It is one of the safest times to fly right now. Air crashes are incredibly rare. The safety record is based on decades of work creating better airplanes, more responsible electronic systems and even changing how pilots behave in the cockpit. However, the new Boeing 737 Max has suffered two devastating crashes back to back. The first was the Lion Air crash in Indonesia and the second was the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March. Both planes suffered from bad software called MCAS that canceled out the
What is MCAS?
MCAS is the stall correction software that keeps the plane from climbing too quickly resulting in a stall. A stall happens when there is not enough airflow over the wings to maintain flight. The need for this software comes from an interesting quirk in the new design. The 737 is the worlds most popular airplane. It is the workhorse of many fleets. It has a good range, good fuel economy, and carries enough passengers to make airlines quite a bit of money. They are inexpensive to maintain, as well as, keeping costs low. However, with this new design, the airplane fuselage is longer and the engines are put farther forward. During testing, it was discovered that it was surprisingly easy to make the plane stall. The solution? Software added to the autopilot to prevent this.
The solution was ingenious, however, Boeing did not want the airplane to have to go through the many-year process of being certified as a new model so they carefully stepped around FAA regulations for this variant to avoid having to put pilots through training and other measures that are normal for an entirely new aircraft. Boeing did recommend the training to different airlines and in the case of Lion Air, the pilots had not completed all the training and had limited hours on the aircraft. In both cases, the pilots should have simply disabled the MCAS with a simple button but in the case of both airlines, the pilots were unaware of the new system and were frantically trying to fight against the software.
Two crashes of the same model of a plane should tell anyone that there is something wrong with the airplane. And this is the part where politics gets involved. Allegedly, the CEO of Boeing called President Trump to ask him to tell the FAA not to ground the popular plane. The EU grounded the plane immediately after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Other international agencies followed suit. The FAA was the last to ground all the jets. It took so long for the United States to ground the jets that some passengers and even crews refused to fly the aircraft. Boeing apparently had tried to quietly fix the problem through a software update but due to the 35-day government shutdown in January, they were unable to obtain the necessary permissions from the FAA.
During the crisis, President Trump even decided to tweet that airplanes were getting too complicated and that we should trust pilots more. However, this candor did not do anything to actually solve the problem or even provide comfort to the victims. Everyone involved in these crashes died and the full investigation is on-going. Currently, Boeing is working on the software fix and it should be available soon.