The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

More on the 737 MAX 8 crashes

Pilot and author James Fallows points out this Seattle Times article as a good explanation of how the Boeing-led safety process for the 737 MAX 8 airplane may have contributed to their recent accidents:

The FAA, citing lack of funding and resources, has over the years delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes.

Early on in certification of the 737 MAX, the FAA safety engineering team divided up the technical assessments that would be delegated to Boeing versus those they considered more critical and would be retained within the FAA.

But several FAA technical experts said in interviews that as certification proceeded, managers prodded them to speed the process. Development of the MAX was lagging nine months behind the rival Airbus A320neo. Time was of the essence for Boeing.

A former FAA safety engineer who was directly involved in certifying the MAX said that halfway through the certification process, “we were asked by management to re-evaluate what would be delegated. Management thought we had retained too much at the FAA.”

“There was constant pressure to re-evaluate our initial decisions,” the former engineer said. “And even after we had reassessed it … there was continued discussion by management about delegating even more items down to the Boeing Company.”

Wow, that sounds familiar. And this is why we need competent, well-funded regulators for safety-critical industries.

The Ethiopian government says they'll release the preliminary accident report in 30 days.

Duke killed public transit?

CityLab reports that my alma mater has doomed the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project in North Carolina:

DOLRT has consumed more than $130 million in public money. In 2011 and 2012, voters in Durham and Orange counties approved half-cent sales taxes to fund transportation improvements, including the light rail, to better connect major employers like UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. Central University, a VA hospital, and businesses in bustling downtown Durham. Construction of the estimated $2.7 billion project was to start next year; an application to the Federal Transit Administration was due this spring for federal funding of $1.25 billion. The state agreed to contribute $190 million.

But all this came to a screeching halt on February 27, when Duke University officials said they would not sign a cooperative agreement. (The project required 11 partners to ink cooperative agreements; only Duke, Norfolk Southern, and the North Carolina Railroad Company, which manages a major rail corridor, remain unsigned.) A week later, Duke declined a request to participate in a mediated negotiation with GoTriangle, the region’s transportation authority.

What happened?

In a letter to GoTriangle, Duke President Vincent Price and other officials cited issues with the light rail’s alignment along Erwin Road in Durham, which runs next to the university’s sprawling medical complex. Price expressed concerns that magnetic interference could hurt high-tech diagnostic and research equipment. Other issues included construction disruption that could affect a utility line, and vibrations from digging and placing the supports for an elevated track, and legal liability. In declining further talks, the Duke leaders said that the project’s route “poses significant and unacceptable risks to the safety of the nearly 1.5 million patients who receive care at our hospital and clinics each year, and the future viability of health care and research at Duke.”

That seems...unlikely. So what is Duke really complaining about? It's unclear. But that they brought this point up now and not in 2016 or even earlier seems intentional. And that's really crappy.

The world panics about an airplane

Two Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes have crashed shortly after takeoff in the last few months, killing hundreds of passengers and crew. As a result, the European Union, the UK, China, and other countries have grounded the model pending investigations. Notably, the FAA has not. In the US, only American and Southwest are flying the new plane.

This is, simply put, panic. But no one wants to be the guy who will get blamed if another one goes down, even though that is highly improbable.

The Lion Air crash in Indonesia back in October seems related to a software change in the 737 Max 8 that the pilots didn't know about. That accident is still under investigation. Obviously so is Monday's crash in Ethiopia, with the flight data and voice recorders only retrieved yesterday.

While the Washington Post runs a story about how similar the crashes appear, and the President spouting off about how planes are too complex to fly these days, I turn to fellow pilot James Fallows for a dose of reason:

In the Lion Air crash, the pilots apparently kept trying to pull the plane’s nose back up. The MCAS system kept pushing it down. The automated system eventually won. The question that’s not yet answered about that crash is why the pilots didn’t turn off or disable this system. Such fail-safe override controls are built into every automated flight system I’ve ever heard about. As Patrick Smith discusses in his post, it’s possible that the pilots didn’t understand how the new MCAS system worked, or what it would be trying to do. It’s possible that they didn’t know where the overrides were. It’s possible that … well, anything might have occurred.

Is this what happened in the Ethiopian Airlines case as well? Was the AOA-sensing system that triggers the MCAS flawed or broken? Were the automatic controls trying to push the plane down, down, down, while the pilots fought to keep it up? Did the pilots try to override or disable the system? (For instance, by lowering the plane’s flaps, which happens on every landing and is designed to automatically disable the MCAS system.) Were they caught by surprise and unaware of what that system was doing? Were they fully aware, but still unable to alter the fatal path down?

Or was something else, something entirely unrelated, responsible for this crash? Something that had nothing to do with this model of airplane, or these new automated systems? At the moment, I believe no one knows. That is what Boeing, the Ethiopian authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the world’s airlines are trying to figure out. There are enough differences between the two crashes—for instance, in the fluctuations in speed and altitude before impact—that the causes could turn out to be wholly unconnected.

Fallows links to "Ask the Pilot" Patrick Smith, with this also reasonable thought:

For pilots, dealing with the unwanted nose-down command would be, or should be, straightforward. The MCAS commands, faulty or not, can be overridden quickly through a pair of disconnect switches. Why the Lion Air pilots failed to do this, if in fact they did, is unclear, but unaware of the system’s defect in the first place, we can envision a scenario in which they became overwhelmed, unable to figure out in time what the plane was doing and how to correct it.

“Though it appears there’s a design flaw that Boeing will need to fix as soon as possible,” I wrote in November,“passengers can take comfort in knowing that every MAX pilot is now acutely aware of this potential problem, and is prepared deal with it.”

The Ethiopian accident, though, makes us wonder. With the Lion Air crash fresh on any 737 MAX pilot’s mind, you’d expect the crew to have recognized the malfunction right away and reacted accordingly. Did a disconnect somehow not work? Were they so inundated by a cascade of alarms, warnings, and erratic aircraft behavior that they failed to recognize what was happening? Or was the problem something else completely?

We won't know for a long time, in any event no sooner than the FDR and CVR data gets analyzed.

Trips to Europe will need EU registration starting in 2021

When I first heard this morning that visa-free travel to Europe would end for US citizens in 2021, I was dismayed. I remember how time-consuming it was to get a visa before the visa-waiver program started in the late 1980s. And I figured that the US would retaliate, requiring visas from Europeans, which would essentially destroy tourism between the two regions.

The reality isn't really anything like that. In fact, it merely brings the EU in line with what the US has required of visa-free travelers for years.

Starting in 2021, Americans will simply need to register with the EU equivalent of our Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA:

Currently, US citizens can travel to Europe for up to 90 days without any sort of travel authorization. ETIAS will change that.

Visa-free travelers, including US citizens, will need to request ETIAS authorization before visiting the Schengen Area. They can complete an application and pay a service fee of 7 euros (about $8) online. The authorization is valid for three years.

"Completing the online application should not take more than 10 minutes with automatic approval being given in over 95% of cases," the European Commission said in a statement.

The United States won't be the only country affected by the changes. From 2021, citizens from 60 countries will be required to apply for the ETIAS before entering the Schengen Area. Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Israel and Mauritius are among those countries.

So this should not affect taking a last-minute trip on the Eurostar, or crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic. And it's fair; we've required ESTA registration from all overseas visitors for many years. I'm annoyed particularly at NPR for getting the details totally wrong in their newscast this morning.

This sort of thing has cropped up before

...and it has always been due to human error.

Today, I don't mean the HAL-9000. Amtrak:

Amtrak said “human error” is to blame for the disrupted service yesterday at Union Station.

A worker fell on a circuit board, which turned off computers and led to the service interruption, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

The delay lasted more than 12 hours and caused significant overcrowding at Union Station.

The error affected more than 60,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers taking trains from Union to the suburbs, according to reports. Some riders resorted to taking the CTA or using ride-sharing services to get home, Chicago Tribune reported.

An analysis of the signal system failures and determined they were caused by “human error in the process of deploying a server upgrade in our technology facility that supports our dispatch control system” at Union Station, Amtrak said in a statement. Amtrak apologized in the statement for failing to provide the service that’s expected of it.

Which led my co-workers to wonder, why the hell were they doing a critical server upgrade in the middle of the day?

The last moments of winter

Today actually had a lot of news, not all of which I've read yet:

And now, good night to February.

London sets record for warmest day in winter

The UK Met has kept temperature records since 1910, and in all that time, London has never experienced a warmer day in winter than yesterday:

Temperatures in Kew Gardens, south-west London, reached 21.2°C, breaking the record for the warmest February day. The Met Office defines winter from the beginning of December to the end of February, so Tuesday’s sunny spell is also a winter record.

The record had already been broken on Monday, when temperatures exceeded 20°C during winter for the very first time. This week’s unseasonably warm weather differs dramatically from the beginning of the month, when sub-zero temperatures were recorded across the country.

The previous winter record had been 19.7°C in Greenwich, south-east London, in 1998.

“The average temperature for this time of year is 9°C in London and 9°C in north Wales, so what we’re seeing is Δ9°C degrees above average,” said Martin Bowles, a Met Office meteorologist.

Bowles said: “We can’t blame climate change directly because we’re talking about weather, not the climate. But it is a sign of climate change. There’s been a gradual increase of temperatures over the last 30 years so the extreme weather has also been increasing.”

Parts of Britain on Tuesday were hotter than Malibu, Athens, Crete and Barcelona.

The warmest day I ever experienced in London was in August, 2009, when the temperature hit 31°C. Yesterday was almost that warm, and August is still six months out.

Can't wait to see what the summer is like.

Boring Chicago politics

Tomorrow is Chicago's mayoral election (with an expected run-off on April 2nd), which is only one of the problems facing Elon Musk's proposal to build a high-speed rail line from O'Hare to the Loop:

The so-called O’Hare Express project sounded like the stuff of science fiction and for [36th Ward Alderman Gilbert] Villegas, it still is. The former Marine and Gulf War veteran’s inaugural trip on a retrofitted Tesla Model X in a mile-long tunnel in Southern California topped out at 40 mph and was bumpy going. He described the ride as uneven, like the feeling of driving a car on an unpaved road. “It wasn’t as smooth as I thought it would be,” Villegas told The Verge. “It certainly felt too experimental for someone to invest a billion dollars in.”

In June, Musk said that one of the reasons he chose Chicago to host the first “publicly useful” Boring Company venture was that “the number of approving authorities is small.”

He had reason to believe that he had automatic approval from one of those authorities — the Chicago City Council. Musk’s bromance with [Chicago Mayor Rahm] Emanuel is strong. During their joint press conference in Chicago last June, the mayor praised Musk as “one of the great visionaries of our time” and jokingly asked for Boring Company stock.

Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election (he’s abdicating power to write a book about why mayors rule the world) is disastrous for Musk’s O’Hare Express.

It’s possible that Musk could successfully sell his futuristic tunnel to the 14 mayoral candidates lined up to succeed Emanuel in May, but that prospect looks equally bleak. When asked to their opinion on O’Hare Express, the response from Chicago’s mayors-to-be has ranged from neutrality to open contempt.

“It’s going to die on its own. This thing is goofy,” said former Chicago Public Schools chairman Gery Chico during a candidate forum earlier this month according to the Chicago Tribune. Paul Vallas, another mayoral hopeful, had harsher words: “I’d kill it,” said Vallas according to the Tribune. “I can’t wait to kill it.”

Well, that's all pretty unfortunate. I would love to see high-speed rail from O'Hare, but I also know how this city works. We'll get it someday. Just not in the 2020s.

Actually, it is rocket science: personal edition

One of my friends from high school, Beth Moses, today became the 571st person to travel into space:

Virgin Galactic sent three human beings on Unity for the first time in Friday's supersonic test flight, which reached three times the speed of sound on its way up. Just before the flight, Richard Branson's space tourism company told CNBC that astronaut trainer Beth Moses is on the company's spacecraft Unity, along with the two pilots.

"Beth Moses is on board as a crew member," a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman told CNBC. "She will be doing validation of some of the cabin design elements."

The mission launched horizontally, rather than the traditional vertical method of launching rockets. The jet-powered mothership Eve lifted the spacecraft Unity, taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Upon reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, the carrier aircraft released Unity.

MacKay and Masucci then piloted the spacecraft in a roaring burn. The flight pushed Unity to a speed of Mach 3, which is three times the speed of sound, as it screamed into a climb.

After performing a slow backflip in microgravity, Unity turned, gliding back to land at the runway it took off from about an hour earlier. Unity is the name of the spacecraft built by The Spaceship Company, which Branson also owns. This rocket design is officially known as SpaceShipTwo.

When Beth was in high school, she said she wanted to be an astronaut. After a long career at NASA she joined Virgin Galactic as their chief astronaut instructor. And today, she made history.

Congratulations, Beth! You're officially out of this world.

Beth Moses, center. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Cosma.)