Time to worry

The reason for an aircraft accident is always explained in detail, once all investigations are completed. Consequently there is normally no need for speculations. Yesterdays crash with an Ethiopian airliner is no exception, but for one detail. Should the reason for the accident be the same as for the unfortunate budget carrier Lion Air last October, some thing needs to be discussed.

All modern aircraft are extremely safe.  The Boeing MAX model was made even safer by a system that was ment to prevent the aircraft from stalling, by bringing the nose down at dangerously low speeds. What seems to have caused the Lion Air accident was a faulty sensor, causing the stabilizer to bring the nose down at normal speeds. Boeing has obviously ment that this could be handled by the already existing Non Normal or Emergency procedure for a ”runaway stabilizer”, and instructed airlines accordingly.

There are procedures and instructions for every conceivable emergency. These instructions needs to be taught and procedures trained. In simulators, normally. Now, not all airlines are as extremely safe, as the aircraft they are operating. Some airlines brought this new information, regarding the extra input source to the stabilizer, to their pilots, and trained them to handle a malfunction. Some didn’t. In the era of low-cost airlines every penny counts (ref. Richard Quest), and training is very expensive. What seems to be the case with Lion Air is that their pilots were not trained enough. Should the Ethiopian pilots also have been in that dire position, there is reason for concern.

The MAX model has flown approx. a quarter of a million flights since last October, mentioned only to indicate, that the sensor problem – if it indeed was a sensor problem this time – is very rare, but still frequent enough to worry about the quality of the installation. Worse than that is something, that poses a threat to the whole industry, regardless of type of malfunctions. When something goes wrong, measures are taken to make sure it never happens again, hence the high standard of flight safety now enjoyed worldwide, since almost everything has happened already. If pilots today –  five months after the Lion Air crash – still are not trained to handle that particular emergency, there is definitely reason for concern.

All of the above can be disregarded, should post-crash investigations indicate a different reason for yesterdays accident. Apart for one thing. There are airlines out there with inadequately trained pilots. One of the threats in a squeezed economy situation. The other three are inadequate maintenance, inadequate fuel reserves and excessive duty times. Time to worry. A little.

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