One really essential reason those planes crashed was that each time the MCAS triggered, it acted like it was the first time. If it added 1 degree of trim last time, it adds a second this time, a third next time, up to the five degrees that runs the trim all the way to the stops.
A second reason is that, under the design still on file at the FAA, it could only add a maximum of 0.8 degrees (each time). This was raised to 2.4 degrees after testing, so only two hits could, in principle, put you almost to the stops.
A third was that the only way to override the MCAS was to turn off power to the motor that worked the trim. But above 400 knots, the strength needed to dial back the trim with the hand crank was more than actual live pilots have, especially if it is taking all their strength to pull back on the yoke.
A fourth was that, with two flight control computers, the pilot could (partly) turn off a misbehaving one, but there is no way to turn on the other one. You have to land first, to switch over, even though the other is doing all the work to be ready to fly the plane.
A fifth was that it ignored that pilots were desperately pulling back on the yoke, which could have been a clue that it was doing the wrong thing.
A sixth was that, besides comparing redundant sensors, it could have compared what the other flight computer thought it should be doing.
Is MCAS a hack? yes. Is it fixable? yes. Will the 737 MAX continue to fly for two to three decades after all the items above have been addressed? yes.
But from an engineering perspective, putting an additional system to "fix" another system feels always a bit weird. Sometimes it's not avoidable (ex: cooling), but when it is avoidable, something is at least a bit wrong. A few hacks like that are manageable, but too many, and you dramatically increase the chances of one of these hacks misbehaving.
And if an organization is pushing a lot for this kind of hacks as Boeing did, the issue is not even technical.
The story of MCAS reminds me a little about the MD11. The DC10 as a tri-jet could not really compete with new dual engine airplanes in the late 80ies/early 90ies in term of fuel consumption, but McDonell Douglas try to anyway. They optimized the wings, change the engines, add winglets and more significantly reduce the horizontal stabilizer size. This made the MD11 quite hard to land as it needed to go-in with a very high speed for a wide body jet. It was a contributing factor in several accidents (Fedex 14, Fedex 80, Lufthansa Cargo 8460), and pilot training/technical fixes never fully compensate for the design flaw. And in the end, the aircraft kind of failed to reach the target fuel consumption. However, it's still flying today, and it's still a workhorse for cargo companies.
They are going to fix the software with no changes to the design.
They don't need to change the design, that would be expensive overkill. Software updates are as close as we can get to Free. There is not a single company or human with infinite money to spend on anything, we can't always have the fantasy.
I just hope the correct conclusions will be learnt from this crash:
* have a truly independent certification process
* don't fix your physical design issues with software
* don't write and maintain software running on an airplane like the software from the start-up world: significant design flaws are not tolerable for software running in an airplane, even if they can be fixed easily.
* don't hide new systems, if there is a new system, then pilot should be trained
by the way, it's not the first time a new system caught pilot by surprised because they didn't knew about it. SAS Flight 751 is another example, ice ingestion damaged the engines, the pilots reduced the thrust to reduce stress, but an automatic system (ATR, Automatic Thrust Restoration), unknown to the pilots, put the thrust back to full power, disintegrating the engines, the plane fortunately crash landed without fatalities thanks to the pilots skills and a bit of luck.
* Boeing should really think about replacing the 737, the old design is putting too much constraints, preventing a clean design.
Too bad. I know I am now permanently reluctant to fly 737s
MCAS is not a feature to correct an unstable aircraft, it's to correct a confused pilot. MCAS is triggered if the following circumstances are right:
1) The airspeed is near stalling speed (takeoffs and landings)
2) The AOA (as reported by both sensors now) is greater than the aircraft can climb.
The problem was that 1) the AOA data was faulty, 2) it did not check if there was a disagreement with the backup system
3) The aircraft failed to reset each time it took corrective measures such that each the correction was compounded. 4) the corrective action was 3 times more than approved.
All of these things have been fixed but it also shows how many things have to go wrong for something to be catastrophic. But the max has been built on a solid foundation and that's much better than having to start from scratch.
For example, backup fire extinguishers in the cockpit? Optional. Extra oxygen masks? Optional. Advanced radar? Optional. There are hundreds of items like this on every model, whether it's Boeing or Airbus or someone else, because their customers WANT them to be optional.
And by the way, not all airlines do this. American paid for the upgrades. Southwest paid for the upgrades.
So maybe you should ask yourself why it is that Lion Air and Ethiopian Air were willing to spend huge amounts of money on a new jet, then spend some $1-$2 million on optional upgrades, and yet not include the MCAS upgrade in those options (and they were made well aware of it, as you can see from other airliners purchase of these upgrades). Or for that matter maybe you should ask why Lion Air knew that the plane was having trouble with the AoA sensors for several flights prior to the crash, and yet did not perform the required maintenance on them (a serious violation) and did not pass along information to its next crews (also a serious violation), who were caught completely unaware.
Airlines run at 2, 3% margin, and they do so by trimming costs at every possible area. Sometimes those areas are safety related. Airlines are not some doe-eyed naive little up who just trust whatever Big Boeing/Airbus tells them. They know how the planes work, they have their own pilots, they have their own engineering teams, they have their own specialists and experts, and they make decisions to sacrifice safety for savings, and they do it ALL THE TIME.
There is no excuse for a company such as Boeing, working under the regulation of the FAA, to produce any version of any model of plane which is fundamentally unsafe to fly. Period. None.
We're done here.
The biggest overarching change I would like to see is the abandonment of allowing manufacturers to extend the type rating of airframes indefinitely and designing to avoid costly recertification and training vs a true focus on safety and innovation.
>You’re saying that Boeing intentionally sold unsafe airplanes?
>And the airlines, knowing this
You know airlines have their own engineering teams, right? And they were bought explicitly to save money.
There is no doubt the MCAS can be fixed.
But I would say there with all the bad press the 737 MAX has received, there must be some doubt as to whether the 737 MAX will fly for decades to come.
I would say the flying public will need some convincing before they consider the plane safe.
> However, it's still flying today, and it's still a workhorse for cargo companies.
One of the reasons the DC10 is used for cargo, is very early on the DC10 faced it's own own 'bad design' issues that resulted in several fatal crashes.
A fault in the DC10 cargo door meant it sometimes did not close, which then resulted in an explosive decompression.
That fault and those early crashes greatly helped the 747 win the race to be the dominant wide body passenger jet of that time.
This isn't even the first time a design flaw leading to loss of control has crashed multiple 737s.
The fact is an airplane is a huge investment, made to last 20, 30 and in some cases even 40 years (not necessarily with the same owner). You cannot exactly throw it away and buy a new one even if it has defects. At most, it ends-up lasting a bit less (ex: 15 years instead of 20 years) or is relegated to a specific usage where the consequences of failures are less dramatic (ex: freight).
There are still 20/25 years old airplanes flying with passenger, which are inherently less safe than (properly designed) new airplanes because of their age and their avionics. Yet there are still flying.
Public opinion could ground it.
Every time there is news my entire office lights up with discussion about it. Then again, I work for a company called "Pilot" so perhaps people are more interested than average. It's not an aviation company though ;)
The DC-10 ended-up being a reliable airplane, but its early crashes damaged its reputation heavily, and the handling of these issues by MD was poor.
Commercially, MD never completely recover, and was absorbed by Boeing in the 90ies. (To be honest, it's not the only factor, you have also the L1011 competition and the fact a trijet was somewhat of an evolutionary dead end).
Boeing is much larger, and much stronger it can probably cope with it, but it will be a hit on their best selling aircraft. It's basically the 737 that finances the new 777 or 787, costly programs not certain to recoup design costs (same with Airbus, the A320 is basically financing the A380 failure). At the same time, part of the 737 market is a bit captive with the biggest low cost companies (Southwest, RyanAir) using it unlikely to switch.
And just because the airline industry does software backwards, doesn't mean that you should do so.
Functional safety is the engineering discipline related to designing machinery instrumented safegaurding systems to protect humans from harm, to a deterministic safety performance level.
eg just the right amount of safety so that all the safety money is spent in the right places and right amounts so as to reduce risk across the board to the required level, not over-investing in one area and neglecting another (or so the dream goes, in practice it is a moving target based on a lot of guesses, you hope the swings and roundabouts balance out more or less).
Aeronautics design is one of the closely aligned fields within the group of this overall discipline. Closest thing I have worked upon in terms of risk/consequences is mine winders - safety failure can kill 10-100 people in one go, they ride multiple times every day.
Right now, this very minute before needing a break at 1am to browse hacker news, I was trying to wade thru a mess of a fault tree analysis my current project owners "specialised" consultant has produced for the systems I currently need to instrument for safety.
Most people in general, but especially Americans who live primarily with prescriptive standards, struggle to come to grips with the nature of performance based safety standards. There is no "do it like this and you have met code and have no problems" - you have to analyse and build everything up from scratch.
It is all about layers, layers of risk reduction that eventually (whether by perception or reality) get the risk down to an acceptable level. So there are cludgey little things that get stuck on as hacks to address this issue or that, not uncommonly often pet issues of one of the review panel. Repeat this several hundred or thousand times and any hope of some kind of uniformly elegent and simplified solution is pretty slim.
The general reliance is on redundancy and independence,
eg layers of protection, "defense in depth", or as more commonly known "the swiss cheese model" - you get a bunch of slices of swiss cheese and when the holes line up to allow a path through, that is when an accident can occur. More layers, less chances (also smaller holes, but that is another story again).
And, as almost always, the machines are actually the easy part most of the time. It is the humans that design, build, test, maintain, certify the machines that are the weak point, over and over again. Plus the creative ways humans can get around systems in place to protect them, get their job done when the system is telling they should stop, or doing a maintenance task a new "better way" despite the manual that might have cost over $100k plus of engineering time to write and approve is telling them to do it a specific way etc etc etc
90% of the time overly conservative thinking during risk analysis occurs (we might get hit by a meteorite, happened to my cousin once), which can layer complexity and associated uncertainty and poor availability onto a solution.
10% of the time there is the wishful thinking of "it will never happen because I have never seen it or heard of it" that allows the unexpected and unusual (black swans often, if you will) to sneak through, at least for the first time. Endless discussions occur about "credible scenarios", sometimes the "discussion"is won by the dominant personality in the room, who might also be doing some of the pay reviews next month.
It is incredibly difficult to be the person that has to herd the flock of cats that represent all the stakeholders in a hazard revue and risk assessment. These workshops sometimes run for months, maybe in extreme cases for years on and off, considering every system, subsystem, part, action, event, procedure etc etc and all the possibilities and how they can go wrong and what might mitigate failures and events - and on and on.
I could write about this all night, but I guarantee you that any magical opinion or assumption you might have about graceful and elegant solutions to difficult and dangerous problems being the norm are unrealistic - there is a always a consensus or committee to satisfy, often top heavy with people that might have to own or operate the machine in question, but never designed anything in their lives. You fight for the things you know matter and concede some of the crap, hoping subsequent reviews will see it as pointless or not credible.
All of this is the reason that grandfathering is so attractive. To apply the current internationally recognized performance based safety standards from scratch to design something as complex as a plane that can kill hundreds of people in one go is an incredibly difficult task. And from a business perspective fraught with immense dangers of totally unpredictable outcomes impacting budget and schedule and even viability.
This is a highly specialised field with what are often counter-intuitive outcomes (otherwise you would just let John out the back room design the whole plane from scratch, because "he knows what he is doing").
While I am aghast at some of the information about some of the information about design decisions taken that is emerging, none of it surprises me in the least. I can see directly how a number of them may have effectively resulted from path of least resistance when a product had to be produced.
I like flying older planes in general, as long as the airline does reasonable maintenance. The unexpected has often been detected and corrected, the chances of latent faults turning up decrease with hours in service. Plus I always remind fearful daughter that the taxi ride to the airport is more dangerous, by the numbers.
The decisions made clearly ignored engineering and historical precedent at every turn.
It's sad because Boeing has had some wonderful engineers, and Boeing aircraft have traditionally allowed the pilots to have the final say.
The article definitely does partially blame engineering.
My understanding is that MCAS altered fight characteristics not only to match older 737s and avoid additional pilot training. MCAS altered fight characteristics so the FAA would approve the MAX as a commercial aircraft period. The fact they could match older 737s flight characteristics for a more speedy approval from the FAA was just gravy.
> Pitch changes with increasing angle of attack, however, are quite another thing. An airplane approaching an aerodynamic stall cannot, under any circumstances, have a tendency to go further into the stall. This is called “dynamic instability,” and the only airplanes that exhibit that characteristic—fighter jets—are also fitted with ejection seats.
So arguably the existence of MCAS in the first place indicates that the aircraft design is dynamically unstable (otherwise MCAS wouldn't have been necessary).
MCAS was needed to maintain original 737 type specification which allows 737 pilots to fly any 737... significant operational flexibility & cost savings for airlines.
Commentary from blancolirio who is a current 777 pilot.
However, my understanding is that the reason why MCAS was needed to maintain the original 737 specification is because of the "pitch up" behaviour on increased AOA (which is what is being described as "dynamic instability" in TFA).
The video you linked doesn't disagree with this -- though it's phrased as being primarily there to "replicate the same feel as earlier versions of the 737, by giving a little bit of nose-down trim". The article claims that being dynamically unstable means that at high-AOA you get nose-up lift (I'm not a pilot or aeronautics expert, so this might be an incorrect definition -- but I've not seen anyone disputing that definition nor disputing it's against FAA guidelines).
If you need an additional system to "replicate the feel" of not having nose-up lift at high-AOA that tells me that your plane design must therefore have nose-up lift at high-AOA. The guy in the video then goes on to say that it's an inherently stable design, but he doesn't really qualify it (other than saying that all other 737s are stable designs) and goes on to say that "the nose goes a little bit light".
Obviously we should hold back judgement until we know all the facts, but "the 737 MAX is an inherently stable design" is not someone holding back judgement.
Dynamic stability is a tendency of the plane that flies straight and level to maintain this straight and level flight. MAX 8 still has this property, MCAS or not.
Deep ethical failure, maybe, but this here place usually has a hard-on for epically failing the most basic ethical non-challenges.
It's depressing that everyone went along with this. Clearly there's a lack of impartial checks and balances in the process.
Boeing executives shifted focus from engineering to cost-cutting, outsourcing, and moving production & HQ to gain political influence. Moving Corporate HQ from Seattle was to insulate executives from engineering and increase political leverage in DC.
80k for a _light_ in the panel, not to have MCAS take the two sensors into account - which it couldn't do anyway. With two sensors, how do you know which one is right and which one is faulty?
The developer fails to check for an error condition or raise an exception because doing so would add too much complexity to the system. So instead it is assumed (or hoped) that it simply can't or won't happen. Problem solved...
(Edit: Or that the user will just have to reboot if it happens.)
Probably AA or SWA demanded it, and Boeing compromised by charging for it.
But... #6 was about paying attention to the other computer, not the other sensor. That would involve some big and expensive changes to the flight computer software, which they probably should have done long before the MAX project started.
More management failure.
I learned this a long time ago by putting a robot through a door-frame at max speed.
Edit: To add to this in a way that might actually make it useful to someone, motor outputs should almost always be a continuous function of something rather than their own internal state. MCAS should have been coded as something like (vastly oversimplified)
if(AoA >= MAX_AOA) trimPosition = g(f(AoA, IAS), trimPosition, dt);//AoA/IAS dependent ramp function
else trimPosition = g(trimInput, trimPosition, dt);//ramp function
if(AoA >= MAX_AOA) trimPosition += 1;
Because the latter is very likely to result in a runaway even if you have bounds checking somewhere else. Worst case you don't have bounds checking and the position value/register value loops over and the tail just starts spazzing out, flapping up and down as fast as the motor will drive it.
=+1 is shorthand for “ignore everything going on in the world and increase your value”. This is almost never what anyone actually wants so they try to spend a bunch of time guarding against calling that when it’s already at a maximum.
Instead, the safe thing to do is only assign to it from a function with a ceiling.
val = min(CEIL, val+1)
It’s way to easy to get runaways with =+1 even in serious systems like this one. Every time I see that in code I review where the value is some long-lived thing, I just confirm with the author that they don’t care if it overflows, because it’s probably gonna happen.
Turning on autopilot also disables MCAS, though this isn’t entirely effective since spurious AoA readings may quickly disable the autopilot again.
It's not reasonable to expect pilots to disobey checklists. We would all be less safe if they did. If pilots are following Boeing's instructions and planes are crashing, that's on Boeing.
Assuming they'd kept MCAS on the switch associated with the automatics, the procedure would have been to throw the AUTO PILOT switch, disabling MCAS, but keeping the MAIN ELEC switch on, allowing them to trim back to neutral for that speed.
Not sure about the Max's # of trim motors, but the Max definitely doesn't have input source cutoff switches.
If you mean AoA sensors, AFAIK, there was absolutely no redundancy at all the way MCAS was designed. Exactly one sensor was ever used for MCAS. And last time I've read the Boeing's reported coming software changes, they wanted to keep it so, but just to add the notification to the pilot when the sensors disagree.
It’s easy to find edge cases when they present themself (tragically here). But most electrical-mechanical-software assemblies have similar issues.
In the Lion Air case, painfully inadequate maintenance contributed.
There is a standard that says automated controls are not allowed "authority" such that the pilot cannot counteract it.
There is a standard that says failure of a single sensor must not cause a critical failure.
Either violation alone makes the design not airworthy, and not certifiable for civil aviation, preventing both crashes.
Expertise which should be readily available at one of the world's foremost designers of high performance commercial aircraft.