Irony of Pilot Laying Blame On Pilots in Boeing 737 Max Disasters

September 21, 2019 / 40 Comments

Full disclosure, I own and have read nearly every book ever written by William Langewiesche. He is a gifted writer with a stunning intellect and this is just an aside, he’s quite the looker. I have interviewed him twice but with his latest article in The New York Times Magazine, I think my crush is over.

In a lengthy piece just published, Langewiesche weaves the known facts of the two 737 Max disasters into a jumble of opinion, pilot-bashing and Western superiority.

Ostensibly, he is informing Times readers that not all pilots are Chuck Yeager and to justify the headline of the article, when it comes to What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max,  “an industry that puts unprepared pilots in the cockpit is just as guilty,” as Boeing is the conclusion.

Explaining how the U.S. Navy trains fighter pilots, Langewiesche says, “The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on.” It’s a far different protocol for the folks flying us on our vacations and business trips. These pilots who Langewiesche writes, “never fly solo and whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers” are unlikely to develop true airmanship no matter the length of their careers unless they make extraordinary efforts. “The worst of them are intimidated by their airplanes and remain so until they retire or die.”

That’s quite an indictment of an industry with a record that is the envy of all other modes of transportation.

In Langeweishe’s telling, that deficit is most keenly felt in countries where aviation is booming and governments are prone to a light regulatory touch because of the influence of the airlines on the national economy. Suggesting Indonesia and Ethiopia turned a blind eye to inadequate training of its airlines’ pilots and that was the cause of the crashes seems to overlook the point that Congressional hearings were convened to discuss how the FAA passed it’s certification responsibilities off to Boeing.

Even so, the argument that more competent pilots could have handled the problem is not knowable to Langewiesche and it misses the most basic tenet of air safety anyway. Accident investigations aren’t about blame. There’s no single cause. Investigators are looking for what only so they can get to why.

In the Max disasters, what put the pilots in the position that they were the last link in the chain to catastrophe? What was the effect on the pilots of a repeated, escalating runaway trim triggered by a software add-on about which they were deliberately kept unaware? Investigators must also find out why designers and engineers and maybe managers at Boeing and at the FAA made the decisions and took the actions they did.

Langewiesche’s readers may be learning for the first time that half of all pilots graduate at the bottom half of their class, but trust me, pilot error, human error is no secret to the industry. It has been studied literally to death.

Airbus, a company about which Langeweisch has written in his book Fly By Wire The Geese, The Glide and The Miracle on the Hudson (sparking a similar controversy) and Boeing take different tacts in dealing with the role of the fallible human.  Langewiesche touches on this as he explains that the Airbus solution, the increasingly automated cockpit has contributed to a decline in piloting skills, which is not, by the way, limited to third world pilots.

But the role of aircraft designers and the decisions they make and how those decisions play out when the planes enter airline service all of which are critical issues, are not ignored by the manufacturers. They are part of design decisions. If they miss something or are found lacking, that’s got to be part of the investigation too.

Langewiesche argues that the media has zeroed in on Boeing because it’s simple and easy and obscured the larger forces that “ultimately made these accidents possible.” But out of 14-thousand words, few are dedicated to systems and processes that put a deeply flawed airplane in the hands of pilots around the world. Nor does he talk to any of the pilots who would fly the Max or regulators around the world who must sign off on its future airworthiness.

Langeweishe is a pilot, a storm chaser, and a writer. But the assumptions he makes in this article and similar pilot-bashing treatise a few months ago in The Atlantic where concludes on the thinnest of threads that Malaysia 370 was intentionally flown into the Indian Ocean by the captain indicate he’s out of his area of expertise when it comes to reporting on safety investigations.

He characterizes the pilots’ actions as incompetent, sloppy and dumb, and says investigators are looking for cause and blame. In the world of air safety, those words are never used because they have no relationship to the goal; discovering what happened and why.

For a more nuanced look at the issues, see the excellent coverage by Dominick Gates and others at the Seattle Times along with the reporters covering the story in the business pages of The New York Times, Natalie Kitroff, and David Gelles . If those writers are in possession of pilot’s licenses, they are at least unburdened by the need to convince the world they were in the top fifty percent of their class and not among the inferiors who brought down the Max.

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40 responses to “Irony of Pilot Laying Blame On Pilots in Boeing 737 Max Disasters”

  1. Well said, Christine. I got halfway through his article and quit. Couldn’t take it.

  2. Magdi says:

    Respect to you lady , I am sorry I read you for a first ever here
    Thank you for this article .. that puts faith back where it belongs, we intellects like you

  3. Magdi says:

    Respect to you lady , I am sorry I read you for a first ever here
    Thank you for this article .. that puts faith back where it belongs, with intellects like you

  4. ray Hughes says:

    Yay!! Sensible response thank goodness!!
    If one can be suspicious.. his sounds more like a poor Boeing article – lets leap to their defence because they have had too much pressure placed on them. Its affecting shareholder value!!

  5. Ted says:

    This pilot’s superior attitude sure sounds racist.
    But I’m not surprised since Trump has made racism okay again.

  6. Magnar Nordal says:

    Well said, Christine. Those accidents happened because of a long chain of events, starting at management level at Boeing. How can you expect a pilot to cope with a system going wild when nobody have informed you about it’s existence?

  7. Wisnu Martono says:

    Typical irresponsible opinion, to put blame to those who cannot argue anymore.

  8. Paul Proctor says:

    Sorry Christine, neither flight crew followed completely the runaway trim emergency checklist, which is a memory item. You could also argue neither flightcrew touched the throttles, which they should know at lower speeds makes the trim wheel manageable. There also was a pilot that had such low experience as to be called an intern. Seriously Christine, would you fly on a jetliner with a 300-hr. copilot, Airbus or Boeing?

  9. J.A. (Bob) Mulder says:

    It looks like Langewiesche has no idea what it means to fly a modern airliner. The MAX is of a flawed aerodynamic design that never should have been certificated. Negroni’s post puts facts in the right perspective. Brilliant. Well done.

  10. Kaypius says:

    An apt rebuttal to William’s damning indictment of the Lion Air & Ethiopian crew. It’s sad that such commentary should receive wide readership even before the investigation has run its course. There were few gems among Will’s 14000 words of drivel. Wish the author hadn’t lost his conscience completely while railing against the pilots.

    Thanks, Christine. The pilot community owes you one.

  11. Joseph Thomas says:

    In any group of people, half willl be above average and half will be below average. That is simple arithmetic, isn’t it ?

    The 737MAX did not meet FAA specs. That is why the FAA itself is being investigated. This is unprecedented in aviation history.

    The Indonesian and Ethiopian civil aviation regulators are part of the committee that is examining all aspects of 737MAX airworthiness, not just the MCAS. You can be sure that they have already shown the FAA its own rule book.

    Gone are the days when international civil aviation regulators blindly endorsed FAA clearances. The 737MAX has seen to that.

    As for William Langewiesche, he clearly does not know much about airworthiness standards.

  12. Bill Gibson says:

    I found it deeply distressing. I have no knowledge of the industry other than as a passenger however, even I thought the article out if kilter and supposed it had been written by a man looking for an angle. I thought he seemed rather a sad fucker. If he is ” a gifted write with a stunning intersect” God save the rest.

  13. Alan WILKINS says:

    I was very pleased to read your article dealing with the issues in a balanced way, unlike that of Langewieshe.

  14. Tom Ziobro says:

    Ms. Negroni,
    I believe you missed the major point of Mr. Langeweishe’s great article, the deterioration
    of the training of the flight crews in the name of money! My forty year career started with the Electra F/O training in both the simulator and the airplane. As a 23yrs. old F/O training on the 727 I actually experienced a runaway stabilizer at 20,000+ ft. over the everglades. To this day 50yrs. later the “Immediate action items” are ingrained in my memory. The “Greatest Generation” Captains that trained and educated me in airline flying always stressed, when all the automation failed, turn it off and FLY the airplane!
    I was always confident while flying Boeing, Douglas or Lockheed airplanes I had that ultimate option. (Not so in the Airbus)!
    Boeing has let down the flight crews and the traveling public with the MCAS!
    Finally as a pilot, I hate reading in some uneducated publication the term “pilot error”!
    Having spent time in the so-called third world aviation community I avoided flying on certain airlines and put my family on those airlines!
    I believe that the well written and factual “What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max” was an honest and very necessary piece reporting!

  15. Paulo Lavigne says:

    Your take on Mr Langewiesche’s article is spot on. I love his aviation pieces too, especially The Devil At 37,000 Feet. But, in his latest contribution to the Times, I also noticed a tinge of arrogance in his appraisal of the air manship of those unlucky pilots. Besides, as you said, I missed more technical details in the story, since that’s exactly what we expect from him, isn’t it?

  16. M Alexoaia says:

    Very well written & timed out – CONGRATULATIONS!

  17. Christine, I have much to say as well about this article, too. The thousands of ASAP reports, and hundreds of incidents, and accidents, have been identified as a result of performance issues, but have been been attributed to automation dependency, confusion, limited knowledge, communication errors, mode awareness, flight skill loss, and inadequate training. However I conducted doctoral research that has identified training, lack of knowledge, processes and procedures, are all the result of a negative safety culture that is most significantly impacting training and negatively impacting performance. This was a worldwide study, and blame is sadly misdirected at the pilots. Negative safety culture and resultant procedures has been statistically proven to be the actual problem. US carriers represented as 44% of the data in this research. Lack of agency oversight is allowing this behavior to continue. However, it’s a risky business to point the finger at an airline culture and training processes, or at the FAA who is supposed to be overseeing them, because airlines have proven to use medieval tactics to silence those who speak out. It’s just easy to blame the pilot. Until the root cause is addressed, nothing will change.

  18. Jason W. says:

    Focusing on only one layer in the Swiss Cheese Model of Accident Causation while ignoring the other layers who’s holes grow ever so wider is dangerous. It’s an unfortunate truth that there is a degradation of experience and skill in the industry and were contribution factors in both accidents. The industry as whole is to blame.

  19. Geoff Newman says:

    Three times at RAeS conferences I have made comments as a speaker that my ten years teaching at a factory school for the latest hi-tech helicopter have led me to the conclusion that less than half the world’s professional helicopters could be described as competent in the IFR environment. No one hs come forward to question my assessment and no one has come forward to ask for more information. When it comes to the effectiveness of pilot training the helicopter world gives a good impression of being totally deaf.

  20. I completely disagree with you. I sincerely believe that pilot training and standardisation are hugely different in the first world of aviation. By the law of averages, there must have been some similar technical failures of the ADC and AoA indicators while the aircraft (737 Max) were being operated by American and SouthWest airlines… But they didn’t crash………. WHY?!

  21. Damien Hearst says:

    I have noticed another attempt lately to shift the narrative away from Boeing (and the FAA) and towards blaming “foreign” pilots who by implication are less able and not necessarily to be trusted but this piece really takes the biscuit in its outrageous conclusions and dirt throwing.
    The fact is the Max cannot remain in the air without computers constantly monitoring and adjusting its control surfaces as it is aerodynamicly unstable due to the positioning of the larger engines. In reality a complete redesign of the hardware was necessary but instead we got a software solution to a hardware problem with lots of complexity and too much control authority all of which was deliberately hidden from all pilots (not just foreign ones).

  22. Bobm says:

    You completely miss the point of William’s article. He is not blaming the pilots for their lack of training & experience, but rather the operator’s complete lack of a safety culture. They were only interested in putting revenue flights into the air regardless of maintenance status or crew qualification.
    Lion Air continued to operate an unairworthy aircraft on multiple flights for at least 3 days prior to the fatal crash. Their maintenance attempts to fix the problem were mostly ineffective & finally made the situation much worse with a faulty installation of an AOA sensor. On the two final flights, the stick shaker activated at take off rotation & was continuous for the rest of the flight, yet in both cases, the crew retracted flaps at low altitude. No competent crew would do this which increases stall speed 30-40 kts. Prudent airmanship & common sense would require leaving flaps down & return for landing which means MCAS would never activate. On the final, fatal flight, the capt. countered MCAS with the thumb switch more than 20 times, yet never activated the trim cut out switches which is the final step of the IMMEDIATE ACTION memory item checklist for runaway trim which has been basic to every 737 for more than 50 yrs. The Ethiopian crash is even more inexplicable after 5 months of worldwide publicity over Lion Air, the FAA AD, & Boeing advisories which thoroughly explained MCAS & how to handle failures which cause it to activate. Yet this crew basically became “deer in the headlights” & crashed even quicker.
    In hindsight, Boeing should have implemented MCAS in a more failure tolerant way, but how do you design a jet airplane to be safe in the hands of an operator which lacks a robust safety culture & flown by crews who are inadequately trained & lacking in basic airmanship?

  23. Joen says:

    that’s right Christine, we owe you.
    the pilots aviator also felt sad about this case.
    Thank you, best warm regards from cargo aviator

  24. Victor chin says:

    Thanks Christine, it’s not very often we “pilots” are given fair defense of what we do. You are a breath of fresh air for the pilot community and I for one applaud your fair representation of the situation at hand.

  25. Lucy says:

    I’m surprised by your assertion that the “designers and engineers” are the staff behind this terrible design choice and that “possibly” that managers were involved. I would think it is reasonable to assume the engineers and designers (who, by the way, are engineers as well) were advising the safest course of action and it was the managers who pushed this nefarious design choice through. It is ever thus.

  26. Shahid Rahman says:

    I think may be the writer has been paid off like Bowing May be paid off FAA during the certification

  27. Dennis says:

    I fly the B737 MAX…. The procedures for a stab trim runaway is a MEMORY ITEM. As is the Airspeed Unreliable checklist. If you are not well versed and competent in those memory items, there will be a bad outcome. Too much blame has been placed upon Boeing in my opinion, if the pilots had done the emergency procedures correctly and quickly, these tragedies could have been avoided. That being said…not informing the pilots of the MCAS was a mistake.

  28. cici says:

    corporations have been getting away with blaming the little people to hide company failures…when pharmaceutical u.s./western vaccines create deaths or health risks in developing nations, it is always blamed on poorly educated/trained health workers….these workers are most likely better educated and trained than hospital staffs in america….yet in america, we still believe other peoples around the world are ignorant and savage….

  29. Kevin Locke says:

    I’m not sure why you think it’s “ironic” that a pilot finds fault in the pilots who flew these airplanes? A lot of folks in the safety world of aviation are pilots or former pilots. Mr. Langewiesche’s article seems to be pretty thoroughly researched and appears that his conclusions are more in line with the overseeing bodies who are now arguing the conclusions in the shadows of world politics. As we automate airplanes and automobiles more and more airmanship and driving skills will decrease more and more. And if you don’t believe that, watch some idiot Tesla driving fails on the internet. Not believing that better pilots in these situations might have led to better outcomes seems as fixed minded as believing that Boeing, it’s engineers and executives, are exclusively at fault.

  30. Andrea says:

    Thanks Christine once again for your erudite subject matter, articulate writing and defining the particulars for those not in the industry.

  31. Paul – no they didn’t but I think that’s Christine’s point – to ask “why didn’t they?” As she said, there is no single cause. We will never know why the pilots did what they did – we can only examine the entire, very complex socio-technical system of aviation that we are all a part of (which I believe is what investigators are doing.) To repeat what many students of safety have said, human error is not a cause, it’s a symptom.

  32. Afework Telila says:

    Hi Christine,
    I appreciate your comments and pity all those guys who are writing and commenting about aviation without a proper knowledge.

    I myself was trained in Ethiopian Airlines Academy long time ago and have been flying since then different types of Airplanes including Boeing and Airbus in Ethiopian and two major carriers in Middle East accumulating more than 27,000 hrs.

    Operating a modern jet with that kind of complication is not easy specially without a knowledge of the MCAS system which pushes the nose into dive without pilot’s knowledge.

    Runaway trim has been there ever since they had the modern Boeings like 707 & 727, so trying to blame the pilots about memory items and reducing the thrust lever is unacceptable and unethical, if these two incidents has happened in the west the perception of Mr Langewiesch and the rest of commenters will be different.

    As a matter of fact Ethiopian pilots get their initial training at a Category c airport which is mountainous with an elevation of 7625 ft and MSA of 13,500 ft, I have flown with different nationality pilots here in middle east and manual handling of Ethiopian Airlines Pilots is not less than most pilots I flew with.

    To conclude my comment let us leave the investigation for the investigators and not be biased by origin or nationality of pilots to give unfounded comments.

  33. Richie Stone says:

    In my 20 years of flying jumbo and super jumbo wide body airliners, unfortunately Langwiesche is correct. I agree their is an unpalatable tone in his article, but it is correct.
    Experience counts, and only if there has been good training in the correct environ.

    I’ve worked in 1st and 3rd world airlines, the nepotism, corruption, transparency and just culture are non existent in the latter, and assumed to be global standards amongst citizens of the former.
    The performance standards I’ve seen fail, re-train, fail again, and then be forced operational are rare but true. The aviation industry’s preoccupation with affordable safety is largely to blame. Boeing loaded the gun and left the safety off, the industry let those children play with it.

    Sadly typical across Asia , Middle East and Africa, both Indonesian and Ethiopian regulatory agencies are tied by cultural and political forces.
    Langwiesche’s distasteful summary is, so far, the most correct.

  34. I see nothing “ironic” about one pilot critiquing another pilot. That is done all the time in a properly constructed training curriculum and in simulator and ground school sessions. If that necessary skill shifts from a training session to accident investigation and/or analysis, why should it be viewed as improper, ironic or unfair, if the one doing the critiquing is basing his/her opinions upon established facts?

    Should any NTSB investigation (or the equivalent in other ICAO Standards Countries) pull its punches on the ground that the pilots should not be criticized because they are “minority” pilots in non-Europen cultures? I cannot believe you would condone that, Christine, yet that seems to be what your title implies.

    The FACTS are:

    — The pilots on both accident flights FAILED to properly carry out the runaway stabilizer EMERGENCY procedure, which did contain initial MANDATORY MEMORY items. That proves they were incompetent (either not properly trained or unable to function under actual emergency pressures — maybe a combination of both).

    — If they had properly followed that runaway stabilizer EMERGENCY procedure, neither plane would have crashed.

    — In the Lion Air crash, the left stick shaker activated at rotation and continued until the crash. Yet the Capt allowed the flaps to be retracted! No properly trained pilot with sufficient “stick & rudder” skills would do something as foolish as that. If he had left the flaps deployed and returned to land ASAP, then MCAS would never have been an issue on that flight, which WOULD HAVE landed safely.

    — In the Ethiopian crash, they never disconnected the auto-throttles and thus allowed the plane to exceed VMO speed, which greatly exacerbated their predicament. If they had disconnected the auto-throttles and trimmed the HS to the proper pitch trim AND THEN immediately turned off the two pedestal power switches, that plane would not have crashed either.

    In short, the pilots in both accidents demonstrated they were thoroughly incompetent and obviously not properly trained. They crashed because they failed to carry out the proper emergency procedures AND to fly the planes in a proper “stick and rudder skills” manner, after the automatic controls failed to keep the plane within a safe flight envelope.

    Any proper accident investigation process should so state facts like that, once they have been revealed by the existing evidence sources. There is nothing wrong in revealing pilot incompetence as well as improper and deficient training of both pilots and mechanics, if that is what the investigators find.

    Doing so doe NOT mitigate Boeing’s liability for writing dangerous algorithmic software, especially when it gave MCAS the authority to trim the HS to the FULL NOSE DOWN position, that guaranteed the plane would dive into the ground at high speed (which is why I have labeled that as the “suicide mode”). Nor will it excuse Boeing from failing to notify pilots about the MCAS system.

  35. 37Driver says:

    Christine Negroni, who has never operated any type transport category aircraft as PIC, apparently thinks flying an airplane is just like driving a car: if something goes wrong, just pull over to the side of the road. And then sue the manufacturer.

    She also apparently thinks that MH370 is still sitting intact in a hangar on Diego Garcia.

    No doubt the automotive industry’s recent [failed] promises to deliver fully autonomous cars has led the lay public to believe that perfect automation is readily achievable—and that drivers (or pilots) are a superfluous anachronism. The truth is that bad stuff still happens, because nothing can ever be perfect. And because of the complexity of the equipment and the severity of the environment in which it operates, aircraft pilots are and will forever be regularly expected to prevent catastrophes. Including those pilots in the “bottom half of their classes.”

  36. Bruce Lee says:

    I am wondering if James Mcbride, Bobm, Dennis, Richie Stone, Kevin Locke, Robert Boser, 37Driver, and any of the other “blame the pilots” / “mandatory memory item” / “you’re not a pilot” commenters would like to apologize or amend their comments in light of what we now know Boeing was hiding about MCAS and also Captain Sully Sullenberger’s comments about how wrong it is to blame the pilots I am not holding my breath, but who knows, maybe someone will be man enough (interesting it was all men who felt it necessary to tell Christine she didn’t know what she was talking about) to admit they were wrong. Thank you Christine for your coverage of this issue.

  37. Bruce Lee says:

    And in case the “blame the pilots” experts all missed it, it appears it’s been known for some time now that Boeing’s emergency directions post-Lion and pre-Ethiopian are fatally flawed: Hope that’s helpful.

  38. Pilot Bryon says:

    The fact is the Ethiopia pilots did not follow correct procedures. The checklist item if the stick-shaker comes on is to not change the aircraft configuration. They raised the flaps.

    Look at Qantas Flight 72 for a very similar automation failure – that had redundant sensor inputs. They were just lucky – if you call that luck.

    I have met a number of airline pilots that don’t FULLY understand the automation they use every day. They still get the job done competently.

  39. Oliver says:

    Most people who blame the pilots fail to understand that there were conflicting warnings being given up by the aircraft which were inconsistently with the regular runaway trim stabilizer. MCAS in this instance was not tripped off by a stall but by a broken AOA vane. The flight was still in a climb when the problems started. Some wise individual put hindsight as foresight and claimed the pilots changed the configuration by raising the flaps when I believe MCAS only kicks in after the flaps has been raised.
    It has come to light that the trim cut out switches work in a way that depends on the mood of the plane.
    Boeing took too many ridiculous shortcuts in bring this plane to market, the irony is that it would have cost very little to do it correctly. Afterall if MCAS was originally hidden from view, then they could have implemented a safer system and still kept it hidden it from view. Then they only tested it like a car that they expect to only get hit from one side. They didn’t factor in cognitive inertia into their 4 second response time for catching an excited MCAS.
    True engineers are appalled at the introduction of subprime mortgage style financial recklessness into the world of aviation.
    Boeing makes great planes and will continue to do so, but those MBAs, fixated on stock value, rising profit graphs and bonuses are the short term thinkers. Who will wreck the system for gain and be long gone when pieces are scattered everywhere.
    I also read the Langewiesche article and I felt sorry for mankind.

    Great article Christine.

  40. Charles Edwards says:

    Robert Boser’s comments were right on target.

    Maintain aircraft control
    Analyze the situation
    Take appropriate action
    Land as soon as conditions permit

    Every pilot should recognize this (or a similar) verbal template for handling aircraft emergencies. Yes, Boeing made some really bad decisions. But, when you leave the auto-throttles on, with take-off power set, then let the nose go below the horizon, with a resultant dramatic increase in speed, you are NOT maintaining aircraft control, nor are you taking appropriate action. Pilots absolutely MUST learn from the mistakes other pilots make, and this is a perfect example. Retired from 31 years in mostly Boeing cockpits, I can tell you I’ve trained runaway stabilizer scenarios, and they are challenging. But, they are very survivable, IF you recognize the need to immediately control your speed. This is one instance where excess speed is NOT your friend. Sadly these pilots were either not trained, or forgot the training they did receive. They absolutely do bear much of the blame for the sad and tragic outcomes!

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