This article is based on a detailed investigation by the Panorama program of the BBC, carried out by Richard Bilton, of the crashes of Boeing 737 MAX planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a total of 330 people. In both cases the same scenario occurred, namely the nose of the plane repeatedly pointed downwards, forcing the pilots to try to pull up in order to regain control. However, in both cases they were unable to do so and the plane crashed into the ground soon after takeoff killing everyone aboard. Neither plane was old or had any apparent defect. So what caused the crashes?
Unknown to most pilots and not included in the plane’s several hundred page manual, the planes were equipped with a new supposedly safety system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that is a feature of the Boeing 737 MAX computer flight control system that attempts to provide automatic pitch control of the plane. In other words, if the plane is rising too fast the MCAS is supposed to level it off. But, in fact the system, which was not thoroughly tested before deployment, tends to pitch the plane downwards when it is in level flight. Thus after takeoff in both cases, the planes’s pitch oscillated dangerously leading to the crash.
The official Boeing response to the crashes was that it was a series of events with no one single cause. This is not what the investigations carried out so far reveal. In other words, the MCAS system is considered the direct cause and the fact that the pilots of the MAX had little or no idea what was happening and what MCAS was doing resulted in catastrophe because they were unable to deal with the repeated violent downward tilt of the plane.
The question is not only how Boeing could allow such a potentially dangerous system to be installed on their planes that takes over from the pilots with almost no warning, but how the FAA, the US Federal Aviation Administration, could have approved these planes as airworthy, and why Boeing, knowing they had installed this system, did not immediately ground the MAX fleet after the first Indonesian crash, thus condemning a further 149 passengers to death? These issues will be fought out in court, and several criminal and civil cases are pending. All I can say is it is a shock to all of us who fly and assume that our safety is given first priority. The outcome for Boeing is that their whole MAX fleet is now grounded and they are in a very difficult financial situation. The moral is safety first and always!