Aircraft Accidents and Getting It Wrong

When I was young, I had a Long Island Newsday route, flinging papers from the basket attached to the front of my blue Schwinn Sting Ray bicycle’s handlebars. Folding the papers, I usually read the headlines, perhaps a few paragraphs, to see what was going on. In those days, the newspaper’s first pages were just that: news. Reporters did not write opinion, speculation or political views. They wrote news.

The amazing thing about this decade is we read everything but news. Political parties have the integrity of a reality show, e.g. Jersey Shore or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, to name a few. ‘News’ anchors – not opinion talk show hosts – lay naked their political leanings. Gone are the days of Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite. Today, the ‘News’ doesn’t deal in facts, at least none that aren’t part of the dialog at the time.

On October 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610, a B737MAX, crashed into the Java Sea. On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, a B737MAX, crashed on land shortly after takeoff. Both flights appeared to suffer from similar events – not identical – but similar. One thing I learned as an aircraft mechanic was that: until facts are learned from troubleshooting, coincidences sometimes are just that: coincidences.

The 737MAX accident similarities, 132 days apart, were too much for the media to ignore; they guessed away, especially when pointing fingers at Boeing and FAA Certification. Speculation flew from ‘experts’ and anyone who had an opinion, based on nothing but hearsay and personal grandstanding; the most vocal were those whose technical knowledge of the Boeing 737MAX – indeed, of any airliner – was nil. The guesswork came mostly from those who, in addition to not knowing the aircraft, had never worked for an airline; people who could not understand the hazards that working on a ramp presented.

There were those few on social media who said, “Let’s not speculate. Let the industry learn from facts, not what the barbershop-version of expertise think happened.” They were called arrogant, disrespectful, full of themselves. One ‘expert’ said, “Speculation was every aviation enthusiast’s right.” Incredible.

That was until April 10, 2019, when Aviation Daily, in an article titled: Ethiopian Crash Data Analysis Points to Vane Detachment. Meanwhile, the investigation, despite this early revelation by an investigator involved in the investigation, still moves forward. But what a show-stopper!

The Aviation Daily article stated, “This, says one source, is a clear indication that the AOA’s [angle of attack] external vane was sheared off – most likely by a bird impact.” What does this mean? The AOA departed the aircraft BEFORE the accident. An important sensor that senses the aircraft’s attitude, was lost and possibly caused the accident … sort of like Air France 447, where the aircraft received conflicting airspeeds from sensors before the crash. The source stated that a bird struck the left-hand (L/H) AOA vane. The odds of Lion Air 610 suffering the same event are astronomical: a bird strike that took out either AOA, then upset the B737’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

However, the damage was done. Speculators caused irreversible damage to the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Airlines accident pilots, Boeing, the FAA Certification group, and anyone who fell under the speculation target. Even people, self-pronounced ‘experts’ in other industries were slandering Boeing or the FAA, based on hearsay and not on factual information.

I get it, accident investigations are frustrating; patience is not easily tolerated. Investigations are tedious. I’ve dug through boxes of decades-old maintenance records, an aircraft’s lifetime, looking for the silver bullet. I have interviewed countless mechanics, trying to find the General Maintenance Manual error that sparked a lapse in procedure. I observed many hours of maintenance checks and phase maintenance simulations to find why a work card led to a mistake. But I never ignored facts and rushed to conclusions … no, no, no. Why? Because it destroys hard-earned reputations. Jumping the gun wrecks innocent people’s lives. Posturing for the cameras detracts from the integrity of the accident investigation, can even divert attention away from the root cause, which can put us all in danger.

But the most important reason: Feeding unfounded theories to the accident victims’ grieving families is cruel and so very selfish. ‘Experts’ may excuse the practice as “helping the families find closure” … that is, until the ‘experts’ are, often enough, wrong. They only munch a slice of crow, lay low for a while before landing another News ‘expert’ gig. But the accident victims’ grieving families get to live the heartbreak over and over and over again; directing their rage, often at the wrong party.

How does diverting attention put us all in danger? Remember Atlas 3591? An Atlas B767 aircraft, flight 3591 crashed on February 23, 2019, outside of Houston. For the fifteen days before Ethiopian Airlines 302, Atlas 3591’s mysterious plunge occupied the news. But then the second 737MAX accident shoved Atlas Air 3591 to the background, even though B767s, filled with passengers, fill the sky today. Has the industry followed the latest from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) updates?

Remember American Airlines flight 191? The authorities originally focused on the DC10, instead of on American Airlines’ unapproved maintenance procedures. How long did it take for the NTSB to check if American was using similar procedures on their other airliners, e.g. B747? That’s distraction.

What does working on a ramp (as mentioned in paragraph four) have to do with anything? The L/H AOA sensor is located one foot behind the radome, on a level with the pilot’s feet. Since a damaged AOA sensor causing the accident has a high probability, could a bird knock it out? That’s a low probability – even infinitesimally improbable that it happened on both 737MAXs. Bird impacts have played into many accidents, but ramp activity is more likely. Equipment movement, e.g. ground power units, air conditioning units, air carts, air stairs, catering trucks, even baggage carts, can be hazards around aircraft, especially where time-sensitive turn-arounds occur.

But wouldn’t anyone who damages an aircraft be quick to report the incident? In earlier years, airlines in the US were quick to fire anyone who damaged an airliner, that is, until management discovered that people would damage the plane and then not report it. So no, they might not report it.

In 2010, a belt loader punched a hole in a US-based regional aircraft, compromising the pressure vessel. The plane, full of passengers, took off, but could not pressurize in flight. The plane landed safely, but it should never have taken off with the damage it incurred. For decades ramp activity has caused millions of dollars in damage, lost flights and affected the safety of flying aircraft. Improper equipment movement has damaged wing leading edges, static ports, engine cowls, cargo door thresholds and entry doors. Is it possible that an AOA vane could get damaged in this way? It is very possible, more so than a bird strike. It certainly deserves attention and fact-finding.

The Ethiopian authorities have not finalized their report; the L/H AOA sensor’s departure is still a serious working theory. However, if it proves out, the Speculators have done a great disservice to the industry; they have distracted from the root causes, caused unnecessary harm and wasted everyone’s time. Journalists may someday regain their integrity … maybe. But as for speculators, we are stuck with their useless opinions that aren’t worth the paper they should not be printed on. �](>

5 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Getting It Wrong”

  1. Right on the money sir. I have had dozens of conversation 1 on 1 with friends etc. About the “max issue”. I always o my discuss what are known facts and how the system works. Many times I have stated, “it’s too soon on the Ethiopian crash to tell”. Some of the “experts” are better than others. But you are spot on.

    1. Thanks Gary. I am hoping we get to a point in our industry of ‘facts-first, hypothesize-later’ but I am sorry to say, we have a long road to go. But we will get there.

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