I don’t like flying. I consider it unnatural, unhealthy and fraught with peril. But I do it all the time. For me, it’s either fly or take an ox cart.
In fact, I’ve been flying since I was six years old – from New York to Paris on a lumbering Boeing Stratocruiser, a converted, double-decker WWII B-29 heavy bomber. I even had a sleeping berth. So much for progress.
Lots can go wrong in the air. Modern aircraft have thousands of obscure parts. If any one of them malfunctions, the aircraft can be crippled or crash. Add pilot error, dangerous weather, air traffic control mistakes, mountains where they are not supposed to be, air to air collisions, sabotage and hijacking.
I vividly recall flying over the snow-capped Alps in the late 1940’s aboard an old Italian three-motor airliner with its port engine burning, and the Italian crew panicking and crossing themselves.
Some years ago, I was on my way to Egypt when we were hijacked by a demented Ethiopian. A three day ordeal ensued that included a return flight to New York City from Germany, with the gunman threatening to crash the A-310 jumbo jet into Wall Street – a grim precursor of 9/11. My father, Henry Margolis, got off a British Comet airliner just before it blew up due to faulty windows.
Which brings me to the current Boeing crisis. After a brand new Boeing 737 Max crashed in Indonesia it seemed highly likely that there was a major problem in its new, invisible autopilot system, known as MCAS. All 737 Max’s flying around the world should have been grounded as a precaution. But America’s aviation authority, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), allowed the Max to keep flying. The FAA is half regulator and half aviation business promoter, a clear conflict of interest.
The crash of a new Ethiopian 737 Max outside Addis Ababa under very similar circumstances to the Lion Air accident set off alarm bells around the globe. Scores of airlines rightly grounded their new Max’s. But the US and Canada did not. The FAA continued to insist the aircraft was sound. The problem, it was hinted between the lines, was incompetent third world pilots.
It now appears that America’s would-be emperor, Pilot-in–Chief Donald Trump, may have pressed the FAA to keep the 737 Max’s in the air. Canada, always shy when it comes to disagreeing with Washington, kept the 737 Max’s flying until there was a lot of evidence linking the Indonesia and Ethiopian crashes.
Trump finally ordered the suspect aircraft grounded. But doing so was not his business. That’s the job of the FAA. But Trump, as usual, wanted to hog the limelight.
By now, the 737 Max ban is just about universal.
Interestingly, Ethiopia refused to hand over the crashed 737’s black boxes (actually they are red) to the FAA, as is normal with US-built aircraft. Instead, Addis Ababa sent the data boxes for analysis to BEA, France’s well-regarded aviation accident investigator. Clearly, Ethiopia lacks confidence in the veracity and impartiality of the FAA and the White House.
Today, Trump professes vivid interest in Boeing’s well-being. Last May, however, Trump cancelled an Iranian order to Boeing for $20 billion in airliners which had originally been signed under the Obama administration. Israel’s fingerprints were all over this cancellation. Iran desperately needs new aircraft to replace its fleet of decaying, 1960’s passenger aircraft that have become flying coffins.
Boeing (I am a shareholder) will recover from this disaster unless the 737 Max’s center of gravity is dangerously unstable. The mystery autopilot system will be reconfigured and pilots properly trained to use it. Air France had a similar problem when it introduced the new A320. But Boeing, not third world pilots, is at fault.
There’s another key factor. I’ve been writing for decades that passenger aircraft should return to the three-man crew they had 40-50 years ago. The position of flight engineer was supposedly eliminated by cockpit automation. Today, aircraft are so electronically complex they need a specialist on board who can deal with problems. Pilots should not be expected to be masters of computer technology. A third crew member is essential when things go wrong. But employing one costs money. It seems rock-bottom fares remain more important than safety.