The limits of William Langewiesche’s ‘airmanship’

Elan Head
Elan Head
Sep 23 · 6 min read
William Langewiesche contends that the Boeing 737 Max crashes were “textbook failures of airmanship.” But his argument rests on stereotypes that most of us in aviation have discarded as incomplete and unproductive. iStock/MatusDuda Photo

There are a lot of bold pronouncements and sweeping generalizations in William Langewiesche’s much discussed New York Times Magazine article, “What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max?” There is, for example, his contention that Boeing at the corporate level is a “corrosive agent” that “dangerously distorts American society.” But also his argument that in the case of the 737 Max, Boeing’s habit of, say, “toying with nuclear annihilation” doesn’t really matter, because the aircraft itself was designed by engineers of “unquestionable if bland integrity.” And finally his conclusion that the two 737 Max crashes — which killed a total of 346 people and which, by the way, are still under investigation — can be summed up simply as “a textbook failure of airmanship.”

Other pilots and aviation writers have already challenged most of these generalizations. The claim that stood out to me was Langewiesche’s breezy assurance that “airmanship” — an “anachronistic” word, he grants — “is applied without prejudice to women as well as men.” I am sure that Langewiesche sincerely believes this. But in an industry in which barely seven percent of pilots are women, it is doubtful that any standard, let alone one as essential yet subjective as airmanship, is applied to women wholly without prejudice.

Neither is it applied evenly to men. Aviation has historically favored a certain type of man, from a certain type of background — a type of man, coincidentally, who looks a lot like William Langewiesche. Men who don’t conform to this stereotype (men, for example, of non-European descent) have to work that much harder to prove themselves as pilots, just as women do. I mention this not only because Langewiesche’s broad indictments of pilots in developing countries are deeply problematic, but because his blindness to his own privilege reflects his generally archaic way of thinking. “What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max?” is the last stand of an obstinate pilot who, resolutely ignoring both seven decades of human factors research and the questions raised by his own reporting, is determined to ascribe two complex tragedies to personal failings. It is an attitude that the rest of the aviation industry is, fortunately, starting to move beyond.

This is not to say that I take issue with Langewiesche’s definition of airmanship, fuzzy though it is. “Its full meaning is difficult to convey,” he writes. “It includes a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communications and, especially, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings.” My own expertise is with rotors, not wings, but yeah, that’s the general idea. And in my experience both as a primary flight instructor and as a chronicler of the industry — having had the opportunity to fly with some truly extraordinary pilots, all over the world — I can confirm that the essential qualities of airmanship can be found in male and female pilots of all races and nationalities, and equally not found in them, too.

But precisely because it is so fuzzy, the concept of “airmanship” is limited in its usefulness. A pilot who has a visceral sense of navigation and a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings will not therefore automatically possess a nuanced understanding of complex aircraft systems — that’s what training is for. Training is partly a matter of initiative, but also a matter of opportunity. For example, it’s hard to understand something like the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System when the manufacturer does not mention that it exists, which Boeing initially did not.

Langewiesche contends that the training of pilots in Indonesia and other parts of the developing world is deficient at all levels: from the “production line” training of “checklist children” to the falsification of simulator time in type. These are not carefully documented claims, but assertions based on impressions and hearsay. Nevertheless, if true, they would seem to be systemic problems, calling for systemic solutions. Likewise for the other systemic problems that Langewiesche enumerates in his article: “the ossification of regulations and in many places their creeping irrelevance to operations; the corruption of government inspectors; the corruption of political leaders and the press; the pressure on mechanics, dispatchers and flight crews to keep unsafe airplanes in the air; the discouragement, fatigue and low wages of many airline employees; the willingness of bankers and insurers to underwrite bare-bones operations at whatever risk to the public; the cynicism of investors who insist on treating air travel as just another business opportunity; and finally the eagerness of the manufacturers to sell their airplanes to any airline without restraint.”

Yet Langewiesche does not, in the end, take a systemic view of the situation. Instead, after chastising the public for seeking a “simple answer” to the Max crashes in the narrative of “a poorly implemented system,” he finds his own simple answer in declaring that “incompetent” pilots were the deciding factor in both crashes. This intellectual leap — from acknowledging a host of potentially contributing factors to finally just straight up blaming the pilots — ought to be bewildering, but is instead all too familiar when viewed in historical context. Leveraging the pages of New York periodicals to shift blame onto pilots has been a thing since at least 1931, when Orville Wright contended in the New Yorker that aviation safety in that era of crude machinery and scanty infrastructure was simply “a matter of better pilot training.”

As the aviation writer Christine Negroni has pointed out, Langewiesche is at great pains in his article to emphasize his own, above-average airmanship, as when he lists all of the many equipment failures that he has personally survived. (Lest you wonder about the adequacy of his preflight inspections, rest assured that the blame for these failures adhered solely to his employers; his own role was strictly heroic.) Heroic airmanship is something that every pilot should aspire to for purely selfish reasons — it may someday save their life — but too many pilots have, like Langewiesche, allowed this professional ideal to obscure the need for practical improvements in aircraft design and flight training. As a test pilot quoted in the article flippantly remarks, “we know as a fact that half of airline pilots graduated in the bottom half of their class,” yet Langewiesche’s solution is essentially to hold every pilot to the standard of the top one percent.

When Langewiesche’s article was published, the New York Times Magazine editor Michael Benoist tweeted, “At one point while working on this story William Langewiesche told me something like, ‘I think my whole life and all of my experience went into this thing.’” No doubt it did — along with all of the conventional wisdom and entrenched prejudices of an industry that has traditionally valued the opinions of men like Langewiesche above those of everyone else. After all, why should Langewiesche have to bother with facts or context — with actual reporting — when he can rely on his own indisputable authority as an above-average pilot?

The good news is that Langewiesche’s views are increasingly being seen as outdated, as the blowback to his article in the aviation community suggests. Rather than relying on a particular heroic type of pilot to save us, we now see safety as a systemic endeavor, demanding systemic improvements. Pilot training is part of this system, but so, too, are aircraft design, certification and maintenance. And the merits of this approach are self-evident. Even if, as Langewiesche implies, pilots of an earlier era had superior stick-and-rudder skills, they still crashed airliners at a rate that would be unacceptable today. Perhaps Langewiesche’s heroic pilot ideal never actually existed. Perhaps, even back then, half of all airline pilots graduated in the bottom half of their class.

Elan Head
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