Tom Kane's Blog

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image of a giraffe grabbing an airliner out the sky

Aircraft Safety

Aircraft safety is the number one concern for anyone wanting to fly, and no, I’m not suggesting there’s a risk a giant African Giraffe can pull aircraft out of the sky. I may be nuts but I’m not that crazy.

In any event, it seems that giant animals being a danger to passenger jets is the least of anyone’s worries. You should be more concerned about the company that builds the aircraft.

Aircraft Design

The design of a passenger jet tends to be similar between different manufacturers.  In designing an aircraft, the main considerations are aerodynamics, propulsion, controls, weight and the structure. All aircraft designs involve compromises of these factors. Passenger jets have low swept wings with engines mounted under and ahead of the wings and with a conventional tail. This is the most efficient known layout. Any designer will have to take into account multiple factors. In terms of getting the design right and ensuring safety. But there have been many mistakes made since the first passenger jet aircraft entered commercial service, carrying passengers from London to Johannesburg, South Africa. This was the de Havilland Comet, flying for British Overseas Airways Corporation. The Comet was an instant success and much loved by the first passengers who could afford to fly on the aircraft. With comfortable seating and large, almost square, windows, the aircraft was, by all accounts, good to fly and very quiet for passengers.

image of a Mexicana de Havilland Comet

Mexicana de Havilland Comet APM
Wikimedia Commons

But there was a design flaw and stress in the air-frame, in particular around the large square windows, which led to an in flight break-up of a Comet one year to the day after the inaugural flight. A BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Comet with 43 passengers on board disintegrated at 10,000 feet after leaving Calcutta. Eight months later a flight out of Rome broke up at 26,000 feet. BOAC grounded all Comets the following day.

Since that time there have been many crashes of passenger jets.

image of a crashed jet

According to Forbes, as at March 2017, there have been “1,525 passenger jet airliner accidents, involving 29,165 on-board fatalities (crew and passengers) and 800 innocent bystanders, with 717 of those accidents involving destroyed aircraft.”

This begs a question. Despite the claims that air travel is the safest form of transport, why have so many aircraft crashed? Well it’s obviously down to a number of reasons but is there one overriding reason? Is there evidence of aircraft manufacturers cutting costs by cutting corners.

Boeing 737 MAX

Take the recent crashes and subsequent loss of life on the two Boeing 737 MAX passenger jet crashes. The Ethiopian airways flight that crashed in March 2019 killing all on-board was found not be pilot error. Instead, the finger is being pointed toward on on-board piece of software that is designed to keep the aircraft properly trimmed in-flight. This is because the 737 MAX has heavier engines fitted, which means that in flight the heavier engines tend to make the plane’s nose rise up. If the angle of the nose up becomes too high the aircraft can stall and crash. The software, called MCAS, automatically pushes the nose down if the sensors on the planes nose reports the aircraft’s nose is too high. It now seems likely there could be a glitch in the software or the sensors on the nose that tells the computer the nose is up too much. If this is the case, the computer software would try to lower the aircraft nose. But what if there is nothing wrong with the angle of flight. In this case the software would automatically push the nose down, putting the plane into a dive. The pilots don’t seem to be able to stop the software working, so even if they manage to raise the nose back to a correct angle, the software will automatically make the plane dive again. The result of such a scenario would be catastrophic.

So heavier and more fuel efficient engines are fitted to an already well established and safe aircraft, the Boeing 737, and it’s renamed the Boeing 737 MAX and probably advertised at being more fuel efficient, thus saving the airlines money.

Is maximising profit taking precedence over aircraft safety?

Tom Kane © 2019

As a English expat author living in Cyprus, you may think my life revolves around cocktails by the pool. You would be wrong. In ten years on the island I’ve had my fair share of adventures and interesting experiences.

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Living in Cyprus: 2015 here

Hitler’s Secret Atomic Bomb here

An Indie Author Quick Guide to Blogging here