Negroni Repartee to Langewiesche about the Max 8 Mess

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This Journal is intended as a place for ideas about aviation safety to be posted and commented. Last week a provocative article from The New York Times Magazine by William Langewiesche appeared here. His extensive research and analysis drew a lot of interest.

Ms. Negroni disagreed with the NYTM assessment. She is a highly respected aviation writer published in many first line newspapers and magazines (The New York Times, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Air & Space Magazine, and the Chicago Tribune), author of several books and frequent contributor to TV and radio broadcasts. The Journal has cited her opinions in the past.

Below is her piece copied verbatim.

As always, thoughtful commentary is encouraged. Ad Hominems are not.


Irony of Pilot Laying Blame On Pilots in Boeing 737 Max Disasters

FLYING LESSONS BLOG

By Christine Negroni

Full disclosure, I own and have read nearly every book ever written by William Langewiesche. He is a gifted writer with a stunning intellect and this is just an aside, he’s quite the looker. I have interviewed him twice but with his latest article in The New York Times Magazine, I think my crush is over.

In a lengthy piece just published, Langewiesche weaves the known facts of the two 737 Max disasters into a jumble of opinion, pilot-bashing and Western superiority.

Ostensibly, he is informing Times readers that not all pilots are Chuck Yeager and to justify the headline of the article, when it comes to What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max,  “an industry that puts unprepared pilots in the cockpit is just as guilty,” as Boeing is the conclusion.

 

Explaining how the U.S. Navy trains fighter pilots, Langewiesche says, “The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on.” It’s a far different protocol for the folks flying us on our vacations and business trips. These pilots who Langewiesche writes, “never fly solo and whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers” are unlikely to develop true airmanship no matter the length of their careers unless they make extraordinary efforts. “The worst of them are intimidated by their airplanes and remain so until they retire or die.”

That’s quite an indictment of an industry with a safety record that is the envy of all other modes of transportation.

In Langeweishe’s telling, that deficit is most keenly felt in countries where aviation is booming and governments are prone to a light regulatory touch because of the influence of the airlines on the national economy. Suggesting Indonesia and Ethiopia turned a blind eye to inadequate training of its airlines’ pilots and that was the cause of the crashes seems to overlook the point that Congressional hearings were convened to discuss how the FAA passed it’s certification responsibilities off to Boeing.

 

Even so, the argument that more competent pilots could have handled the problem is not knowable to Langewiesche and it misses the most basic tenet of air safety anyway. Accident investigations aren’t about blame. There’s no single cause. Investigators are looking for what only so they can get to why.

In the Max disasters, what put the pilots in the position that they were the last link in the chain to catastrophe? What was the effect on the pilots of a repeated, escalating runaway trim triggered by a software add-on about which they were deliberately kept unaware? Investigators must also find out why designers and engineers and maybe managers at Boeing and at the FAA made the decisions and took the actions they did.

Langewiesche’s readers may be learning for the first time that half of all pilots graduate at the bottom half of their class, but trust me, pilot error, human error is no secret to the industry. It has been studied literally to death.

 

Airbus, a company about which Langeweische has written in his book Fly By Wire The Geese, The Glide and The Miracle on the Hudson (sparking a similar controversy) and Boeing take different tacts in dealing with the role of the fallible human.  Langewiesche touches on this as he explains that the Airbus solution, the increasingly automated cockpit has contributed to a decline in piloting skills, which is not, by the way, limited to third world pilots.

But the role of aircraft designers and the decisions they make and how those decisions play out when the planes enter airline service all of which are critical issues, are not ignored by the manufacturers. They are part of design decisions. If they miss something or are found lacking, that’s got to be part of the investigation too.

Langewiesche argues that the media has zeroed in on Boeing because it’s simple and easy and obscured the larger forces that “ultimately made these accidents possible.” But out of 14-thousand words, few are dedicated to systems and processes that put a deeply flawed airplane in the hands of pilots around the world. Nor does he talk to any of the pilots who would fly the Max or regulators around the world who must sign off on its future airworthiness.

Langeweishe is a pilot, a storm chaser, and a writer. But the assumptions he makes in this article and similar pilot-bashing treatise a few months ago in The Atlantic where concludes on the thinnest of threads that Malaysia 370 was intentionally flown into the Indian Ocean by the captain indicate he’s out of his area of expertise when it comes to reporting on safety investigations.

He characterizes the pilots’ actions as incompetent, sloppy and dumb, and says investigators are looking for cause and blame. In the world of air safety, those words are never used because they have no relationship to the goal; discovering what happened and why.

For a more nuanced look at the issues, see the excellent coverage by Dominick Gates and others at the Seattle Times along with the reporters covering the story in the business pages of The New York Times, Natalie Kitroff, and David Gelles . If those writers are in possession of pilot’s licenses, they are at least unburdened by the need to convince the world they were in the top fifty percent of their class and not among the inferiors who brought down the Max.

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I am a journalist, a published author, speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.

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2 Comments on "Negroni Repartee to Langewiesche about the Max 8 Mess"

  1. I am a retired airline pilot, Typed Rated on B727, 737, 747-400, 757/767, DC9/MD80.
    As usual, Ms Negroni shows she knows nothing about aviation.
    On the other hand, Mr Langewiesche wrote an excellent article on the 737 Max.
    His article has been circulated around my pilot friends network. Everyone thinks Mr Langewiesche’s article was spot-one.
    Just how much experience does Ms Negroni have on any Boeing acft?
    Runaway-Trim is Runaway-Trim. Doesn’t matter if it caused by software problem or mechanical failure. You don’t have to know the nuts and bolts of the MCAS system to cure the problem.

  2. I see nothing “ironic” about one pilot critiquing another pilot. That is done all the time in properly constructed training curriculums and in simulator and ground school sessions. If that necessary skill shifts from a training session to accident investigation and/or analysis, why should it be viewed as improper, ironic or unfair, if the one doing the critiquing is basing his/her opinions upon established facts?

    Should any NTSB investigation (or equivalent in other ICAO Standards Countries) pull its punches on the ground that the pilots should not be criticized because they are “minority” pilots in non-Europen cultures? I cannot believe you would condone that, Christine, yet that seems to be what your title implies.

    The FACTS are:

    — The pilots on both accident flights FAILED to properly carry out the runaway stabilizer EMERGENCY procedure, which did contain initial MANDATORY MEMORY items. Those failures proved incompetence (not properly trained or unable to function during an actual emergency situation — maybe a combination of both).

    — If they had properly followed that runaway stabilizer EMERGENCY procedure, neither plane would have crashed.

    — In the Lion Air crash, the left stick shaker activated at rotation and continued until the crash. Yet the Capt allowed the flaps to be retracted! No properly trained pilot with sufficient “stick & rudder” skills would do something as foolish as that. If he had left the flaps deployed and returned to land ASAP, then MCAS would never have been an issue on that flight, which WOULD HAVE landed safely.

    — In the Ethiopian crash, they never disconnected the auto-throttles and thus allowed the plane to exceed VMO speed, which greatly exacerbated their predicament. If the auto-throttles had been turned off and if they trimmed the HS to the proper pitch trim AND THEN immediately turned off the two pedestal power switches, that plane would not have crashed either.

    In short, the pilots in both accidents demonstrated they were thoroughly incompetent — obviously not properly trained. They crashed because they failed to carry out the proper emergency procedures AND to fly the planes in a proper “stick and rudder skills” manner, after the automatic controls failed to keep the plane within a safe flight envelope.

    Any proper accident investigation process should state facts like that, once they have been revealed by the existing evidence sources. There is nothing wrong, improper or “ironic” in revealing pilot incompetence, as well as improper and deficient training of both pilots and mechanics, if that is what the investigators find.

    Doing so does NOT mitigate Boeing’s liability for failing to notify pilots about the MCAS system, nor for writing dangerous algorithmic software, especially when it gave MCAS the authority to trim the HS to the FULL NOSE DOWN position. That unjustified trim authority for MCAS, GUARANTEED the plane would dive into the ground at high speed. That is why I have labeled that position of the HS, as the “suicide mode.”

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