since shortly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March. The company is facing demands from several of its airline customers that the carriers be compensated for the loss of revenue they faced when the Max was grounded by regulators.

Back to Boeing’s charm offensive. My first thought, when I heard Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg talk about the crisis, you know, the one in which two planes crashed apparently after an MCAS failure (it was kind of a failure) brought down two planes in the course of a few months, killing a total of 346 people, was that Boeing was doing damage control. Nothing he’d previously said on the subject came close to accepting responsibility for the crisis. But I was keeping an open mind. 

There were two big developments in the company’s attempts to steer its image out of its self-imposed cruise in the Bermuda Triangle, and they were curiously timed to coincide with the Paris Air Show, where airlines come to talk Boeing and Airbus and other airplane manufacturers about ordering planes. It’s not uncommon in Paris for orders of hundreds of planes to get done.

And there was such a deal done at Paris, when on the eve of the show Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg announced that it had reached an agreement with International Airlines Group (IAG) for the purchase of 200 Max planes. Great news, right?

Well, again, kind of. If you go by retail value, the deal would be worth $24 billion, but no one ever pays retail in this world. And the “agreement” reportedly is a letter of intent, which is non-binding. Moreover, IAG wouldn’t take delivery of the planes until 2023, with deliveries stretched out over the next four years. IAG has precious little at stake in making this deal.

The other big non-news item was that Muilenburg has admitted Boeing made mistakes in its response to the 737 Max crisis, in which the company insisted there was nothing wrong with its design or implementation of the MCAS system, or with its lack of transparency on the introduction of the system in the MAX, the first (and surely last) Boeings to get the system.

Now Muilenburg is saying that his response was wrong and he’s sorry for it. There’s a word for an apology made long after the initial offense and only after you’re greeted with widespread condemnation. It’s called a strategy. So, no, it’s not really an apology at all, and how does this guy still have that job?

Oh, yes, back to Sully. The hero pilot of US Airways 1549, which Sully flew to a successful ditching in the Hudson River after both engines quit, flew the 737 Max simulator in a scenario similar to that of the pilots of both Ethiopian Airlines 302 and Lion Air 610. In his testimony in front of the United States House of Representatives this week, Sullenberger said, “I recently experienced all these warnings in a 737 MAX flight simulator during recreations of the accident flights. Even knowing what was going to happen, I could see how crews could have run out of time before they could have solved the problems. Prior to these accidents, I think it is unlikely that any US airline pilots were confronted with this scenario in simulator training.” 


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Going Direct: Are UFOs For Real? And Why Is The DoD Talking About Them Now?


The news over the weekend of the military’s interest in talking about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) has captivated the world, which is preferable to being captivated by aliens, I suppose.

It’s not news that a program existed, but we’re now learning that it continues to exist, and pilots have come forward with stories of additional encounters. That shadowy program, called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, started up in 2007 and was shut down in 2012 after funding ran out. That’s the official story anyway. But according to multiple news sources, the program appears to be ongoing, though civilian sleuths have been unable to locate its source of dough. One could call it the Unidentified Funding Office. It’s apparently top secret, but no one is likely to get in trouble for revealing it because, remember, it doesn’t really exist.

But what about the UFOs it’s studying? Do they exist? And what are they? And who’s flying them? There are some inescapable conclusions.

When explaining away such phenomena in the past, the military used the now clichéd explanations of swamp gas and mass hysteria. But these objects spotted off of both coasts and bearing an uncanny resemblance to each other can’t be either natural phenomena, mistaken identification of known flying objects (KFOs?) or the result of pilots seeing something that they’ve been led to believe are there. There’s a third option today that didn’t exist at the time of the Roswell incidents—that our systems were hacked by outside forces.

First, the swamp gas thing. The object spotted by Navy pilots in 2014 gives pause. They were flying Super Hornet fighter jets in close formation when an object suddenly appeared between them. The object, which the pilots described as a sphere encasing a cube, could nearly instantly accelerate to hypersonic speed and climb at rates unknown in human aviation and that human pilots would not be able to survive. Similar objects at much farther range were picked up by onboard and ship-based radar systems, with the course and altitude readouts agreeing between ship and jet.

This tells us a few things with a high degree of certainty. First, it wasn’t swamp gas. There was no swamp nearby, and gas of any kind is incapable of behaving as the spotted UFOs did.

Mass hysteria is another subject that deserves close scrutiny. Known technically as collective obsessional behavior or mass psychogenic illness, the phenomenon is factually recognized in modern psychological thinking as an observable behavior that can be documented, and has been. There are numerous cases of it afflicting groups of people. A famous case involved a body in Southern California that was emitting toxic fumes and making health care workers, including doctors, violently ill. It was all in their minds. And while one might guess that collective obsessional behavior overwhelmingly affects people without professional certification or college degrees, one would be wrong. The majority of documented cases involve highly trained, well-educated people. What no documented incident of mass psychogenic illness has is physical evidence that the focus of the behavior is real. In this case, there’s extensive evidence of UFOs.

Perhaps most important is that the details of the sightings almost certainly indicate that these are actual objects and not hacked software. The act of hacking the software of F-A/18 fighter jet radar and weapons acquisition systems, which are classified technology, would be daunting even for the people who build those systems. But the thought of simultaneously hacking the radar systems of ship and land-based installations is not only practically impossible—but very likely impossible—period. And if one were to do so, why would they use it to create periodic sightings of strange objects?

The only conclusion is that these are actual objects that behave in ways that no known objects behave or could reasonably be expected to behave.

Could they be secret military technology? That’s not likely, either. Why would the military play such games with top-secret tech? The short answer is, they wouldn’t.

But apart from these objects being from a foreign government, which is even harder to fathom than supposing they were from our own, it’s the only real explanation.

Unless they really are aliens. If so, and if our would-be alien overlords are listening, email me with more details. Just like Agent Mulder, I too want to believe. And if not that, at least get to the bottom of a mystery that’s getting less mysterious all the time.

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Going Direct: NY Times Alaska Midair Coverage Is Scary

De Haviland Beaver
A De Havilland Beaver similar to the one seen here, was involved in a midair collision in Alaska. Photo by Dllu [CC BY-SA 4.0]

When two small planes, a de Havilland Beaver and a de Havilland turbine Otter, collided in midair near Ketchikan, Alaska, two days ago, it was sobering. The Otter was a charter flight operating for a cruise ship company, Princess Cruises, and the Beaver was a private sightseeing flight. Six were killed when the planes collided. Ten more were injured. 

In a vacuum the crash would raise real questions. The biggest is this: In an area of great public interest where there are frequently multiple aircraft operating at about the same altitude, flying the same route or orbiting around the same feature, why isn’t there some kind of plan in place to keep them separated?

The short answer is, there is, the Ketchikan Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). So the question the New York Times, and everyone else for that matter, should be asking is, why did the two sightseeing planes collide?

I’ll get to the ridiculously ill-informed questions the Times writer actually posed in a bit, but first a little context.

There are numerous Special Flight Rules Areas around the country, and the creation of some of them was prompted by mid-air collisions and/or flight into terrain. At Grand Canyon National Park, several tragic crashes prompted the FAA to institute a special flight rules area around the National Park’s busiest areas to help cut down on the chances of midairs happening. In Los Angeles, New York and the Panhandle of Florida, the FAA has implemented SFRAs to help keep aircraft flight paths predictable and safe. And while the data relies on small numbers, those numbers indicate that SFRAs are spectacularly successful at protecting aircraft, their passengers, and the folks on the ground below.

The New York Times article, penned by travel writer Tariro Mzezewa, fails to mention that SFRAs exist, never mind that Ketchikan has one, instead focusing, as mainstream media outlets tend to, on why aren’t small planes regulated like the airlines because, you see, they are really scary. One statement seemed to capture the staggering lack of perspective the writer has on aviation. She wrote:

The accident, which also left 10 injured, was among many involving small planes in the United States in recent months. This alarming frequency has raised questions about the level of regulation applied to planes operated by private pilots and smaller companies, which is less stringent than that for large commercial aircraft.

In pointing out the “alarming frequency of crashes,” the author fails to provide numbers or attribution—How many crashes were there? During what time span? And how has the “frequency” of crashes grown? And if it has, compared to what other period of time have they grown? Our guess is there’s no substance behind these claims at all. And as far as describing the frequency of crashes being “alarming,” who is it that’s concerned? Is it the author, who uses a random grouping of unrelated crashes across the country for something she hopes will pass as evidence for her claim? Is it she who is alarmed? Or is it someone who knows something about aviation? If so, who are they and what are they alarmed about?

She goes on to lose all credibility by bringing in as her expert maritime law attorney Jack Hickey, a plaintiff’s attorney in maritime law who weighs in that “there are a lot of these accidents involving private aviation and after National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation, there should be more talk about more regulations.” Which is amazingly exactly the feeling the author has about things. That she had to find a lawyer who specializes in representing victims of crashes at sea to opine on an aviation accident about which he is not an expert in a field in which he presumably is not either tells you everything you need to know about the value of the piece.

It’s hard to blame the author too much. Ms. Mzezewa is a victim herself of the classic flaw of not knowing what she doesn’t know, and that subject is aviation. Her story is a perfect example of confirmation bias. The author is ignorant about small planes and the regulations that drive them so she blithely proposes that we need to regulate them more stringently, suggesting we do it in a way that makes Part 91 more like airline flying, which, as we know, would be the end of nearly all private aviation.

The sad thing, the tragic thing, is that Ms. Mzezewa presents a case that while shockingly ignorant of basic tenets of aviation mechanics, operation and regulation, sounds convincing to people like her who don’t know what they don’t know and who now, after reading this alarmist NYT piece are a little more afraid of small airplanes.

Which is really bad for all of us who do understand.

Which leads me to another subject: have you renewed your AOPA and EAA dues yet?

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Going Direct: Back To The Moon? Really?

Buzz Aldrin on the moon
Buzz Aldrin, the second human to walk on the moon.

The administration’s stated goal of getting back to the moon in five years’ time is ambitious. Can it happen? Theoretically. But it ain’t going to be easy. Here are the factors that put the goal into context.

If you’re 55 or older, you surely remember when NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon for the first time. I remember it like it was 50 years ago, which it was, which is to say, I remember watching and I remember understanding at 10 years of age that it was a big deal and that two of my grandparents, my mom’s dad and my dad’s mom, who’d passed away recently, never lived in a world in which people had walked on other worlds. And I had.

It was July 20, 1969, and the first words, scratchy modulated and which I couldn’t understand for the life of me, were immediately the subject of some controversy. Forget what Armstrong actually said. What he meant, and we all got it, was that it was a small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind. Despite the dated language, no one doubted it.

But was it really? I mean, in terms of the significance of it, it was a huge. No questions. It was the first time a human had walked on a heavenly body. Granted, the moon is a dusty wasteland of a heavenly body, but it’s not earth. Landing on a gaseous moon or one with a surface of sulfuric acid would have been much harder, right? Pretty much flat, dry and windless, the moon was the perfect training wheels for space exploration.

But what did we get out of it besides bragging rights over the Soviets, Tang, Teflon and moon rocks? That’s easy. We got the IP, as they say, the intellectual property of knowing how to do this stuff. And as President Kennedy said, we never did it because it was easy, like gaining weight, but we did because it was hard, like losing weight. Work hard and you’ll get rewarded for it, which is one of the prototypical American values, one that I still believe in while still admitting that it’s not always true. Sometimes you work hard and get bupkis. With the moon landing, we got a lot.

This week the administration announced two things, that it would get another astronaut back to the moon within five years and that it had increased NASA’s budget by $1.6 billion to accelerate that first thing. Now, $1.6 billion sounds like a lot of money, and when rounded off it’s approximately $1.6 billion more than any of has in the bank—apologies to Bill Gates if you’re reading—but when it comes to putting another person up on that big rock up there, it’s nothing.

One thing we did in our 1960s moon program was commit, and this small and well-earned budget boost for NASA is not a real commitment. So there’s that.

Then there’s this: What are we going to get out of going to the moon again? I’ve had the honor of meeting two moonwalkers, the late Pete Conrad, who was very nice to this young aviation journalist in giving an autograph for their 5-year-old kid, and the late Gene Cernan, with whom I had dinner several years ago in Wichita.

He was a great dinner companion, funny, engaging, a bit ribald and full of life. But what I really remember was what Captain Cernan’s message about future space exploration was: The moon was great, but let’s go to Mars. That’s where the big payoff will be, he said, in about that many words, too.

And I said to him that’s a great goal, but going to Mars will be really, really hard to do.

“Exactly,” was his response.

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Going Direct: Boeing Did What? Test Pilots Share 737 Max Details

A Boeing 737 Max 8. (photo courtesy: Boeing Aircraft).

The hits following twin crashes of 737 Max airliners, keep coming for Boeing. As they have been since the beginning of this tragic fiasco, they are largely self-inflicted. But hold on to your hats. It has somehow gotten even worse.  

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We’ll get right to it. The latest revelation is that Boeing’s own test pilots on the 737 Max program did not know the details of how MCAS worked. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Boeing program leadership chose not to involve the test pilots in the final stages of flight test certification, thereby cutting those pilots out of the details behind the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated stability system that has been implicated in two deadly crashes in the past six months that killed a total of 346 people. The planes have been grounded since the middle of March.

The report is problematic though. Just how the test pilots would have been cut out of a process in which they play a central role is baffling. But if the pilots were knowingly kept in the dark about changes to MCAS and the resultant risk the changes introduced, those actions would surely interest multiple teams of investigators already looking into the certification process and the FAA’s role in it.

The most disturbing part of the report, if true, is that the pilots said that while flight testing the 737 Max they were unaware of how aggressively the system could trim the plane nose down in the event of an angle of attack instrument failure.

Another disturbing report from the Wall Street Journal is that Boeing made a second angle of attack indicator an option, meaning that if airlines wanted it on their planes they needed to pay more. On the one hand, making safety equipment optional is hardly new. Even on light general aviation planes, this has been the practice for decades. If you want the latest safety features, you need to pay for them. In the past, these features included such things as lightning detection devices, a horizontal situation indicator (HSI), and even a second navigation and communications radio transceiver. Today options often include such things as synthetic vision on the primary flight display, active traffic avoidance gear, and onboard weather radar.

But in this case, it’s not clear that the airlines knew what it was that they weren’t getting when they chose not to purchase a second angle of attack indicator or that Boeing in good conscience could have made a second AOA an option at all. With the safe operation of MCAS dependent on it getting good AOA data, a backup seems not good to have but necessary to have. Moreover, several pilots who were actually flying the 737 Max in duty reported that they thought the AOA warning light was functional in the planes they were flying when it, in fact, was not. Just why it wasn’t or what Boeing knew about the system’s functionality or lack thereof is not clear. But the fact that I’m writing that the manufacturer of an airliner wasn’t clear on the details of operating a critical system on its new plane says it all.








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