The wreckage on a clear day following the crash of Ethiopian 302, March 2019. Source: NY Times.

“There Are No Old, Bold Pilots”

How Human Ego, Not Boeing, Took 346 Lives

Penn Little
Nov 7 · 5 min read

Before I took my first flying lesson at age fourteen, my father quoted E. Hamilton Lee, saying, “Son, remember, there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots!

Three years later, in 2001, I was a seventeen-year-old licensed pilot completing a rather lengthy solo journey in a Cessna 172, traveling from southern Boone County, Missouri’s Columbia Regional Airport to Ardmore, Oklahoma’s Downtown Executive Airport. I had chosen to fly at approximately 11,000 feet to avoid moderate turbulence amidst standard low atmospheric pressure that occurs in the heatwave of a heartland summer.

During initial descent over southern Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains, I let out a yawn, naturally and briefly shutting my eyes. My lungs, longing for the oxygen that altitude doesn’t provide, temporarily rendered my facial muscles inoperable at the precise time that the nose abruptly dropped and rolled hard right. My stomach sank the way it does on a roller-coaster, and I overheard the plane make a loud noise before I felt an impact — like the aircraft had just flatly fallen on the ground.

The route /cutout of the deviated route. Source: Google Earth.

In less time than it takes to yawn, lift disappeared and slashed 1800 feet from my altimeter. Once the jolt landed me in more traversable air: I was at full power, level, and surveying my surroundings. It was then that I observed the culprit: a quartering, cross-winded, and lightning-inclusive weather pattern — stealthily emerging beyond my tail.

I instantly knew it was time to “set her down,” so I adjusted my two radios to the automated weather and tower frequencies of the closest airport: Ardmore Municipal.

I elevated thrust to increase airspeed, beat the storm, and landed on the nearly 2-mile-long runway #13. On a heading of 130˚, runway 13 was the closest landing spot — the length was adequate to land even with a light tailwind.

The Emergency Landing Pattern. Source: Google Earth Flight Simulator.

To this day, I’m not sure what I encountered. It was presumably severe wind shear, or potentially a microburst (the same weather phenomena that doomed Delta 191 back in 1985, killing 137). Nevertheless, such speculation is irrelevant. The relevance was that my knee-jerk reaction was to power up and find an airstrip using sensible choices that became second nature born from proficient training.

On March 10, 2019, in Ethiopia, the date and site of the most notable and recent aviation accident we all recall: the weather was perfect for flying. Initial reports, though, suggest the pilot behavior in the cockpit was anything but perfect.

Captain Yared Getachew of Ethiopian 302. Source: The Daily Mail.

The crew of flight 302 was green and young. The captain was Ethiopian’s most junior, a pilot-in-command at age 29. The first officer, only 26. The first officer had less than 400 hours of flight time accrued after giving up on his primary aspiration of becoming an architect.

In the other Max crash, Lion Air 610, the captain, Bhavye Suneja, was only 31 years old.

No one can understand the psychology of a chaotic cockpit throughout a failure. Be it a single, triple, or septuple failure, when faced with an emergency, less-skilled pilots often make mistakes more established pilots may not. Most pilots will never encounter such a crisis in their career; however, the best simulate them repeatedly in the air and simulators.

Many agencies attribute this to pilot shortages and increased demand for air travel — a reality that is only brewing a broader and broader gap.

Additionally, it’s nothing short of magnificent that engineers have built some commercial airplanes so well — that they can practically land themselves. Therefore, it’s feasible to opine that, in select foreign domiciles, receiving D’s in-flight school, staying at a Holiday Inn Express, or simply breathing may qualify you to control one of these (theoretically) “user-friendly” aircraft.

Regrettably, the downside lies in the failure to recognize that human cargo requires human pilots — the only fail-safe for mechanical failures. The human talent of innovation that created these machines are the only ones that can assess their capability and extemporize alternate plans when they fail at altitude. Four days after the demise of Ethiopian 302, The New York Times said, “Pilots now spend more time learning these automated systems than practicing hands-on flying.”

In simplistic terms, the probability of that Boeing software system (the “MCAS”) failing was very low — one in well over a million, according to a source who is a Southwest Airlines first officer. It’s likely even failed in the U.S.; however, the distinction was that the two very young Ethiopian pilots didn’t respond appropriately.

According to a Seattle Times report, “during the two fatal MAX crashes that killed 346 people, pilots struggled to understand the cascade of warnings in their cockpits.” The same record also mentioned that the FAA relaxed regulations for warning displays residing in commercial cockpits. However, there’s little explanation for the copious prevalence of warnings. After all, the establishment chalks this up as a single system failure.

A “cascade of warnings” indicates the MCAS on the MAX 8 was not the exclusive problem leading to both accidents. USA Today reported that a whistleblower emerged from the Ethiopian Airlines tent, asserting, “it’s not a coincidence that Ethiopian saw one of its MAX planes go down when many other airlines that fly the plane suffered no such tragedy.”

Had these flight crews chosen to disable the automated systems and fly the airplane from ‘point A’ to ‘point B,’ if not, directly back to ‘point A,’ it’s likely these accidents would not have occurred. Traveling back to ‘Point A,’ however, would probably have resulted in a wounded ego and the exposure of a couple of pilots that have gotten away with doing very little, for a long time.

Boldly pressing for ‘Point B’ meant that four aviators (including those on Lion Air 610), not the Boeing Company, chose to be bold pilots and perished before becoming old pilots — adding 342 more lives to the enormous pool of victims of the human ego.

Penn Little

Written by

Entrepreneur, Author, & Investigative Journalist www.pennlittle.com

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