If preliminary findings of the Lion Air plane crash investigation bear out, the same automated technology that has made flying safer in recent years may be responsible for a growing share of plane crashes that do occur.
Investigators involved in the probe of Lion Air flight 610, which crashed in the Java Sea off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia Oct. 29, found that the pilots faced a confusing “cacophony of warnings that started seconds after takeoff and continued for the remaining 11 minutes before the crash,” according to Bloomberg.
When Boeing was designing its latest version of the 737 – the Max 8 – it found that the aircraft was slightly more prone to experiencing a loss of control. As a remedy, Boeing added a computer-driven safety feature that is now at the center of the Lion Air crash investigation.
According to Everett, Washington’s Herald Business Journal, a 2013 report by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found that more than 60 percent of 26 airplane crashes over the span of a decade involved pilots making errors in response to the aircraft’s automated systems abruptly shutting down or behaving in unexpected ways.
The Lion Air pilots had to battle multiple failures almost immediately after taking off from Jakarta. They contacted air traffic controllers to get permission to return to Jakarta, but the Bowing plane plunged into the sea at a high speed as they attempted a return, obliterating the aircraft and killing all 189 people aboard.
Flight recorder data showed that an errant sensor triggered the 737 Max 8’s new safety feature, known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The sensor wrongly indicated the plane in danger of stalling, which prompted the MCAS to respond by repeatedly sending the plane into a dive in order to get lift under the wings.
The Lion Air pilots counteracted the nose dives, repeatedly flipping a switch to temporarily disable the MCAS and raise the nose manually. The flight data shows this cycle repeated itself more than two dozen times before the plane entered its final dive.
As the Lion Air pilots battled the MCAS and reversed the repeated dives, multiple other systems were malfunctioning and barraging the pilots with cockpit warnings. Other pilots who flew the same airplane previously reported the same problems, including the night before the deadly flight when the plane was headed to Jakarta from Bali. Passengers aboard that flight described it as a roller coaster.
Rarely are airplane crashes the result of one problem. They are almost always the result of a combination of issues occurring simultaneously or in rapid sequence. In the case of the Lion Air flight, investigators found that the pilots failed to follow an emergency procedure that could have deactivated the MCAS and allowed them to fly normally. The pilots on the previous night’s flight from Bali had followed the proper procedure and successfully suspended the MCAS. The crash remains under investigation.