Boeing should Engineer Inherently Safer Designs

The Boeing 737 Max aircraft, has been involved in two fatal crashes in less than six months. The first crash occurred in October, 2018 when a Lion Air flight went down 13 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 on board in Indonesia. The second plane crash which occurred on Sunday, when an Ethiopian Airlines flight headed from Addis Ababa to Nairobi went down 6 minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board. This poses great threat to the airline industry.

Six years ago, Boeing had another high-profile issue with a new plane, when its 787s were grounded after a series of battery problems. The aircraft manufacturer Boeing has been facing several questions over the safety of its 737 Max 8 jets as Ethiopian Airlines joined carriers in China, Singapore, France, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia in grounding the planes. Surprisingly, despite the two fatal crashes within 6 months, the US Federal Aviation Administration claimed on Monday that the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, is safe to fly

Boeing introduced the 737 more than 50 years ago, and more than 10,000 have been built, making it the most widely used airliner in the world. But it has undergone so many changes over the years that earlier models have little in common with newer ones.

The Max 8 entered commercial service in 2017, the first model of a fourth generation of the 737 that is more technologically advanced and fuel-efficient than predecessors. The model’s newness makes it difficult to make meaningful comparisons with more established planes that have flown millions of times.

Models from the 737’s second generation, introduced in the 1980s, and the third generation, first produced in the 1990s, are among the world’s most popular and safest airliners.

An investigation into the Lion Air crash in 2018  focused on the possibility that aircraft software constrained the plane into a dive, overriding the flight crew’s manual controls. The software action, was based on incorrect data about the jet’s speed. This has prompted the question whether the computing system, which differs from the old model has been flawed or whether the pilots were not properly informed about the changes made to it and trained adequately.

There is no evidence yet that the same issues recurred in the Ethiopian flight. Although the “black box” flight data and voice recorders has been recovered, the information can take several weeks to analyze.

The airline industry has come a long way, and should have developed system that reduces the accident rate to a zero-level. While a malfunction of the computing system is a possibility in the Ethiopian flight, early information is still too sketchy to draw conclusions. However, what is known so far does not discard pilot error or the malfunction of a completely separate system.

More engineering design should be made inherently safer. Inherently safer design is aimed at the avoidance of accidents, rather than an aftermath control.  With safe designs, there are active safeguards to control the occurrence of accidents and to protect people and the environment from the effects. With safer design, there are fewer accidents, fewer causes, and fewer people to be exposed to the effects.

At every point in the operation, the designer should conceive of the worst possible combination of scenarios that could credibly exist. An engineering appraisal should then be made of the worst case scenarios with the hope that the system would be safe after this consideration. Human error is the weakest link in the safety chain and should be carefully designed out, to zero its contribution to the overall system.

The number of plane crashes from aircraft, built on safety software trajectory has been greatly reduced. Similarly, properly trained safety pilots have been involved in far fewer crash. Although the ratio of plane crash per thousand aircraft or per thousand miles travelled has been plummeting, the total number of plane crashes and the severity of them have kept increasing. It should therefore have become clear long ago that something should be done about the small, but significant possibility that plane crash will occur despite safety laws, software and training. This means that the current efforts need to be supplemented by engineering to make the plane crashes themselves less dangerous and less fatal. Whereas aircraft have been engineered to be safe when used correctly, they will also have to be engineered for safety when used incorrectly.

About Olumide Durotoluwa 61 Articles
Olumide writes regularly on Greenergie, with interests in clean tech, business modelling, and analytics. Contact him directly via olumide@greenergie.com.ng

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