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How much was pilot error a factor in the Boeing 737 MAX crashes?

Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

In his opening statement Wednesday at the House Aviation subcommittee hearing on the 737 MAX in Washington, D.C., the lead Republican congressman blamed errors by the Indonesian and Ethiopian pilots for the two deadly MAX crashes in those countries.

"Pilots trained in the United States would have successfully been able to handle" the emergencies on both jets, said Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He added that preliminary reports about the accident "compound my concerns about quality training standards in other countries."

Graves was repeating the main points in a report written by two pilots at a major U.S. airline that pointed to pilot error as "the most consequential factor" in both crashes. Their report was commissioned and paid for by institutional investors with large holdings in Boeing stock.

That case for pilot error as the major cause of the crashes seems close to a surrogate for what Boeing has only hinted at, and may be a key part of the manufacturer's legal defense in liability lawsuits.

Yet two flight-simulator sessions replicating the conditions on the doomed flights contradict Graves' contention that better trained pilots would have escaped disaster. And some Western-trained pilots criticize the report as based on unverified assumptions and minimizing the intense stress Boeing's runaway flight-control system imposed on the two flight crews.

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"I'm disappointed with those who sit in their lofty chairs of judgment and say this wouldn't have happened to U.S. pilots," said a veteran captain with a major U.S. airline, who asked not to be named to avoid involving his employer.

The flight crew on the March 10 Ethiopian flight faced a barrage of alerts in the flight that lasted just 6 minutes. Those alerts included a "stick shaker" that noisily vibrated the pilot's yoke throughout the flight, warning the plane was in danger of a stall, which it wasn't; repeated loud "DON'T SINK" warnings that the jet was too close to the ground; a "clacker" making a very loud clicking sound to signal the jet was going too fast; and multiple warning lights telling the crew the speed, altitude and other readings on their instruments were unreliable.

The Lion Air crash in October would have been at the forefront of the Ethiopian pilots' minds, and they seem to have focused solely on following the Boeing procedure to eliminate the MAX's new flight-control system -- called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) -- that was pushing the nose down.

They did so by flipping two cut-off switches. But then the heavy forces on the jet's tail prevented them from moving the manual wheel in the cockpit that would have corrected the nose-down attitude.

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