On October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight JT610 plunged into the Java Sea just 13 minutes after taking off. All 189 on board were killed in the tragic crash. The aircraft in operation was a Boeing 737 Max 8, delivered to the airline just two months earlier. Boeing would later admit that there was a problem with one of the sensors. Then on Sunday, another Boeing 737 Max 8, this time operated by Ethiopian Airlines bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off, killing all 157 people on board.
It is the second crash of the 737 MAX 8, the latest version of Boeing’s workhorse narrow-body jet that first entered service in 2017. These incidents, within a span of 5 months forced aviation authorities to ask the big question – Is Boeing 737 Max 8 safe to fly?
The U.S. President, Donald Trump, on the other hand blamed the ‘complex’ airplanes for being the reason of the crash. On Tuesday, Trump, without offering condolences to the families of 157 dead people from Ethiopian Airlines (including 8 Americans), posted a couple of Tweets questioning modern aircrafts.
Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2019
His two-portion tweet read - “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are....
....needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”
....needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2019
While it’s rather unusual for two modern and new aircrafts to crash in such a short span, the exact cause of the accident is not yet identified. However, the advanced anti-stall feature is said to be the culprit here. The system prevents the aircraft from entering a “stall” if the pilots accidentally raise the nose too high.
In case of the Lion Air flight, the sensor guiding this system was sending erroneous data. And investigations so far suggest that the anti-stall system may have pushed the aircraft down when it was flying level.
Following the incident, Boeing said that the malfunctioning sensor on the MAX 8 could “cause the flight crew to have difficulty controlling the airplane,” leading to “possible impact with terrain”.
Now Trump’s tweets imply that modern aviation and technology might be the reason behind the recent crashes, although he hasn’t directly pointed at the Ethiopian Airlines disaster. There’s no denying the fact that aircrafts are becoming more and more modern and more specifically automated.
But is automation in aviation meant for safety or is it leading us to a disaster?
According to Boeing, the largest commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world, 80% of the accidents are caused by human errors. A study by Boeing says - In the early days of flight, approximately 80 percent of accidents were caused by the machine and 20 percent were caused by human error. Today that statistic has reversed. Approximately 80 percent of airplane accidents are due to human error (pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, etc.) and 20 percent are due to machine (equipment) failures.
Automation is not an unbeatable technology and was reported to be the reason behind Air France Flight 447 crash in 2009. According to the final study tabled by BEA (French Civil Aviation Safety Investigation Authority) – the Autopilot disconnected while the plane carrying 228 humans was passing through a turbulent weather and ‘At the time of the autopilot disconnection, the Captain was taking a rest.'
This, however, is a one-off and the rarest of rare incident where Autopilot was given the full control of the aircraft while pilot dozed off. As per the data compiled by Aviation Safety Network (ASN) the aviation accidents are on a decline for the past 50 years. And we can’t help but wonder, if not technology, then what has resulted in the reduction of the accidents?
While it is true that technology bring complexity with it, technology also solves a lot of problems for us. From better communications with ATC to better aircrafts and universal safety standards by IATA – everything has contributed in aviation industry getting safer and safer.
As per the ASN data, less than 20 fatal accidents took place in 2018, down from 80 in 1948. The reduction in fatal accidents also means less deaths due to crashes. In 2018, 561 people lost their lives in air crashes globally, down from 2,385 in 1972.
Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news - it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
In fact, Trump tried to take credit for 2017, which happened to be the safest year in aviation. “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news - it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!” he wrote on Twitter.
But the zero fatality figure is global and not just the U.S. data.
In all fairness, rather than Tweeting about the technology updates in the aviation industry (which are ‘complex' as per Trump), he should have focused on grounding the Boeing 737 Max 8 fleet in the U.S. Apparently, Trump and Boeing’s relation go way back and not surprisingly enough – U.S. is one of the few countries where the 737 Max 8 is still flying, while countries across the globe (including India), have barred 737 Max from flying over their airspace.