Airworthy issues on planes you may fly

Many of my friends know I follow aviation closely and ask what happened to the 737Max planes that crashed, why did they crash, why did the FAA take so long, why don’t the pilots know what to do, etc.? 

All of those questions are being answered in the media every day. Sometimes accurately — a brief iPad coaching session to overcome a dramatic plane deviation downwards in time of severe stress is asking for trouble. Sometimes inaccurately — the pilots should have known what to do is a lame cover-up for mechanical controls over-riding pilot commands. And sometimes missing the real issue: The FAA sometimes hires ex-employees from airlines. And sometimes retired FAA directors are hired by the airlines or manufacturers. 

It is an incestuous industry, exactly the same as the Coast Guard directors and admirals who all seem to drift to the major oil tanker shipping companies on “retirement” with full government pensions.

This last week, the flow for profit of government employees reached an all-time high with the staunch pro-Constitution Conservative, good guy, Paul Ryan signing a multi-million dollar book deal and taking a board of director’s job at FOX TV. Gee, I wonder if that was pay back for his help keeping FOX from being scrutinized by the FCC for the past 10 years?


Back to airplanes. The issue here is that the FAA is in charge of air safety regulations. Many decades ago, the airlines lobbied the FAA to allow them to drop first the navigator then the engineer —  fourth then third persons in the cockpit. As radar then engines became more reliable, the airlines explained the extra salaries weren’t needed. In 1985 the argument was that the pilots had autopilot, so they could also watch all the engine instruments. 

And, indeed, over the past decades, that safety work load has been borne by pilots, with warning bells and other visual reminders if something goes wrong. 

Then there was a major improvement on auto-landing electronic wizardry (and for safety in fog) allowing for most aircraft to self-land while the pilots simply sit and monitor, ready to take over if... 

Add to that TCAS, which is an auto-collision avoidance program telling if two planes are too close, diverting each one automatically away from the other... making the job of looking out the window less necessary and flights safer.

Hundreds of inventions have been added to aircraft to make them safer. That’s the reasoning presented to the public, not the real reason. A good pilot like Sully (Hudson River ditching) is worth more than all the automatic do-dads. 

But how many pilots are that good? The airlines tell the FAA that, for safety, they really need more automation. And the manufacturers comply. Why? Because they can charge more for the planes with all the new technology. But what’s the real goal of the airlines?

Like that robot on the GM production line replacing two or three workers, automation in the cockpit with improved technology got rid of the navigator, then got rid of the engineer and will, if the airlines can convince the public, get rid of the second pilot and — you guessed it — eventually automate the whole flight without a pilot aboard, but instead with one sitting in a trailer somewhere keeping watch on 50 or more flights at the same time.

Think that’s improbable? It’s already been tested and is in use by the Navy and Air Force. How good are the automated systems? The Navy has auto landings on a carrier in high seas down pat. So when you see discussion of the improved safety, the MCAS or TCAS devices to make the flight load for the pilots so-called easier, stop and think what the real motive is as airlines pressure the FAA to allow the plane manufacturers to load up on these devices and, one day soon, get rid of the co-pilot ... to be followed, eventually, by the actual pilot. 

It is all about profit, eliminating the cost of pilots’ salaries.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.