Watching a couple of videos of air crashes, of wailing passengers on flight, their criesso loud andun-bearable and the heat of the visible fire burnt my own soul, I asked myself has for the passenger on board the ill-fated aircraft the ‘Pralay’ (literally means the dooms day) has come ahead of us while we on the ground are waiting for the ‘MahaPralay’.
Our scriptures did warn us through various stories full of ethics and high morals; but the competition is pushing the developers to put all those ethical values on shelf and go ahead with the launch of products that eventually turn out to be unsafe for the mankind. They claim to save the cost but at what cost? Nobody seems to have an answer.
In this digital age of simulation, artificial intelligence, robotics, automation etc.,the developers believe they can foreseethe future and its attendant ills. But when it comes to communicating the same to the consumers, they generally sulk showing only its glossy aspect, conveniently hiding the risks involved.
Coming back to my concern over the aviation disasters, the two deadliest air crashes occurred in the recent pastperturbed me the most. As someone who worked in the civil aviation for over three decades I have built a thesis that air is the safest mode of transport, the non-sinkable Titanic can sink but an aircraft cannot stall.I my self have built aero models and flown them with full passion and never had an iota of doubt thatitwill crash,I was so confident of its design which is meant to fly. However, once we alter with the basic principles of natural flight and try to counter the nature with dangerous automation we shall be prepared for the consequence.
The basic principle of flight is the equilibrium of four forces i.e. Lift & Weight and Thrust & Drag. How long the aircraft is flown by hand,the super computer i.e. human brain maneuvers its power; on the other hand the basic principle of keyboard based computers that are used in the automation is that they work on the principle of Garbage in Garbage Out.Thus, when we are employing automation in sensitive places it is our duty to ensure that GIGO is kept at bay.People have started feeling that automation and robotics-based systems can be highly dangerous to the society at large.Are we losing faith in our own creations, which is just due to cheap competition?
We, all the time, advise parents against giving children toys made of cheap plastic.Why then should we use equipment made of cheap material and technologyin aviation throwing the safety norms to the wind. Cost saving is alright, but cost cutting at the cost of human livesdefies all logic.Today it is a matter of 346 human lives lost to two of the worst air crashes.If the loopholes are not plugged now, we shall be in for the Dooms Day (the Pralay) that the ancient scriptures have warned about.
Accidents in aviation are bound to instill fear in the minds of air travellers.I remember filing rejoinders on slightest misreporting on sensitive aviation subjects just to ensure that the status of aviation –100% safe – remains intact.The two recent accidents ET302 and JT610 have generated a ripple effect of fear across the globe.
Learning from incidents and accidents has been human nature and as such we must put a benchmark on commercialisation of technology on cost cutting particularly in areas where human lives are involved. In the instant case, what went wrong will come out from analysis of the Black Boxes. Black Box has been recovered for both the flights and it contains the record of communication in the cockpit and the data processed by the computers during the fatal flights.
While it takes time to analyse the data and bring out the reports in public domain speculations start taking precedence over the facts. Till the time reports are prepared and made public let’s look at the basic principles and the technology deployed on board for these aircraft. At this stage, we need not form any opinion about companies or individuals as the facts are yet to come in public domain.
Since the time Airbus introduced the Fly by Wire technology in its AB320 Neo; Boeing was feeling envy and might be in a haste to introduce the similar concepts in its design?In that rat race did the company jumped the basic milestones? Yes, it is a big question mark. Even the people in the United States have started looking at the FAA Certification Process with some suspicion.
Airbus has multiple modes of automation in its aircraft termed as normal, alternate and direct which enables the pilot to takeover the controls depending on the situation in the cockpit or to avoid any kind of conflicts between the computers and himself.Smart machines, under full automation mode do ignore the human inputs. It has been done to control and manage human error.Is that dangerous or generation gap is another debatable issue.
Was such a system absent in the Boeing, 371 737 MAX aircraft? It is being said that circulars educating on the availability of a Switch to switch off the MCAS was issued after the first crash and a brief i-Pad based training was also given; if that is true then the question arises was this included in the Flight Training Manuals or Not?
It is being said in public domain that the new software functionis not elaborated enough in the manual as the same would have required additional pilot training and other formalities prior to launch of the new aircraft.Wright brothers had invented the aircraft by flying it from the ground, suffering falls and hurting themselvesbut modern day inventor’s resort to Keyboard analytics without sufficiently testing it on the ground. There shall be a ratio between the two types of tests and major share shall be that of the ‘on ground trials’ not the Keyboard acts.
Was this the overconfidence of the company or another cost cutting act that nearly 50 years old design was accepted for mounting the entirely new breed of engines that necessitate fresh analysis of aerodynamics its testing and certification etc. In the modern age of computers even for introducing new petty motorcycle or car companies are going for detailed designing, testing and certification. In the instant case the new large engines were mounted on the fuselage at a place just to avoid it’s touching with the ground as we do in some static aero-models!The slightest alteration in the outer envelope of the aircraft has impact on the aerodynamic that may necessitate redesigning the entire envelope, wing and the profile of the engine etc. otherwise it is bound to stall!These basics are taught even to the hobbyists into aero-modeling then what to say about the company as big as Boeing. Yes I agree, they deployed the intelligent computer software to handle and manage the stall and gave a good name to it too i.e. MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System).Under MCAS, the sensors have the capability to align the flight with airstream in case of any potential stalling, on board computers automatically move the stabilizers to bring the aircraft nose in befitting position thereby controlling the nose-down while the speed is being increased during take off computers are to ensure no-stalling.
Federal Database has an excellent mechanism to file and report incidents without divulging the identity. Anonymous reporting has been made in this case too by pilots; shouting in the cockpit “Don’t Sink, Don’t Sink” has been reported. Boeing has the best expertise if not the perfect for making safe aircraft. These two accidents within a short span of time of less then six months of a particular type of aircraft has put a question mark on the minds of all concerned. In the aircraft certification process FAA grants certification based upon the testing reports of examiners and inspectors those are hired from private pool as the knowledge about new technology is not available inside with the certifying agency. Post accident the refusal to fly the aircraft by the majority of the airline (more than 40 in number), countries including UK, Germany, France, India etc. and banning of usage of the airspace by the European Union did mount pressure on FAA and Boeing to consider banning the flying of these aircraft. U.S.Joined other countries in grounding these airplanes and the ban was made public by the US President himself. All this made Boeing to issue advisory for grounding the fleet.
Aviation is highly competitive business. Profits are soaring. I have personally seen airlines cribbing for petty operating costs as low as 3% to 4% of their total costs. Further, cutting costs on fuel is getting more challenging. In the instant case the new engines are supposed to deliver efficiency as high as 14%+. Is competition-killing people, iscompetition-killing airlines. World over, over a period of time, numerous airlines have shut down. In India too we are loosing an airline a year over the past two decades. Question is shall we continue with bringing down airfares, running loss-making airlines even if they are not safe and killing people. Who will decide, who will govern this and who will educate people that for safe travel airlines have to be paid the basic cost of operations?
People often ask what is the huge deal? Why there is hesitation to ground the fleet when we know it is not safe? Is there any commercial angle in not grounding the fleet? I have not gone through the MOUs signed by the airlines with the Boeing for purchase of these aircraft but I am sure there must be a compensatory clause in the eventuality the fleet is grounded for some technical or otherwise reasons. Experts have already valued the financial losses involved in this case amounting to the tune of 5 billion US dollars and a bid dent on the image of the company.
Was such a ‘Deal With the Devil’ or ‘Compromise With the Technology’ necessary? We need to come out with the truth and that will take time and will require courage. Conversation starters are an important link in building a hope for the future. They are the first milestones in that journey I hope one day we will find the truth and flyers will have safe flight beyond any doubts.
Black box is not black
Black Box is, in fact, of fluorescent orange colour so that it can be easily located from the wreckage at the accident site.Further, Black Box is a set of two boxes, one to record the conversations in the cockpit and another to record the data used and generated by the numerous sensors and gadgets put on the aircraft.
Two flights, one fate
There were striking similarities between the air crashes of the Boeing, 371 737 MAX aircraft i.e. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610.Both aircraft crashed within few minutes after takeoff.Both ill-fated flights were victim of rapid climb and had irregular and erratic ascend and descent while climbing.Both had flight control problems and unreliable aids and were new aircraft.
- Ensure that only well trained and experienced pilots with request hours of flying shall be in cockpit during the launch phase.
- Certification agencies shall have their own pool of experts rather than relying on the knowledge of only those who introduce the new facility.
- Change in generic design and principles shall fall in the category of fresh scrutiny.
- Watchful eye on incident reporting even if it is anonymous.
From the first aircraft developed by the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur) till the development of modern aircraft of today the basic requirements of flying have remained that same.These basic requirements are met with various permutations and combinations of the key forces working on the aircraft, depending upon the amount of compromise required to keep the flight in the air and moving it in the right direction.
The combination of forces i.e. Lift & Weight and Thrust & Drag with necessary controls enables the aircraft to fly in the space and these are met with five key enabling components of the aircraft i.e. wings, fuselage, tail, engines and controls. Designing of aircraft takes place with placement of wings with the fuselage either at top, bottom close to middle in different formations such as straight, perpendicular, angled backward, upward, downward or even straight.
The final design of an aircraft is a combination of control mechanism of all the fours forces being applied on the aircraft under different combinations and comprises. In the latest version of the Boeing aircraft released under the series, 371 737 MAX aircraft an innovative technique titled “MCAS” has been deployed. The MCAS stands for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. What this does and how it control the aircraft Stall; for that we need to look at two more flying principles i.e. ‘Angle of Attack’ and ‘Stall’.
Let’s first understandwhat is Stall? Majority of us have made and flown paper planes in childhood and must have observed that when we throw the paper aero plane in the air with a forward thrust it flies upward and then make few wave type movements and falls; this falling happens when aircraft stops flying and is termed as Stall. Coming to ‘Angle of Attack’; it is an angle between the Chord of the wing and the Relative Air Flow (RAF) and as we increase this angle the nose of the aircraft gets lifted up. Initially the angle of attack is low and high angle of attach produce more lift but it has limited capability and there is a critical angle of attack and beyond that there is no lift in the aircraft nose rather it Stalls.
The author is former general manager at Airport Authority of India and an expert
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The opinion expressed in the article is of the writer. Writer is a freelance journalist/journalist based in Delhi