Why the Boeing 737 MAX 8 situation matters to GA pilots

by Bob Worthington
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2019/January 2020

Most of us general aviation (GA) pilots are familiar with the problems the Boeing Company is wrestling with regarding its 737 MAX 8 aircraft. But how many of us recognize how this situation relates to what we fly?

On October 29, 2018, a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 (Flight 610) crashed into the Java Sea in Indonesia, 13 minutes after takeoff, killing all aboard. Then on March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 (Flight 302) crashed near the town of Bishoftu in Ethiopia, southeast of Addis Ababa, six minutes after takeoff, also killing all aboard. Thus the 737 MAX 8 was grounded. The investigations as to why, continue.

Here is what we do know about the Boeing 737 MAX 8. The 737 was created in 1964, the analogue age of aviation technology, with its first flight in 1967. Since then the aircraft has undergone four generations of changes to enhance efficiency, carrying capacity, range, and a host of other improvements.

The 737 was a favorite of airline pilots, so Boeing wanted to retain the same aspects of the aircraft as it proceeded to modernize it. Doing this though, changed the flight characteristics of the aircraft. Therefore, Boeing had to devise ways to control these changes.

In 2011, Boeing initiated development of the 737 MAX 8 (and we are now in the digital technology age of aviation). New engines were placed differently than previous models, causing the nose to pitch up under certain flight conditions. Thus, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System was created to correct the adverse flight positions of the aircraft.

Here we have a 55-year-old aircraft design, undergoing numerous changes, and involving the introduction of very complex technology, to keep flying safe. This brings us to another part of the problem – the experience, qualifications and training of the pilots flying the 737 MAX 8.

In the U.S. for a pilot to occupy the right seat of an airliner carrying passengers, he must have at least 1500 hours of flight time (there are a few exceptions, depending on training). But in other parts of the world, a pilot can fly for the airlines with as few as 200 hours. In my experience, that equates to just completing flight school.

The FAA regulates aviation and pilots only in the U.S., so certification of aircraft is being done with American test pilots and American airline pilots. These pilots are among the best in the world. They test fly an aircraft and understand the complexity of the modifications, and have the expertise and experience to safely make the flights. But can lessor-trained pilots understand and operate safely, the complex technology of the modifications, replicating the skills and experience of American pilots? Clearly the answer is no.

In April this year, the FAA instituted an international panel of aviation safety experts from nine different countries, including the U.S. This committee was tasked to examine all the procedures to approve the Boeing 737 MAX 8 flight-control systems.

So, what does this have to do with general aviation pilots? Consider this. Every day GA pilots repeat the scenario of those two downed 737 MAX 8 aircraft.

The average age of the typical GA aircraft is 50 years old. Therefore, these aircraft were certified using analogue technology of the late 1970s and early 1980s. By January 1, 2020, in order to fly in U.S. controlled airspace, all aircraft must have onboard digital technology in the form of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment. How many of you found that installing the ADS-B equipment required more modifications to properly mate with your old analogue technology?

The typical GA pilot flies less than 100 hours a year with some estimates citing 40 hours a year. Most of us GA pilots own older aircraft because new aircraft are a bit out of our financial reach. So, what do we do? Exactly what Boeing has done with the 737 MAX 8. We modify our old airplanes to carry more weight, fly faster, or become more automated. And when we do this, it is not uncommon to encounter conflicts because what we want to add isn’t compatible with what we already have.

When I bought my first airplane, I modified it for instrument flying. The navigation equipment was purchased, and installation began. After installation got underway, it was determined that the electrical system was insufficient for the new equipment. The solution?  Install a new electrical system, which we did.

Sometimes modifications can be a challenge for pilots, who fly without becoming totally familiar with the modifications. A prime example of this is what happened to the singer (and pilot), John Denver. A great person, very talented, and about as pro GA as one can be. John purchased a used experimental aircraft, the Long-EZ. The builder changed the location of the fuel selector valve to behind the pilot’s seat. While practicing touch and goes at Monterey, California, John headed out over the coast, and the plane crashed in the ocean. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that John was not familiar with the aircraft, and when trying to switch tanks, he inadvertently lost control of the aircraft.

The number one cause of GA accidents is “loss of control,” mainly due to stalling. When I started as a student pilot in 1975, the training emphasis was on aeronautical maneuvering, controlling the airplane in flight. Navigation was done using maps and terrain navigation, the compass, and VORs. The complexity of learning to fly was in mastering how to make the plane do what I wanted it to do, from takeoff, to cruise, to landing. We practiced stalls and spins, were taught how they occur, and learned how to safely exit a stall or spin.

Today, aircraft are much more complicated with digital operations and glass cockpits. Flight training emphasis is on both aeronautical maneuvering and how to manage the digital instrument panel. Young people today have grown up in the digital age, so those in pilot training already possess an intuitive understanding of how a glass cockpit works. But with the average age of GA pilots in the high 40s, they did not grow up in the digital age, so mastering added digital equipment may take some additional training.

Consider for a moment driving your car and wanting to change the heat setting or the radio station, or worse yet, the “clock.” Most of us need to take a quick glance at the knob or button or computer icon to make sure we press, turn, or touch the right component. If it is a simple change we want to make, we usually don’t lose control of the car and crash. But in an airplane, the situation is quite different as we are maneuvering in multiple directions: up and down, sideways, and forward. In cars, we just move forward and sideways. Still, not safe!

So how do the 737 MAX 8 accidents relate to GA pilots? The familiar (and ubiquitous) airframe was modified with new technology, and when things began to get bad, the pilots were unable to correct the situation and crashed. Part of the problem is new technology, and part is the experience level of the pilots.

Many of our GA aircraft are decades old and have been modified to fly and navigate using modern technology. Is flying three to seven hours a month enough to maintain the level of skills and proficiency needed to safely manipulate your digital-equipped aircraft? Are you safe in hard IFR flight at night? FAA accident statistics suggest many pilots are not.

The technology of today requires pilots to not only be able to maneuver the aircraft, but also, at the same time, be an adept systems manager competent in mastering autopilots, GPS navigators, and all the programs in the computer systems on the instrument panel. If a pilot cannot intuitively operate all the new technology in his aircraft, the risk factor of an accident is greater.

It is not uncommon when flying in controlled airspace for air traffic control (ATC) to issue a command to quickly change your flight characteristics to perhaps avoid another aircraft, stop a landing configuration and switch you to another runway, or amend your instrument clearance to proceed to a different and unfamiliar fix, vector you in a different direction, or assign you a different altitude. Any of these deviations require a pilot to instantly realize what must be done, and often the pilot must make immediate changes to the automatic settings already programmed into his avionics. Sometimes the only way for instant compliance is to cancel all automation and hand-fly the deviations issued by ATC.

Some pilots, though, are so familiar with their automated cockpit, that they can instinctively make the requested changes on their equipment, so they can instantly respond to the revised clearance. This is not multi-tasking, but rather an instinctive understanding of what must be done, and how to do it.

A common myth is the ability to “multi-task.” The human brain is not designed to multi-task (research the scientific studies, if you don’t believe me). Therefore, trouble can occur if a pilot is flying a plane and then must focus instead on the navigation instruments to make a change and the pilot is not sure exactly how to reprogram the equipment. Danger ensues if the pilot is unable to make the changes due to a lack of experience or proficiency with the equipment. This is what happened to John Denver.

In the mid-1980s, I purchased an almost new Mooney 231, fully IFR equipped. Before that, I owned a late-model, instrument-equipped Cessna 182. It took me around 25 hours of training with a flight instructor before I was comfortable flying in instrument conditions in the retractable Mooney. Twenty years later, I bought a Cessna 182RG and had it completely rebuilt. It had the latest GPS navigator and flight management system with an autopilot. This time it took me 100 hours of practice with all the automated systems to feel completely safe flying in instrument conditions at night. Quite a difference in technology (analogue to digital), and quite a difference in the time required to become proficient with a new system.

If you have digital technology in your airplane, how competent are you in knowing every aspect of what the equipment is capable of accomplishing? Do you fly often enough to retain the knowledge of operating your equipment under the most challenging conditions or situations? Do you fly with friends or flight instructors who know more about your equipment than you do, who can place you in demanding flight situations that will test your ability to respond immediately and instinctively to abrupt changes in flight? Do you obtain either flight reviews or instrument check-rides twice a year to assess your ability to handle all your automated equipment safely and quickly? Most automatic and computerized flight equipment for aircraft have computer programs to use in training. Do you have them and do you use them?

When I was a new instrument-rated pilot, my job required traveling all over the U.S. A flight school went out of business and had an analogue ATC 610 desktop flight simulator for sale (with yoke and rudder pedals). It was not cheap, but I bought it. When I had flights to airports I was unfamiliar with, I could program the simulator for instrument approaches to those airports. A day or two before my flight, I would spend a few hours flying those programmed instrument approaches, so I would be familiar with what I might expect at my destination. I owned and used that simulator for almost three decades and it gave me confidence that I could safely handle any IFR approach at my destinations.

The number one cause of GA accidents is “loss of control.” Many accidents are caused not because we can’t comprehend what to do, but because we don’t know our aircraft well enough to do what we need to do. The result is often loss of control because we try to make changes to our automatic systems and can’t quite figure out what to do. We become fixated on trying to manipulate our equipment and fail to focus on flying the plane. Don’t let that happen to you. Practice until you are the expert and continue to practice so you stay the expert.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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