Tuesday, 26 March 2019

What They Don't Want You To Know: MCAS Didn't Cause The Crash of Lion Air flight JT610 or Ethiopia Airlines flight E302

The Ethiopia Airliner that crashed in Ethiopia near Bishoftu pictured in South Africa earlier

If you've ever happened upon the scene of a serious accident, be this a car crash, machine or power tool mishap, you will know of the need you felt, that most people feel at such incidents, to know what caused the accident, and sometimes you may have gotten into situations where understanding the cause required knowledge of issues that are not readily available to just about anybody.

For instance, knowing what caused a self driving car to hit a pedestrian at a crossing may require knowledge of the programming used to control the car. Knowing the forces involved in a car crash by just looking at the damage may require knowledge of the strength of the materials used in the damaged parts, which could require some training in metallurgy and engineering, and so on

However, assessing an accident scene and ascertaining why the result you see was inevitable does not always require specialized knowledge. It is perfectly possible for a man without a driver's license who has not done an advanced course in engineering or metallurgy to conclude a mini driving on the wrong side of the road caused an accident, and also know why its passengers stood no chance of survival in a high speed collision with a truck. It is sometimes possible to know without specialised knowledge that, because a car is a total wreck, it was a high speed collision, to know why the angle at which a car was hit or hit an object made all the difference to the outcome.

Cars involved in a collision may end up off the road, some distance from where they collided, but the average intellect that's presented with clearly visible evidence, such as skid marks, a trail of broken glass and bits of metal on the tarmac, will have a good idea of what transpired, including such details as where the collision occurred, whether the cars swerved to avoid the crash and the angle at which one hit the other. There would not be the need to call in experts for the course of events to be clear to people who didn't witness the accident if these marks are abundant. Experts would only be useful because they can apply their training and use their gadgets to measure such details as the speed of the vehicles at the time of the crash, details that the police, insurance companies and courts require for their reports and verdicts

But then this is only the case when the signs telling of what transpired are clear and simple enough to make whatever happened not require that the observer have degrees, PhDs, or be a rocket scientist with hi-tech gadgets, which is precisely the case with the crash of Ethiopia Airlines flight E302 and Lion Air flight JT-610.

I am not a pilot nor aeronautical engineer, and have not done training that would enable me to readily understand matters aeronautical engineers, pilots and such can comprehend, but I do not need the training these people have to find it unusual after reading a report that showed an aerial view of the area in which Ethiopian Airlines Flight E302 had crashed that the point at which radar was lost, that was clearly marked out, was not the point at which the plane crashed. It took a full 3 minutes from here to when the pilot finally lost the fight for that final high speed impact into the earth to happen in a field near the village of Bishoftu.

Eye witness accounts from two farmers on the ground say debris was seen falling out of a plane that was making a "strange rattling sound". And if we know there had not been a bomb blast on board that had fractured the frame so that the plane, no longer an intact whole, shook and rattled as it coursed through the air, then the rattling sound would suggest the frame had in fact fractured, but not as a result of an explosion. We can safely surmise from this that the most probable cause of the fracture was a pilot who had pulled the plane through G forces its frame is not designed to withstand as he attempted to pull it out of a steep dive.

This makes sense because it is consistent with what we know was a battle between the pilot and a system on board that was causing the plane to make steep dives that he had to pull out of to save the craft from crashing. If the dive is too steep and the earth too close then the turn required to pull the plane up and out of harm's way may reguire generating G forces a passenger airliner is not designed to withstand.

I am rushing ahead of myself here. Let's go back to an item I mentioned before I strayed: Radar. I know that it relies on line of sight to work. It was lost before the plane actually plunged into the ground or neared the tree height level where radar contact is difficult to get.

I assumed after reading this that radio contact with the cockpit was also lost at this point, and it transpired later that I was correct. This was indeed the last time there was any radio contact with the cockpit.

I may be a layman in these matters but even I know that radar and radio contact is usually only lost when a plane either moves away from line of sight, in the case of the former, or there is a malfunction, a switch off or a crash into the ground that destroys the radio, in the case of the latter.

Here, we are talking about a plane with a malfunction unrelated to radio communications getting lost from radar a full 3 minutes before it crashed. Radar contact was actually lost while the plane was still maintaining runway heading and ascending, which is definitely line of sight for ground radar stations located at the airport.

From what I understand, the system suspected to have caused the crash was an anti stall software that is triggered by 2 angle of attack (AoA) sensors mounted on the fuselage or wings.

Instructions on how to get a plane into a stall and recover from it

Let me first explain what a stall is so that we are clear on this point. I will start with the technical definition and then lay that out in plain terms. A stall is caused when the critical angle of attack (AoA) is exceeded. The angle of attack, which is the angle between the chord line and relative wind of the wing, is typically 15 degrees. In plain terms this means that the aircraft is in such a steep rise it no longer has lift. Think of this as placing the burden of lift on turbo or jet engines that are not powerful enough to lift the full weight of the plane and cannot be helped by the wings because they are at an angle that doesn't allow them to make any upward lift.

The average plane is designed with engines that have just about enough thrust to propel the structure forwards horizontally, as opposed to some fighter jets that have a thrust to weight ratio that allows them to use the engines for lift in vertical ascent. The wings on average planes do the rest of the lifting that gets planes airborn. If the plane is moving in a more of less vertical direction, a situation may arise when the engines cannot propel the plane forwards because they have insufficient thrust to carry the weight, and because the wings are nearly vertical at this point, they too are not providing lift. The result is that the plane will halt and fall back like a rock, uncontrollably, backwards in a spin that is hard to pull out of.

To recover from a stall, the pilot must push the nose down then increase engine power using the throttle "before the tumble has began" because then it will be too late. After air speed has increased, the pilot can level the wings and pull up to return to normal flight.

Now, if the plane is not in a stall and software designed to push the nose down and increase engine thrust erroneously takes over, then it will force the plane into a dive, and if the pilots cannot recover the plane from the steep dive then it will crash into the ground at high speed, given the software that is pushing the nose down simultaneously increases engine thrust.

This is all simple to understand but what I failed to grasp was how this anti stall software on a Boeing 737 MAX plane, called MCAS, short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, was also connected to the radio and radar of the plane that in the case of Ethiopia Airlines flight E302 got disrupted before the plane had hit the ground.

To understand why this happened, I set off on an online search for an explanation, hoping somebody had posed this question, and an expert or somebody in the know had given a valid explanation, or the explanation had been spontaneously posted to the web.

I searched and searched, read articles on this and the previous Lion Air crash, and scrolled through the comments. I looked long and hard and even logged into YouTube and watched videos on the incident, then browsed the comments as well, but found nothing. Finally, I decided to ask the question directly in the comments section of blogs that allowed commenting to the story, hoping that somebody would give me an answer.
I have thus far only got a like to one of my comments but am still waiting for an actual reply.

Along the way I noticed that many reports on the crash had started giving the time the plane crashed as the time radar was lost as well. So I quickly went through the websites that had been first on the scene and screen captured the parts where the correct information was given, as well as downloaded the images giving graphics of flight path and correct points at which events unfolded, just in case somebody succeeded to change the account all over the web.

I was already paranoid at this point.

As I went along, I learnt more and more about MCAS, and at the end of it all I came off with the conclusion this plane, or the previous max that crashed, did not crash because of a malfunction of MCAS itself, but something else, and this something else can be sinister when used in combination with the MCAS system because then a malfunction in the AoA sensors becomes an excuse for the crashes, and, for conspiracy theorists who get their hands on the information I have gathered, it could point to hacking of the controls of the Boeing, with the loss of radio and radar contact on Ethiopia Airlines E302 as a sign whoever did the hacking didn't want witnesses. Whatever the pilots said and did after that point could not have been known nor given clues of what had actually gone wrong. But I digress.

In fact, sinister is the only conclusion that can be drawn from a sum up of events on the doomed flights, including the one before the first crash that was supposedly saved from crashing by an off duty Boeing 737 Max trained pilot who happened to be on the airliner when the supposed issue of a defective MCAS reared its head.

It is good to note that Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) confirmed the presence of an off-duty Boeing 737 Max 8 qualified pilot in the cockpit but did not confirm the role of the pilot in fixing the problem, and denied that there was any recording of this on the plane's flight data recorder.

But here, we have entered the realm of corporation speak. This is where you get the impression the parties we are dealing with have interests to preserve, or restrictions on what they can divulge. Each has stakes in the outcome of investigations, and negative fallout from repercussions of genuine revelations is not what anyone involved on the corporate end of this matter wants, and the NTSC has to choose its words very carefully.
You see, it can simply not be because of a faulty AoA sensor that the doomed Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 or Ethiopian Airlines flight E302 crashed. Much more than just the nose down procedure initiated by a defective anti stall system was going wrong in the cabins of both planes before they crashed, and the loss of radar contact before the actual crash in the Ethiopian airlines flight is the apex of these extra issues that suggest a series of failures that eventially engaged and corrupted the MCAS system.

When I realized that radar could very well be the most important indicator that it wasn't MCAS to blame, I started looking for a website that would offer the kind of confirmation of the course of events that would assure me that radar was indeed lost before the crash, that regular news media could not. It didn't make sense otherwise to continue.

If all I could rely on was material too technical to have authority over as a layman, then I might as well leave it all up to the money hungry corporations to choose their experts who would create an official version of events that would serve their interests well, and in most probability be designed to regain passenger confidence in the aircraft ASAP, to bury whatever nefarious truth there was to the crashes, without making any change to the prospects of ordinary you and me boarding another death trap. I had to rely on the skid marks I had gleaned to say what I think happened and be believed ... to have what I said carry enough weight to be taken for truth over the official version.

Wishful thinking on my part, lol.

But then the fact remains that the only major skid mark I had to go on, which was the loss of radar contact before the actual crash, had to be genuine.

Flightradar24 image showing a playback of Ethiopia Airlines flight path before it vanished off radar

I found just the website I was looking for located at https://www.flightradar24.com , and the image at the head of this article comes from there. Flightradar24 is a website that monitors tens of thousands of flights globally, and gets real time feedback of data about individual flights such as altitude, horizontal and vertical speed, etc.
From the website, it can be verified that the doomed Ethiopian Airlines E302 flight did actually lose radar contact at 5.41am UTC, and we know it crashed at 5.44am UTC, in contrast to Lion Air's flight 610 that retained radar contact till almost the very end.

Below, I will list some of these other events that clearly show that a lot more went wrong on these aircraft prior to the crash than mere defective AoA sensors. The info is taken for the most part from websites where pilots congregate, such as planespotters.net, airfleets.net, etc., the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) investigation reports from JT-610, and what aircraft controllers divulged in both the Ethiopia and Lion Air crash incidents.

1. The doomed Lion Air flight JT-610 plane had a similar issue happen the night before the crash that was allegedly resolved by turning off automatic nose down trim in favor of manual trim, and this is said to have resolved its nose dive issue. The plane landed safely in Jakarta where engineers checked and replaced a faulty AoA sensor.

Let's not forget that this incident had NOT been low key at all. Engineers knew about it, flight controllers too. 3 pilots knew about this. The passengers, who had been traumatized by an event they described as akin to a roller coaster ride, also knew about this. Air traffic controllers at the airport of departure and arrival knew about this.

Many people must have been curious to know the root cause of the issue, and the pilots and people who deal with flying matters like airtraffic controllers must have been privy to the technique employed to save the PLANE because it was simple enough. Just turn off automatic trim. It doesn't take hours to explain.

The event must have been talked about a lot in pilot and air control circles in Jakarta, on the night it occurred and the next day. How could the pilots and air traffic controllers on duty on JT-610's doomed flight have been clueless about the solution or cure just a day later?

Fact of the matter is they may not have been. It is quite evident that they found themselves inundated with root issues that were precipitating MCAS intervention and malfunction. They could not opt for manual trim this time around because they couldn't turn anything OFF. They would not be as lucky as their colleagues the night before.

How do we know this?

A number of factors, chief of which is a preliminary accident investigation report issued on the 28th of November last year by the NTSC that also stated:

"After airspeed and altitude problems, an AoA sensor was replaced and tested two days earlier on the accident aircraft. Erroneous airspeed indications were still present on the subsequent flight on 28 October, which experienced automatic nose down trim. The runaway stabilizer non-normal checklist was run, the electric stabilizer trim was turned off, and the flight continued with manual trim; the issues were reported after landing. Shortly after takeoff on 29 October, issues involving altitude and airspeed continued due to erroneous AoA data and commanded automatic nose-down trim via the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The flight crew repeatedly commanded nose-up trim over the final ten minutes of the flight."

The revelation that informs us something other than MCAS was awry comes in the form of an omission in this report. It does not state whether the runaway stabilizer trim procedure was run, or whether the electric stabilizer trim switches were cut out on the accident flight as was the case with the previous flight.

In order to make this conclusion, we have to understand that mention of these factors was not just crucial to the report, but integral to it as well. Whether the checklist was run and switches were turned off or left on in the JT-610 must have been known in light of RELATED investigation findings and it could not have hurt to mention this, even when the status of these two items was what the report would make a foregone conclusion. Was the NTSC restricted in what it could divulge? Evidently. Not mentioning these items was the safest position to take. Lying about them was unwise. It could be found out. Mentioning the true status would obviously have caused planes to be grounded last year rather than this year after the second crash under similar circumstances.

And it does not end here.

Following the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash on 10 March 2019, data from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) of the Lion Air Flight 610 was shared among the investigators. Some of this data is said to have leaked to the media that cited anonymous sources reporting that CVR recorded the pilots mentioning several problems (not just 1), trying to climb, and checking the quick reference handbook for a solution. The NTSC was asked to confirm these claims but denied them stating only that the pilots began to panic at the end of the flight.

Thank you for that information NTSC. I would be panicked and terrified too under those circumstances.

2. Let's return to Flightradar24.com and compare the radar graph feed from both aircraft in order to show that the point at which the MCAS system intervenes, which is clear to see from the first major and abrupt vertical speed fluctuation, was in both cases shortly after take-off. Look carefully at the graphs below. The altitude of the Ethiopia Airlines plane starts at around 7500 feet because the airport is at this altitude. In order to know how much ascent there has been over time you will have to subtract that value from the total feet shown.

Flightradar24 graph showing Ethiopia Ailines E302's altitude, speed and vertical speed before it vanished off radar

Flightradar24 graph showing Lion Air JP-610's speed, vertical speed, and altitude before the crash

The thing with the timing of the first nose dives is the fact MCAS intervened before it could be enabled. The pilot was too low in his ascent to raise the flaps.

Because this is something I learnt through the research I did on MCAS, I will explain what this means by giving examples of implements and tools that use a safety lock on a switch.

Let's start with the microwave oven in your kitchen. It has what is known as a "safety interlock hole" into which the latch on the door inserts when closed. When the latch is fully inserted it pushes on a switch inside the interlock hole that closes the circuit so that when the main switch is pressed, the current can flow through to the magnetron. If the door is ajar the switch is not closed and current cannot flow to the magnetron. The oven can as such not be turned on when the door is open. This is designed to prevent situations whereby the oven is turned on with the door open, which would set the microwaves loose into the environment outside the oven.

Another example would be an extra switch on a power tool, especially tools with sharp rotating cutting blades, that requires to be depressed before the main switch can work, that are most often designed to ensure that the operator has both hands firmly on the tool before starting it.

In the case of MCAS on a JUMBO, the safety switch that controls when the system can be activated are the flaps. MCAS is designed not to activate when the flaps are down of the upward position, which is logical because a plane with flaps down could not possibly be about to stall. This is the position of flaps at takeoff and landing. Yet in the case of Ethiopia Airlines E302, the system activated when the flaps were off of the up position.

Though the preliminary JT-610 investigation report mentions that the MCAS did not interfere with this flight until flaps were raised, it also mentions that the left stick shaker activated on rotation (take off run) and remained active "for most of the flight."

A stick shaker is an implement designed to vibrate the pilot's stick as a way of warning him of a stall. It started warning the pilot of a stall before he had taken off.

The activation of the sick shaker on rotation suggests malfunction of the AoA Sensor on the nose of the Max on the left or captain's side. But wasn't this "the same sensor that engineers had replaced and tested to be working perfectly the night before"? Do they choose when to break or was some other component causing them to malfunction as soon as they were replaced?

Add what I have mentioned above to the fact the pilot of the doomed JT-610 aircraft asked air traffic control to give him his altitude and speed in the heat of the crisis, an obvious sign he realised his instruments were giving him false data (unconnected to the AoA Sensor that is another system), then add the fact the doomed Ethiopia Airlines plane disappeared from radar a full 3 minutes before it crashed, and you have no reason to point at the MCAS as the cause of the crashes.

Something else precipitated the events or failures that led to the malfunction of the MCAS.

Yes it is true the MCAS was responsible for making both planes nose heavy and impossible to manually pull up out of a dive, a characteristic of the behaviour of the doomed aircraft in the last minutes of their flights, that inevitably crashed the planes, but this system's malfunctioning appears to have been a byproduct of and chain reaction to something other than malfunctioning sensors, something that made everything else go haywire or stop working completely. Either this or the MCAS malfunction had the capacity to cause a myriad of malfunctions on the flights, which is ridiculous even to a layward techie like me. The system is not designed to hack the plane's electronics as well as persist in attempting to crash it, or is it?