The captain who saved 155 lives by ditching his plane in the Hudson River has expressed outrage at an article that blamed the two fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max on the pilots.
In a letter to the New York Times Magazine, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who was at the controls of US Airways flight 1549 when it came down in 2009, attacks an article that characterised both tragedies as “a textbook failure of airmanship”.
A total of 346 people lost their lives in accidents involving Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302.
The article, which appeared in September 2019, was by William Langewiesche – himself a pilot, He accuses all four pilots of “leading their passengers over an aerodynamic edge into oblivion”.
But Captain Sullenberger, rejects the writer’s conclusion.
“As one of the few pilots who have lived to tell about being in the left seat of an airliner when things went horribly wrong, with seconds to react, I know a thing or two about overcoming an unimagined crisis.”
In what became known as “Miracle on the Hudson,” both engines on US Airways Airbus A320 failed when the plane hit a flock of birds shortly after take-off from La Guardia airport in New York.
All 155 people survived when Captain Sullenberger ditched the aircraft in the Hudson.
As part of the investigations into the 737 Max crashes, he has repeatedly replicated both accident flights in a simulator.
He writes: “I know first hand the challenges the pilots on the doomed accident flights faced, and how wrong it is to blame them for not being able to compensate for such a pernicious and deadly design.”
On every Boeing 737 Max, software known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was installed. The system was designed to force the nose of the aircraft down to prevent a stall.
In both accidents, MCAS was activated in response to a single faulty angle-of-attack sensor, which measures the angle of the wing to the airflow.
Langewiesche wrote: “In broad daylight, these pilots couldn’t decipher a variant of a simple runaway trim, and they ended up flying too fast at low altitude.”
But Sullenberger writes: “These emergencies did not present as a classic runaway stabilizer problem, but initially as ambiguous unreliable airspeed and altitude situations, masking MCAS.
“The National Transportation Safety Board has found that Boeing made faulty assumptions both about the capability of the aircraft design to withstand damage or failure, and the level of human performance possible once the failures began to cascade.”
He accuses Langewiesche of minimising “fatal design flaws and certification failures that precipitated those tragedies, and still pose a threat to the flying public”.
Sullenberger writes: “Pilot training and insufficient pilot experience are problems worldwide, but they do not excuse the fatally flawed design of the MCAS that was a death trap.”
He lambasts both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approving the MCAS design.
The Boeing 737 Max has been grounded since shortly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019, while work proceeds to prevent a possible recurrence.
Langewiesche was highly critical of pilot training in Indonesia, where Lion Air is based. He described the performance of the Lion Air captain, Bhavye Suneja, as “abysmal”, as he struggled to control the jet with 189 people onboard after take-off from Jakarta.
And he accused the Lion Air first officer, known simply as Harvino, of being “weak in an essential quality known as airmanship”.
Sullenberger concludes: “Lessons from accidents are bought in blood and we must seek all the answers to prevent the next one.
“We need to fix all the flaws in the current system — corporate governance, regulatory oversight, aircraft maintenance, and yes, pilot training and experience. Only then can we ensure the safety of everyone who flies.