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The B737-Max Saga – A Technical or a Management Failure ?

The B737-Max Saga – A Technical or a Management Failure ?

Boeing is as synonymous with commercial aviation as Bell is to helicopters. They invented quality systems (on which ISO-9000 is based). So, how is it that they appear to have lost the plot?

Part-I:  Tail wags Dog

To understand this tragic tale, we need to go right back to the beginning. So in this essay it will be done in several parts. Firstly to get a perspective through a brief history of the Boeing Company leading up to the Max’s production and then to analyse the elements of the scandal itself. It starts more than a century ago. The Boeing company’s origins in Seattle were not in aviation but in lumber and cabinet manufacture and owned by William E. Boeing.  

As a hobby Bill Boeing learned to fly and owned his own single seater trainer. Then, with a navy buddy, Lt. Conrad Westervelt, in 1916 they built a two-seater B&W Seaplane to fly off Lake Union nearby. Through Conrad’s connections, the US Navy showed interest in it, so a second improved unit was built and the Boeing Aviation Co. was formed to manage it. The prototype was named Bluebell and the second one Mallard. However the Navy sale was not consummated and, ultimately, both units were procured by a flying school in New Zealand which was training pilots for the Great War. Post-war the aircraft were hired by the Royal Mail in NZ for express deliveries during which time the aircraft achieved an altitude record of 6500 feet.

Technical excellence and enthusiasm thus became the DNA of Bill Boeing’s Company. Early in the 1929 Depression the company merged with a half dozen other aviation companies, including Pratt & Whitney, to form the United Aircraft & Transport Corp. which, a few years later, was dissolved by government industry decree back into its main elements United Airlines (operations), United Technologies (Technology development) and Boeing (Aircraft manufacture), all of which have continued to this day. 

Replica of the first Boeing aircraft – the B&W Seaplane at the

Museum of Flight in Seattle

In the inter war years, Europe was the lead in aircraft development with the USA generally optimising those designs and their manufacture. The British Avro, Vickers and Handley Page medium-heavy bomber designs were thus optimised into the Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ heavy bomber – actually an early Boeing technical disaster. Rather than through any incompetence, this was a factor of their technical enthusiasm in stretching the norms of aviation technology. The B-17 was the largest, the fastest, the highest flying and with the biggest payload in its class, far exceeding all the parameters of the military RFP to which it was the Boeing Company response. As such it was also technically, significantly more complicated. So it was that, during a display to the client, the prototype crashed due to elements of the  very long start-up checks being overlooked, killing the Boeing Chief Test Pilot and an Airforce General flying as a passenger in the Co-pilot’s seat. Not surprisingly, the first contract for 200 units was thus awarded to Douglas. The enduring result of that crash was the birth of the aircraft check-list. Not surprisingly, subsequent contracts went to Boeing and ultimately, more than 12,000 B-17 units were built.

As a factor of the War, Europeans continued to lead in aviation innovation and development.  The Brits developed the first jet engine (the Whittle in 1933) and the Germans with the first jet aircraft (Heinkle-178 in 1939) as well as rocketry (V-I in 1944). The first mass-production jet was the British Meteor bomber (March 1943). The first US jet was the Bell XP.59-A (1942) powered by a Whittle engines built under license by GE.  

Post-war, this led to the first jet Airliner (the British Comet-1952) but after a series of fatal accidents due to metal fatigue, it was grounded for a time while the root cause, square windows, were changed to the current oval design. This allowed the much later Boeing Jet Airliner (the iconic B.707-1957) to catch up and subsequently dominate the market. Bill Boeing, unfortunately, passed away shortly before its maiden flight, so he did not witness the fruits of a lifetime of innovation. But the Boeing Company never looked back, dominating world aviation for the next two generations although, once again stretching aviation limits, the very large B-747 (1969) did come within a whisper of bankrupting them.

Beauty and the Beast – an unhappy ending

A most significant event in Boeing’s subsequent history was the 1996 merger with it’s former rival Douglas – now McDonald-Douglas (MD). This was a function of a so-called ‘Last Supper’ in Reagan’s White House, where it was decreed that the dozen US aircraft manufactures should be reduced by half. Because the MD widebody iteration, the DC-10, was unsuccessful, MD was financially the weaker partner in the merger. Accordingly, Boeing was the lead with the merged entity assuming its name. However, within a couple of years, the junior partner had assumed control. This led to cultural changes within Boeing which are the likely root cause of its current technical problems.

Boeing began as a hobby-venture and it never lost that ethos. It was a family firm driven by technological excellence – in it, the engineers were king. The MD culture was one of corporate bean-counters with shareholder value rather than engineering excellence being the foremost core-value. Hence, post-merger, this prevented Boeing make the necessary investment to match the European technical innovation focused in the European government under-written Airbus designs. So at the turn of the century, when the state-of-the-art and highly efficient A320 family started to dominate the narrow-body market, with the A330 to 380 impacting the wide-body market, Boeing had to compete with 1960/1970s designs – the B737-series and B767-series respectively. Neither was a match for the state-of-the-art Airbus competition as the table below of wide-body performance shows.

A/c Type

LOA (ft)

Max. Range (km)

Max. Pax     (1 Class)

Total Sales

Boeing 767-400ER

201’

10,415

375

1346

Airbus A330-series

238’

13,450

440

1759

In parallel, within the Boeing corporation, the gulf between engineering and management was similarly growing, exacerbated by the latter moving out of Seattle into new offices in Chicago in 2001. Whereas before in the Boeing family, management and marketing spent as much time chatting on the factory floor as in the office, after the move, the process was rare and formalized.  Over the years, production targets were consistently increased as were expected sales margins by decreasing production costs. This latter was, in large part, focused on manpower reductions, certification limitation strategies, reduced quality control (QC) and minimizing pilot conversions.  One measure of this parsimonious attitude was clearly evidenced in the QC process whereby the number of inspectors on the factory floor, according to a documentary by Rory Kennedy (Downfall – the case against  Boeing – 2021), was reduced from a score to just one per shift.  

Clearly knocking out more aircraft each week (up to a dozen) with less of everything, instilled an atmosphere of stress in the culture and practices on the factory floor and this is now evidenced in virtually every major Boeing program. In addition to the 737-Max saga, poor program management is evidenced in the 777-X being years behind schedule, 787 production being on temporary hold due to QC standards and certification issues, the USAF new generation (B767-based) KC-46 aerial Tanker’s experiencing a very messy and delayed acceptance into service and, in space, aa the Starliner spaceship’s hugely delayed first launch. The common cause would appear to be corporate penny-pinching, and this is a probable root cause of the most recent B737-Max outrage as Part-III will show.

Part-II: The King has no Clothes – how Boeing lost Market Hegemony

By any standard, the 737 is a very successful mid-market aircraft with more than 10 thousand units thus far built over its 50-year life-span. During this time-frame, by incremental stretches, the 737-series range and payload have been more than doubled. In the widebody sector, the B747 Jumbo Boeing dominated the trans-oceanic routes. Overland, the only serious competition to its B767 wide-bodies were other US iterations such as the MD DC-10 and Lockheed Tristar. The Airbus was a European political response to this US market hegemony. Atypically, over the next 20 years this political market interference proved prescient as, with easy access to cheap government loans (all of which have since been fully repaid with interest), the bold Airbus designs and technical innovations soon challenged that of Boeing and particularly in the narrow-body market. The core of this challenge lay in the operating cost-efficiency of Airbus designs which was realised, in the main, through just two elements.

Helicopter Flight – safe but not sure

Foremost was the wing design and later the engines. An aerofoil (wing) at a positive angle of attack (α) to an airflow, creates a pressure differential between the upper and lower surfaces and hence, a lift force (L). The greater the airflow (ie. aircraft speed) the greater the lift. When equal to an object weight (W), it flies. With Lift being at 90° to the aerofoil axis, the positive α generates a reverse force, Induced Drag (ID – in orange in the diagram). The larger the α, the higher the ID. Airbus benefited from billions of design dollars of British wing profiling (based on those of gliding sea-birds) minimising that ID. The less the ID, the less the fuel burn. A measure of the success of this design was demonstrated by an A330 wide-body which, on loosing both engines at 40,000’ over the Atlantic, glided some 600 miles to land safely in the Canaries.

This advantage was further accentuated by a new generation of highly fuel efficient, by-pass engines.  The 737 had neither and, due to the very low ground-clearance of the wing, they faced severe engineering challenges to accommodate the significantly larger by-pass engine designs. As a result the new generation Boeings (737-800/900) were no match for the competing Airbus types (A320NG and A321)

A/c Type

LOA (ft)

Max. Range (Nm)

Max. Pax     (1 Class)

Seat Pitch/Width

In Service Date

Boeing 737-800

138’

2950

211

28” / 16”

1997

Airbus A321

146’

4000

244

30” / 18”

2000

Boeing 737-Max.8

138’

3550

220

29” / 17”

2017

 

As can be seen from the table above, the bypass engines on the A320/321-neos increased the former incremental advantage of the Airbus over its Boeing equivalent (B737-8/9) into a substantial one.  Until that point, Airbus had largely been playing catch-up: around 2015, the roles were reversed (see below).

Fig.2 – Cause and Effect – Boeing vs. Airbus narrow-body sales

This called for a completely new Boeing design and such was proposed by engineering (staffed mostly by former Boeing folk) shortly after the turn of the century. However, the multi-billion dollar proposal was deferred by corporate (now staffed mostly by former MD folk) which opted instead for the multi-100 million upgrading process. In large part this was due to the parallel need to prioritise a wide-body replacement for the B767 which was the B787 Dreamliner. This was the first Boeing aircraft to match the low drag profiled wings and computerised Fly-by-Wire (FBW) technology of their Airbus nemesis. While in production some 4 years ahead of its main Airbus rival (the A350) it was nonetheless years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget (and ultimately outmatched by the later Airbus).  

So there was, and remains, no money available to deign, build and certify a new narrow body type, so Boeing were forced to opt for yet another upgrade of the 50 year-old 737 base-line design. In the short-term this proved a commercially astute decision with Boeing holding its own in the numbers game and being a lot more profitable overall than its rival. But the technical gulf between the Boeing and Airbus types was growing until, some 10 years ago, the bypass engines of the A320-Neo and 321-XLR series made it almost overwhelming.  So a way had to be found to fit the modern, and very much larger, by-pass engine to this old design. The problem was that the older engine types already only had a 19” ground clearance. So, as shown below, rather than locating the new engine under the wing as in the original classic designs, the bypass engine had to be moved forward of the wing so that it could be lifted higher off the ground.

B737 power plants  –  Classic series   

New generation series with 19” ground clearance

Max-series

But moving the power plant forward impacted the Centre of Buoyancy such that, at high power settings, it would push the nose of the aircraft up with risk of stalling. That would require use of elevator to push it back down again which among other things, creates additional drag thus decreasing fuel efficiency (thus obviating the whole point of the exercise!).  The answer was to put a small tab on the elevator and to automate the process so as to catch and correct the nose-up movement at an insipient stage – that was the main function of MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristic Augmentation System). The idea was to also make the aircraft fly and respond like the older 737-800s which had been sold in very large numbers: this the MCAS also successfully did.

So the Max also sold like hot cakes with some 5000 orders before the first unit entered service in Indonesia with a subsidiary of Lion Air (which was also the launch customer for the former B.900-ER and also one of the largest operators of that series). With that operator also diversifying into Airbus A320 options, this was a major coup for Boeing.  But, in the Sales department efforts to make the Max appear as an upgrade to which -800 series so that pilots could more readily convert, rather than new aircraft type requiring full certification and more onerous training, lay the seeds to the subsequent Max accidents. In Part-III, the germination of these fatal seeds will be followed in detailed slow motion.

Part-III: Sales wags Engineering.

In the first two parts of this article we saw how Boeing management supressed technical innovation and excellence to become a Wall Street darling. This allowed their rival Airbus to assume the lead both technically and commercially. While just holding their own in the wide-body market, in the larger narrow body sector, Boeing were getting trounced. Having neither the time nor the money to bring a new game-changer design into play, they opted instead to seek to match the competition by re-engining the venerable 737 design. This they did using a clever technical trickery – MCAS – to overcome the negative impact of the laws of aerodynamics. But to minimize the requirements relating to certification and subsequent conversion to type for the client airlines, the Sales department was allowed to obfuscate and minimise the engineering issues. The result was bumper sales – a commercial triumph.  

      Head to head

Then the nightmare started. Within a few months of entry into service, a Lion Air Max crashed into the sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on a mild day with light breezes. With the Captain being a foreign national and the co-pilot relatively inexperienced, it suited manufacturer and operator alike to blame it on Pilot error. While the accident investigation followed it’s protracted course, that was the generally accepted view in the aviation industry. But then, five months later, a very similar accident occurred in Ethiopian Airlines also just after take-off and also in fair weather. Now, while Lion Air is an LCC in a poorly regulated developing nation, the national airline of Ethiopia is highly respected and run to very high standards by a bunch of experienced expats from the developed world. So the event was not so easily fobbed-off. As a result, led by the Chinese, more and more developed nations grounded the Max. The last to do so was the USA and then only after the Pilot’s Union wrote an open letter to the President resulting in it being grounded not by the FAA but by a Presidential Decree !

The root cause in each case was eventually found to be a failure in the angle of attack ‘α’ indicator. This is a simple mechanical pendulum device allowing the easy measurement of aircraft flight angle relative to the vertical, hence ‘α’. In the Ethiopian accident the sensor was found to have been broken by a bird strike; in Indonesia, after having dived into the sea at very high speed, no definitive prognosis could be made, but it was considered a reasonable assumption. Bird strikes are common hazard in aviation, so the two events could be considered appalling bad luck. But, as the investigations proceeded and multiple other casual factors came to light, it started to become abundantly clear that appalling management was equally to blame – and herein lies the scandal. This has been exposed in an excellent Netflix documentary – Downfall – by Rory Kennedy (yes, of ‘that’ family) issued late last year and on which much of this thesis is based. The failures cover almost every aspect of management within Boeing!  Let’s start with the technical.

In fully automated systems, everything must be duplex: if safety critical, then it’s triplex. The ‘α’ indication, being the fundamental driver of MCAS, is surely in the latter category. Yet it was simplex.! There are actually two such a sensors (to left / right of the nose) but no software provision was made to cover one or both failing except for a computing anomaly indication – thus effectively making this critical element simplex. At the time of writing, one can offer no logic for such a fundamental error: maybe it was a just factor of the sensor simplicity, that is was considered that there was nothing there to fail…..? That said, with man-in-loop (an earlier essay on Flight Automation refers), it would not in itself have been a big deal as the MCAS element could just be switched off and the aircraft flown manually.

It is here that the root cause of sales wagging the technical dog came into play. There were two main issues. Management wanted a speedy certification process to get the aircraft into service as quickly as possible so as to better compete with the A320-Neo family, and the Sales strategy was to minimise the conversion to type for B737-800/900 pilots, again emulating said 320-family, to be little more than a in-house computerised aircraft differences training with a standard line check by an authorised airline Training Captain on completion. This was instead of having to fly to the USA for a couple of weeks conversion Training with the OEM and the need to build specific simulators to accommodate the emergency aspects of that training.  If conversion to the new type could be accommodated with existing infrastructure, then time-lines and costs bringing the new type into service would be dramatically reduced for both the OEM and end-user Operators.  

So the OEM management decision was to ‘hide’ the MCAS within the auto-pilot as an auto-stabilization element (which, in effect, it was). This technical subterfuge was so complete that the only mention of MCAS in all of the technical and operational documentation was by over-sight, where it was left in the Glossary of Terms at the beginning.  Such is indicative that decisions with regard to this technical strategy was taken at the highest levels within the company. In fairness, there is a logic in this regard, in that the automated elements were really very simple and, as long as there was no failure, the system inputs would be so deep in the background of the aircraft’s operating system, as to be unnoticeable. So it was presented as a software ‘tweek’ to make this Max ‘feel’ like its 737-800/900 predecessors, which indeed, was essentially the case.  The problem was, it was not documented in any detail anywhere – not in the Pilots’ Ops. Manual, not in Technical Manuals, nor even in cockpit checklists. The Wall Street Journal advises that early in the subsequent investigation, a Boeing statement was that apparently it was policy “not to overload Pilots with too much information”!  No mention was even made of the two switches labelled ‘auto-stab.’ that turned off the MCAS.

Rory Kennedy’s Downfall documentary includes footage in a simulator showing what happens when the a indication fails. The pendulum effect of the broken a sensor input a high nose-up angle into the FMS computer: such was indicative of a stall. This causes various panel lights to start flashing, the (joy) stick shaker activates, a voice screams “stall, stall !” and the computer brutally shoves the nose down. The flying pilot could see there was nothing wrong so pulled the nose back up manually and the cycle restarts again getting more brutal each time as aircraft speed increases. The non-flying pilot frantically searches through checklists for information – there is none……. leaving the crew trying to understand what heck was going on as they loose control of the aircraft in a cacophony of cockpit noise, no doubt exacerbating things resulting in other mistakes. Such is the stuff of nightmares but, as a reality, there was no waking-up in a cold sweat, just a mercifully short screaming panic and oblivion. Actually all that needed to be done was to close the aforementioned couple of normal looking switches labelled ‘auto-stab’ and the MCAS would have been disconnected and the aircraft flown normally. But not only were these switches not documented, they were also tucked away at the back of the center console and so not readily visible. But this was stated nowhere in the cockpit checklists. In the USA the information had passed by word of mouth between crews, and was likely seen as a teething problem with auto-stabilization in a new aircraft type that would soon be sorted out, with the check-lists amended accordingly at the next update and as such, no big deal. Crews far away overseas were less well advised. Actually, the pilot that few the Lion aircraft the day before the crash, also had an MCAS problem, but with friends in the US, he knew what to do. On arrival in Jakarta, it is understood he entered it in the Technical Logbook. The engineers no doubt ground tested the system which, with the aircraft being horizontal on the ground, of course worked normally. That being the case, they would have entered “tested and assessed serviceable” in that aircraft’s  Technical Logbook (as is the normal procedure). The unfortunate Indian Captain assigned to the aircraft the next day had the same problem but was not so lucky and nor were his 180-odd passengers and crew !  

Conclusion

In the 18 months enforced down time since the accidents, the B737-Max has been virtually completely recertified by the FAA and the MCAS issue in particular is now fully resolved and properly documented, with pilots being properly trained in its use. The pendulum a sensor has now been made duplex. So one may be confident there will be no repeat in global Max operations of this sorry tale.

The same cannot be said for the Boeing company. Their quality management issues in manufacture are still on-going and, after the 10s of billions of lost revenue, fines, law suites and capital expenditure, one cannot imagine where they will find funds to develop a new mid-range aircraft design which they so desperately need to compete with Airbus. So, it is not impossible to image a scenario whereby Boeing chooses to withdraw altogether from commercial aviation and focus on their (larger) military market.

But, notwithstanding one’s harsh review of this recent scandalous history, the author of this piece, where possible, will always choose a Boeing over an Airbus. Why? Because, as stated in the former flight control essay, with the exception of the B-787, Boeing aircraft are flown by Pilots, while the more advanced (Fly-by-Wire) Airbus types are flown by a computer. Before one is sued for the publication of such an opinion, let it be said this is a subjective choice is based on no (accepted) objective evidence and hence, is solely a function of this Auther’s personal lack of digital empathy !

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THOSE WHO DARE, WIN…….. – Part 2

THOSE WHO DARE, WIN…….. – Part 2

As part of the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the ‘90s, the 300 year-old Shepherd Neame Brewery in Kent ran a hilarious themed advertising campaign in support of their proud new “Spitfire” Ale product.

A taste drawn from waters of the Kentish soil over which the WW.2 generation fought the crucial battle for air dominance, the historic Shepherd Neame Brewery has sought to reflect the classic nature of that event.

Combining the bitter orange marmalade taste of Kentish hops offset by sweet biscuit caramel malts and with a peppery dry finish, combines to provide a taste as finely tuned as its iconic namesake.

All of us who appreciate the humour here, as much as the taste, will no doubt be using military pensions to buy this excellent beverage – have one for me………!

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THOSE WHO DARE, WIN – Part 1

THOSE WHO DARE, WIN – Part 1

As part of the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the ‘90s, the 300 year-old Shepherd Neame Brewery in Kent ran a hilarious themed advertising campaign in support of their proud new “Spitfire” Ale product.

During the half-dozen years of the campaign, the most noteworthy victory was over an attempt by the British Tourist board to prevent the advertising campaign in the London underground: it was shot down in flames………..

All of us who appreciate the humour here will no doubt use our pensions to buy this excellent beverage. Young bucks better stick to an insipid lighter lagers which is likely all they can handle!

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A (very) brief history of Shell……

A (very) brief history of Shell……

Shell’s history stretches back to the opening of the Suez Canal. From the start it was convoluted and byzantine and has only been finally ‘normalized’ this year…….

Rigzone News recently reported the restructuring of the Shell Oil Company incorporation. Normally a discrete internal affair, for this byzantine company the correction of a unique and extra-ordinary management structure, dating back more than 150 years, is indeed interesting news.  Until now, Board-level management has been largely duplicated with separate corporate offices in London and Amsterdam – a ridiculous situation dating back to the Company’s very inception. As a pause-for-thought, we will not go into the boring detail of how the end to this duplication has been realised, but instead, we will give you the brief, but fascinating chronicle of how it came to be in the first place, essentially as sourced from a history of the OGP Industry as related in a book, “The Prize”.

Marcus Samuel (Shell’s founder) was born into a Iraqi-Jewish family in Whitechapel, London in the mid-19th Century. The family business was based on the import of shells, jewellery and brick-a-brack from Asia, which were made into pretty boxes and sold at top range stores in town such as Harrods. They owned a single ship which, typically, went out empty and came back full. When Marcus took over from Dad some 150 years ago he, of course, sought to change that. The challenge was to find something that would sell widely in Asia. The solution for the outbound leg was barrels of kerosene with the associated new fangled lamps to replace the less effective whale-oil lights which had been in use for several preceding centuries.  The lamps sold like hot cakes in Asia, so much so that Marcus decided, sod the brick-a-brack, let’s focus on the Kerosene and the lamps. That coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal (1876) – so, he sold the ship and built the world’s first tanker for easier loading (a 5000-tonner – eventually 10 in all). In order not to hurt Dad’s feelings, the ships were all named after shells, as was the company – Shell Transport Co.

Meanwhile in the USA, Standard Oil was dominating the Kerosene market, which monopoly was ultimately trust-busted in 1905 into 5 separate companies now known as Unocal, Chevron, Exxon, Mobile and Amoco. (The family firm of Conoco, as the original developer of the Kerosene product, had managed to keep Standard Oil at bay). Anyway Marcus was pissed-off at the price, so proactively sought out other sources, to which end, he was awarded an Oil concession in East Kalimantan. 

Sir Marcus Samuels Two large Peas……

During this time, he was put in touch with a driller called August Kessler of the Royal Dutch company developing the first kerosene field in Northern Sumatera. He went to see him and they formed a JV with Kessler responsible for upstream and Marcus downstream (a simple enough event now, but one which at the turn of the Century that must have taken the best part of a year……!!). But it was Marcus who funded the drilling in Kalimantan over a number of years and without success. Eventually, his company (Shell Transport) was becoming financially stressed so he directed a final hole somewhere to the north of the village of Balikpapan after which, if no gusher, he would withdraw. It gushed and is still producing to this day……..

 

 

 

Jean Baptiste August Kessler …….two very different Pods

The rest is this sorry history. The two men were totally incompatible. Marcus, an urbanised introvert whose main ambition was to be Mayor of London (which he eventually did) and Kessler an energetic hard-nosed, direct-speaking, extrovert egoist, swatting aside all who got in his way… So it is no surprise that, once the JV investment turned into a financial gusher, the two could not agree on anything.  .

So, in 1907, Marcus set up the downstream in London and Royal Dutch the upstream in Amsterdam and Royal Dutch Shell has since duplicated all senior management until now. The wonder is that shareholders didn’t do something sooner……..

Post Script: some 35 years later, the Shell facility in Balikpapan was the main reason for the Japanese invasion of Malaysia and Indonesia – due to US sanctions, Imperial Japan needed Shell’s oil to support their war effort in China – but that is another history……….

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An Unexpectedly Safe Place

An Unexpectedly Safe Place

It is a pleasing paradox that possibly the least preferred seat on a commercial airliner, is probably the safest one.

 

But to begin with a few general words on seats. Firstly they, along with the interiors of all aircraft, are not made by the OEM but by specialist companies. That said Boeing specify an economy seat that is a couple of centimetres less than Airbus and with a 28” separation (Airbus specify 30”) so as to squeeze in a few more passengers into their slightly smaller airframes. Small difference maybe, but over a three hour flight this can make a big difference. Then there are some interesting technical issues.

  • Firstly on most aircraft, seats are certified to carry 150kg which is surely the 99-percentile man – that he will anyway likely overflow the typical 18” width of an airline economy seat, offers two justifications for airlines’ wishing to charge for two seats under those circumstances.

(Note – in our charter world, it is also worth noting that cargo can thus be secured into seats using the safety harness: a seat cares not if cargo is self-loading with two feet or static and placed there by a third party). 

  • Today seats are stressed to 9’gs (9 x gravitational pull) – it used to be 5’gs. All well and good but at those forces, unless an astronaut or fighter pilot, a Pax. will anyway likely be unconscious !
  • More importantly, in the event of such ‘9g’ crash, if not actually cut in two by the lap strap, folk will suffer such bad organ damage that, in the event of survival of the event itself, an ensuing slower death is assured. A shoulder strap (better two) is a life-saver. Such has always been known but, until now, only airline staff have been thus privileged (and, most recently, First & Business class also).
  • The seats also face in the wrong direction. In the event of a crash, aft facing seats would largely mitigate the above two problems, increasing the chances of survival significantly. Airlines don’t do anything about this principally due to a perception that passengers like to see where they are going. And then there is the cost. Sadly one cannot just turn the seat around – the seat structure is completely different. To do so on a new aircraft type would be easy, but that would highlight this safety issue: for any airline, the thought of then having to retro-fit the rest of a large fleet of in-service older aircraft will assure that this, and shoulder harnesses, will likely never happen – in coach anyway…….!

As indicated above, in airline manufacture, unlike cars, the OEMs do not fit the interiors. This is done by specialist service providers contracted directly by the end-user airlines and to design limitations set, and overseen, by national regulatory authorities.  So, this element, so fundamental to an airline image and passenger satisfaction, actually has little to do with the aircraft OEM. It also represents barely 1% of an airliner’s cost.  Indeed, while on the subject, with respect to airliner cost, OEMs are directly responsible for the manufacture of only about a quarter of the end-product. Having developed and certified a new design (at huge expense) they actually only build the cockpit and hull structures and sometimes the wings and tailplane. The rest is furnished by other specialist service providers and only bolted on, or fitted into, said hull by the aircraft OEM. As such, were an aircraft manufacturer to go bankrupt, the impact on their aircraft end-users is actually little more than an administrative inconvenience.

Another day we will look into how these birds are controlled, but today, let us return to the subject at hand, namely, the safest seat in the event that one of these flying whales goes out of control. In first class one pays for luxury, a premium service and to be the first off the aircraft: but one is also the first to die. The cockpit is manufactured separately to the main hull to which it is bolted. It is a very strong structure with significantly higher stress tolerances than the main hull and into which, in the event of an emergency, most of the crew strap themselves (using said four or five-point seat harnesses).  The rest of the hull is relatively flimsy in comparison. So, in the event of a crash-landing, it is certain that the hull will concertina into the strongly reinforced cockpit unit, thus crushing all those premium flyers at the front.

Business class Pax. are even worse off because, in addition to the crushing element described above, they are located in the vicinity of the wing in which many hundreds of tonnes of flammable aviation fuel is stored. If that wasn’t bad enough, with the wing box being the strongest part of the hull, any very dangerous cargo goods (DG) being transported, are loaded in the cargo area beneath the business class seats – killer viruses, explosive chemicals and even radioactive waste to name but a few of the more delightful possibilities: this is due to the bulk and the weight of the DG packaging needing to be located in the strongest part of an aircraft. ……………..and one pays a significant premium for the privilege?!

The high passenger density in economy, is inevitably an inherent danger in itself. But the biggest single hazard are the overhead baggage bins. Their design specification is to 7kg per pax – need one say more………?  The effect of the almost universal abuse of this baseline criterion is that, in the event of a crash, the locker structures are overwhelmed by the force of the impact and they coming crashing down with great force, mercifully breaking the necks of virtually all beneath.

Only one row of seats remains completely unaffected by this mayhem – the last row. Being located forward of the toilets, with the lockers above usually taken over by the cabin staff and blessed with a general ‘pocky’ seat appearance, makes them less than a ‘des-res’ for the duration of any flight. But consider this. When those overburdened overhead lockers come crashing down, the forces of impact also direct them forwards in the direction of flight. Hence, those in the last row will not be ‘topped’ by the falling overhead bins. Far from the wings, neither will they be burned to death. There is also no cargo space in the tail, so the horror of DG is not an issue. Finally, as the hull concertinas, it whip-lashes and weakens, often causing it to break, typically some three-quarters of the way aft. Hence, those Pax. still alive in the broken tail-plane unit (typically, only those in the last row), will likely be able to simply walk or swim out of the open hull.  A recent example of this was in an Eva Air crash-landing at Los Angeles whereby the tail fin unit broke off, spinning across the airfield. When it came to rest, the four Flight Attendants strapped in their seats in that section (with their 4-point harnesses) simply got out and walked away without even a bruise to show for it.!

The (less) good-old days….. Tail seat on WW-II Bombers with an Elsen toilet
Imperial War Museum Collection

The convenience of close closets
Turkish Airlines Brochure

Back against the wall……..
Daily Mail Newspaper

So, safer though it may be, when should the use this essentially undesirable seat row be considered.? Firstly, for any airline, when there is an expectation of heavy rain, or worse still, heavy snow, at the destination airport. In such circumstances, it is possible that a combination of minor piloting errors, possible gusting cross-winds and/or heavy braking is a quite frequent cause of an aircraft runway excursion into the grass or worse.  In a more general context, the discomforts of the rear row should also be considered when using airlines in developing countries and with all but the largest LCCs (low-cost carriers).

This is a simple function of pilot experience. The cost of operating a given type of airliner is pretty much the same whether operated by an established legacy airline or an LCC – the substantial fuel costs are exactly the same. The savings necessary to reduce ticket costs are thus found mainly in the use of lower capital cost (older) aircraft, reducing administrative overhead and infrastructural elements, maximizing aircraft utilization through reduced turn-round times (with negative maintenance implications) and crew costs (experienced pilots generally seek to work with legacy airlines where pay and perks are better). In terms of general safety, all the above are negatives. Hence, by way of mitigation, subjecting oneself to the minor discomforts of the last row for the couple of hours of a short-haul flight makes good sense. And there are positives. LCCs generally forgo the use of flying bridges resulting in the back row passengers being among the first off the aircraft and onto the bus using the rear doors. Further to that, the back rows of economy, along with the front rows, are also generally the first to be served. Finally one is near to the location where flight attendants are typically hiding when ignoring the passenger staff call button, making them more responsive to a good-old analogue shout which is more difficult for them to ignore !

In short, notwithstanding all the negatives highlighted above, the chances of a flight accident are minimal. Travel on roads is significantly more dangerous. But, for any given flight, should the safety negatives increase, just as in the work-place, mitigating the associated risks is simple common sense.  

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Flight Automation – what you really don’t want to know

Flight Automation – what you really don’t want to know

As this technology advances and nominally improves, even where man remains  ‘in-the-loop’, he is less and less “in control”.

It’s no good winging about it.  In all forms of transportation, natural intelligence (manual skills) will soon be ‘out’ and artificial intelligence (nerdie skills) with full automation will be ‘in’. There is no question of ‘if’ – just when (the Author’s guess, in 10-15 years). How often in a day does one feel frustration and stress at the failure of digital systems that impact our lives? Now lift them 15 km into the air and the impact is exponentially greater. This is an opinionated review on the need for concern in this regard (Note – the views are personal to the author alone).

Actually, in aviation (and astronautics) automation is a very mature technology. The author first flew in a fully automated helicopter some 50 years ago. Space ships have always been almost fully automated – Yuri Gagarin in the Sputnik in 1959, did not have any controls to touch !  In a general context there are three levels of automation.

The simplest are Pilot-Assist technologies, otherwise referred to as auto-pilots. All commercial aircraft have this aid. It has been around for longer than the biblical three score years and ten. The automation is limited to the maintenance of height, heading and speed, and more recently, aircraft attitude. In addition, the engine responses to Pilot power demands are now also fully automated. But, on airliners (sic Fixed Wing) thus fitted, using hydraulic assisted controls (power steering if you will) the pilot remains in full control of the aircraft and can over-ride the automated elements at the flick of a switch and fly it manually. For Helicopters (sic Rotary Wing), the same is essentially true but limited to the aircraft’s guidance – it’s stabilization (whereby any control movement in one dimension impacts control in the other two) is a more complicated issue as discussed in the previous feature under the heading of ‘Safe but not Sure’. This latter can be switched-off but few of the current generation of pilots have flown unstabilized aircraft and would find themselves juggling to maintain level flight, so it is generally left on. (The author’s generation learned their trade on unassisted aircraft and so instinctively had to develop the necessary coordination and so have no problem in this regard).

Cockpit automation – ‘archaic’ Computer Assisted vs. cutting-edge Computer Controlled

Cockpit automation – ‘archaic’ Computer Assisted vs. cutting-edge Computer Controlled

Then there are automatic flight control systems (afcs) with man-in-loop. These aircraft are flown by computers with pilot inputs. There are separate programs for take-off, climb, cruise, descent and landing – in truth to fly from A to B, highly paid pilots need do nothing more than enter a flash-drive with the flight plan into a computer port in the cockpit and select the 5 buttons that run these programs. All these aircraft use Fly-by-Wire (FBW) control input technologies – and here is the scary part. The so-called ‘joy-stick’ that pilots have traditionally used to fly aircraft, is replaced in FBW aircraft with a dinky side-arm controller (see right-hand photo). This is actually not a control at all – it is a computer mouse. As such, any control movement (say to turn left or right) is no more than a mouse telling the computer what the pilot wants the aircraft to do. Unlike with the above hydraulic control systems, he has no direct access to the control surfaces. Indeed, neither does the aircraft computer. It just sends a digital signal to an analogue sub-system at each control surface which then drives an electric motor to move it as required. So, a pilot may be ‘in-the-loop’ but he is not ‘in control’ and can do no more than monitor the computer performance.  Were it to fail, there is nothing he can do except to scream “Mayday, Mayday” on the radio and into the aircraft intercom to “brace-brace-brace”!  He cannot switch off the afcs and fly it himself (as in the above autopilot) because he has no access to the control surfaces.  (Incidentally, as an amusing digression, why scream “Mayday”?  It’s those frogs again who just will not accept that international speak is now in English. In the 1920s when aviation was maturing, the language of international diplomacy was still French. It took the late arrival of the Yanks in two World Wars, for it to be changed to English, so that they would better understand what was going on…..! But with international civil aviation being based in Montreal (a francophone town) that linguistic aberration lingered on: hence m’aidez, m’aidez – help me!!  (Zat accen has always been a challenge for we anglophones…………).

The one exception to this is the modern airship (known as Hybrid Air Vehicles – HAVs) which, using a combination of gas-lift and aerodynamic lift, are very large (some 100m in length and almost 20 stories in height). They also use the same afcs principal except using fibre-optics (fly-by-light – FBL) instead of electrical wiring (FBW). Essentially they are very similar but FBL allows some 10 times the data rate. Because of its huge size, in the HAV there is the space (and lift) to put in a duplicate system allowing the pilot mouse (side-arm controller) to directly access the analogue actuator and messily get the gargantuan balloon back to base in the event of complete afcs computer failure.  Airliners instead have duplex critical sub-systems, triplex safety-critical systems and five computers. It is thus very unlikely to go wrong, but that is not to say it ‘never’ fails.  It has so on several, but not frequent, occasions and each time everyone died. However with a frequency of such event being very small (less than the regulatory standard of 0.002%), it is correctly perceived as an acceptable hazard – after all, every day folk use their cars where there is almost a 0.1% chance of a major incident.

Nonetheless, the thought that the so-called man-in-loop cannot actually assume direct control when computers cease to properly compute, is scary. A nice anecdote demonstrates this lack of pilot  control. In a demonstration to client airlines of a new type of FBW airliner by a senior test pilot (ie a guy with vast experience), he decided to end the demo with a very low, high speed pass (as one does on such occasions). It was impressive not least because he over-cooked it and realised he was going to have a problem clearing the trees at the airport perimeter. So he slammed the power controls fully forward and heaved up the nose – except the aircraft responded with neither. His dinky side-arm controller could only tell the computer what he was seeking to do to not hit the trees at the end of the runway but the computer (which could not see the looming disaster) knew better. Realising that to fulfil the (Chief) pilot’s demand would overstress (and damage) the engine and airframe, the compute opted instead to increase engine power and use control movements that would stress neither. The result was that the aircraft clipped the tree-tops, filling the engines with scrub (thus writing them off) and seriously damaging leading edges of the wings to say nothing of the hull the paintwork. Fortunately the only casualty was a bruised pilot ego and a few millions of dollars of repairs (which the subsequent sale of many aircraft to the very impressed client airlines, fully compensated!!).

From this it can be seen that the next step to fully automated passenger aircraft with no man-in-loop (ie unmanned aircraft) technically speaking, is incremental – the main issue preventing this change is not one of technologies but simply a matter of perception. Even if pilots can do very little to control an FBW aircraft, not having one (indeed two) up-front would not be good for ticket sales. In the military, the remote piloting of long range killer drones all over the world controlled from a hangar in California is now well established. Airliners may eventually follow, ultimately with a single pilot sitting at an airline HQ, from where he could control multiple aircraft. After all, in the cruise, automated vigilance will suffice – only for brief periods at take-off and landing will dedicated pilot surveillance be required. What will he do if something goes badly awry? Probably exactly the same as those today in any FBW aircraft cockpit – issue a mayday and politely invite the unfortunate passengers to brace themselves for the final curtain – then, no doubt, go to a bar to console himself.!

The driving force for this change will be the new generation of E-Vtol Tupperware, so-called, air taxis (in the AMS view a technology bubble which will burst in a year or two and about which we will also write soon). Notwithstanding their small size and limited Pax. payloads, their automated flight profiles are similar to any airliner, but in a much more challenging flight environment. Bubble or not, these platforms will be required to achieve the same level of certification as a 400-seat airliner (called ‘Transport Category’).  Once they have done this, the door will be opened to the full automation of the airliners themselves. Hence our guess that such is not more than some 15 years away……

Space ships have almost always been thus full automated – although the Apollo-series of moon landing fame maintained a man-in-loop capability (which was lucky as, on the big day in 1966, it soon became apparent that NASA has got it wrong and Neil Armstrong had to land the Eagle module manually, which he miraculously did with just some 10 seconds of available fuel remaining !!). Today we watch in awe as space ships do increasingly amazing things both in earth orbit and to the very edges of the solar system. But the fact is that, being subject only to the simple principals of Newtonian laws of motion established some 400 years ago, space ships are far easier to control than aircraft operating in the unpredictable atmospheric conditions on Planet earth. In space, there are just two main forces – one generated by man-made power plants and the other gravitational pull. These can be calculated to the micro-Newton and never change thus making precision control, almost literally, childs’ play.  (Helicopters, as you may have seen in the last dissertation, are anything but……!).

Conclusion – based on media prognostication, full automation is typically presented as a futuristic projection, but in aviation (rather than the automotive milieu) it has effectively been there for a generation or more.  The technologies are fully understood as is the reliability of computers – we each have our own experience in that regard !!  But, as stated in earlier essays, notwithstanding all the negatives highlighted above, the chances of a flight accident are minimal. Travel on roads is significantly more dangerous. So take a deep breath, double your beverage of choice and sit back, (try to) relax and enjoy your automated flight………!!

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