A day after the president of an American pilots union called on Boeing to “stop blaming dead pilots,” controversy continued to reverberate around some U.S. claims that pilot error may have been a major factor in the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes.
Responding to criticism of its pilots in a congressional hearing this week and in a report written by two American airline pilots, Ethiopian Airlines strongly defended its training standards Friday and expressed regret at the “effort that is being made to divert public attention from the flight control system problem of the airplane.”
“The fact that the entire world has grounded more than 370 B737 Max 8 airplanes speaks loud and clear that the airplane has a problem,” Ethiopian’s statement adds.
Separately, well-known U.S. airline pilot and author Patrick Smith, a friend of someone who knew the Ethiopian captain on Flight 302 — 29-year-old Yared Getachew, who had flown with the airline for nine years — weighed in on the controversy over whether American pilots would have handled any better the emergencies on the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights.
At a House Aviation subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., claimed U.S. pilots would not have crashed those planes and expressed his “concerns about quality training standards in other countries.”
Smith, who runs the AskThePilot.com website, took exception, calling Graves’ comments “unfortunate.”
“A friend of mine — an American — worked for several years as a training captain at Ethiopian,” Smith said in an email. “He knew the captain of the doomed flight and spoke very highly of him, describing him as an ‘excellent pilot’ and ‘always well-prepared.’ “
“Ethiopian Airlines has a long, proud history with a perfectly respectable safety record, and its flight training academy is very well respected,” Smith added. “My suspicion is that pretty much ANY two pilots facing the same malfunction would have met with the same result.”
In the airline’s own response, sent via email by Asrat Begashaw, manager of corporate communications, it pointed out that it has “the largest Aviation Academy in Africa with the most modern training devices and facilities of global standards,” all accredited by international regulatory agencies.
“Ethiopian Airlines is among the very few airlines in the world and the only one in Africa which has acquired and operates the B737 Max 8 full flight simulator,” Asrat’s statement adds, something no U.S. airline can say, although the major operators now have MAX flight simulators on order.
Asrat also pointed out that “However, it’s very unfortunate that the B737 Max 8 simulator was not configured to simulate the MCAS operation by the aircraft manufacturer.”
MCAS, or the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, is the new flight-control system on the MAX that repeatedly pushed down the nose of the aircraft on both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights. Boeing on Thursday announced that it has completed its proposed software fix for the system and hopes soon to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators to fly the planes again.
Asrat said Ethiopian requires 3,500 flying hours experience for any captain commanding one of its aircraft. Yared, the youngest captain at the airline, had more than 8,100 hours flying experience.
A report by two U.S. pilots, Don McGregor and Vaughn Cordle — a report commissioned and paid for by institutional investors with large holdings in Boeing stock — concluded that pilot error was “the most consequential factor” in both crashes and in particular criticized the inexperience of the Ethiopian first officer on Flight 302, Ahmed Nur Mohammod Nur, who had only 361 flying hours experience.
The first officer, a graduate of the Ethiopian Aviation Academy, had successfully completed the required pilot training per international standards and gone through the type rating training on the older model Boeing 737, followed by the “differences training” on the MAX that Boeing recommended and the FAA approved, Asrat said.
While he said the airline could not comment on the ongoing investigation, he pointed to the triggering of MCAS by a single faulty sensor as “a major failure.”
At the congressional hearing Wednesday, spurred by a question from Graves, acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell also listed his concerns about pilot performance on both flights, highlighting the same details as Graves, which in turn were the same criticisms listed in the investor report by McGregor and Cordle.
In a private meeting with U.S. airline representatives and pilots April 12, Elwell had specifically mentioned an early version of that report as containing useful information, according to Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the American Airlines pilots’ union, the Allied Pilots Association (APA).
But these remarks by Elwell and Graves pointing to pilot error, as well as the report by McGregor and Cordle, have upset some U.S. pilots.
Tajer said that the APA president, Capt. Daniel Carey, was incensed at what he saw as a deliberate campaign by Boeing supporters to point to pilot error, which is why on Thursday he issued a statement saying that “Boeing needs to stop dodging responsibility and stop blaming dead pilots for its mistakes.”
Tajer said that laying blame on foreign pilots — “It’s kind of a dog whistle,” he said — could logically lead to the notion that the MAX should be flying only in America, a position that would harm Boeing’s interests in selling the plane globally.
Last week, ahead of the congressional hearing, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told NBC News that his airline might never fly the Boeing 737 MAX again.
Tajer said he’s curious how the global aviation regulators meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, next week to discuss how the MAX can be cleared to fly again will react to this flurry of blame on the pilots.
“We are here to say, easy where you go with this. Don’t gratuitously take this very serious moment to try to deflect blame,” said Tajer. “Don’t cross into arrogance to vilify the pilot profession beyond our borders. There’s no place for arrogance in the cockpit.
“Fix the system first,” he added. “Then train the pilots on how it operates to a global standard. Boeing needs to ensure every pilot across the globe gets a robust training program.”
This story was updated to correct the references to Mr Asrat and Mr Yared. In Ethiopian naming style, the family name is given first.