What the Lion Air Pilots May Have Needed To Do to Avoid a Crash

Investigators and experts are uncertain why Lion Air Flight 610 plummeted into the Java Sea last month, killing all 189 people on board. But they are focusing on an automatic system designed to keep the plane, a Boeing 737 Max 8, from going into a “stall” condition.

A stall can occur when the plane’s nose points upward at too great an angle, robbing the craft of the aerodynamic lift that allows it to stay aloft. But if the 737 receives incorrect data on the angle – as the same plane did on the flight just before the crash – the system designed to save the plane can instead force the nose down, potentially sending it into a fatal dive.

The situation in this case is further complicated by Boeing’s installation of the system, which the company did without explaining it in the new model’s operating manual. So the pilots might well have been unfamiliar with it.

If the pilots of Lion Air 610 did in fact confront an emergency with this type of anti-stall system, they would have had to take a rapid series of complex steps to understand what was happening and keep the jetliner flying properly. These steps were not in the manual, and the pilots had not been trained in them.

Approximate data on the plane’s speed and altitude on the 11 minutes it spent in the air suggest that the first indication of trouble may have come just above 2,000 feet, when its trajectory was beginning to level off.

The 11 minute

climb and descent

of Lion Air Flight 610

Possible first indication

of trouble

The 11 minute

climb and descent

of Lion Air Flight 610

Possible first indication

of trouble

The 11 minute

climb and descent

of Lion Air Flight 610

Possible first

indication

of trouble

The 11 minute

climb and descent

of Lion Air Flight 610

Possible first

indication

of trouble

The 11 minute

climb and descent

of Lion Air Flight 610

Possible first indication

of trouble

The New York Times | Source: Flightradar24

At that point, said John Cox, the former executive chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association and now a safety consultant, something unexpected occurred: instead of leveling off momentarily, the plane’s altitude dropped around 600 feet. “This may have been the onset, the first time something happened,” Mr. Cox said.

By this point in the flight, the pilots typically would have moved the flaps on the main wings from the down position needed for takeoff into a trimmed up position for flying at higher speeds. The Boeing anti-stall system cannot activate until the flaps are up.

After the 600-foot drop, the pilots climbed to 5,000 feet, possibly to give themselves more maneuvering room if another unexpected dive occurred. They sought and received permission to return to the airport, but for reasons not yet known, they did not appear to have tried to do so. When the plane leveled off just above 5,000 feet, there was another indication that something was amiss: instead of the smooth, straight flight that the usual autopilot setting would produce, the plane pitched up and down, indicating manual operation.

Altitude of

Lion Air Flight 610

Pilot appears to

be struggling with

manual control

Altitude of

Lion Air Flight 610

Pilot appears to

be struggling with

manual control

Altitude of Lion Air Flight 610

Pilot appears to

be struggling with

manual control

Altitude of Lion Air Flight 610

Pilot appears to

be struggling with

manual control

Altitude of

Lion Air Flight 610

Pilot appears to

be struggling with

manual control

The New York Times | Source: Flightradar24

That could indicate that the pilot simply was not very good at flying in manual mode. More likely, said Les Westbrooks, an associate professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, the pilot already was struggling with some system causing the plane to veer from its straight path.

In that case, Mr. Westbrooks said, it would be like trying to drive a car that is tugging one way or another – the driver can counteract it, but the path is jagged. The plane’s up-and-down motion continued, including a larger dip and recovery of about 1,000 feet in the last few minutes of the flight that might have felt like a bit of rough turbulence to passengers, said R. John Hansman Jr., a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of the international center for air transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Then, suddenly, the plane went down.

Altitude of

Lion Air Flight 610

Altitude of

Lion Air Flight 610

Altitude of Lion Air Flight 610

Altitude of Lion Air Flight 610

Altitude of

Lion Air Flight 610

The New York Times | Source: Flightradar24

There has been no official finding that the anti-stall system – known as the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or M.C.A.S. – was activated. But if the 737’s sensors were indicating erroneously that the nose had pitched dangerously up, the pilot’s first warning might have been a “stick shaker:” the yoke – the steering wheel-like handles in front of the pilot and co-pilot – would vibrate.

If the false warning in turn activated the automatic anti-stall system, the pilots would have had to take a series of rapid and not necessarily intuitive steps to maintain control – a particular challenge since those steps were not in the plane’s operating manual and the pilots had not been trained on how to respond.

If it sensed a stall, the system would have automatically pushed up the forward edge of the stabilizers, the larger of the horizontal surfaces on the plane’s tail section, in order to put downward pressure on the nose.

To counter the nose-down movement, the pilot’s natural reaction would probably have been to use his yoke, which moves the other, smaller surfaces on the plane’s tail, the elevators. But trying that maneuver might well have wasted precious time without solving the problem because the downward force on the nose exerted by the stabilizer is greater than the opposite force the pilot would be trying to exert through the elevator, said Pat Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry Riddle.

“After a period of time, the elevator is going to lose, and the stabilizer is going to win,” he said.

The M.C.A.S system angles the

stabilizer, pushing the tail up.

As a result, the

nose goes down.

The M.C.A.S system

angles the stabilizer,

pushing the tail up.

As a result, the

nose goes down.

The M.C.A.S system

angles the stabilizer,

pushing the tail up.

As a result, the

nose goes down.

The New York Times

With only fragmentary data available, Mr. Hansman said he suspects that a runaway of the M.C.A.S. system played a central role in the crash. “The system basically overrode the pilot in that situation,” Mr. Hansman said.

If the anti-stall system indeed ran away with the stabilizer control, only a fast sequence of steps by the pilot and first officer could have saved the aircraft, instructions later issued by Boeing show.

On the outside of the yoke in front of both the pilot and the first officer, there is a switch for electrically controlling the trim – the angle of the stabilizers. If the pilot understood what was happening, he could have used that switch for a few seconds at a time to counteract what the M.C.A.S. was doing to the stabilizers. But that would have been only a temporary solution: the pilot has to release the switch or the nose could go too high. But if he releases the switch, the anti-stall system would reactivate a few seconds later, according to a bulletin issued by Boeing.

Electric

stabilizer

trim switch

1. Use thumb on this

switch to temporarily

counteract the automatic

stabilizer movement.

Electric

stabilizer

trim switch

1. Use thumb on this

switch to temporarily

counteract the automatic

stabilizer movement.

Electric

stabilizer

trim switch

1. Use thumb on this

switch to temporarily

counteract the automatic

stabilizer movement.

The New York Times

The crucial step, according to the Boeing bulletin, would be to reach across to the central console to a pair of switches (sometimes protected with covers that must be opened), and flip the switches off. Those switches disable electric control of the motor that moves the stabilizers up and down, preventing the anti-stall system from exerting control over their position.

2. Flip the covers down

and hit the switches

to cut off electrical

power to stabilizers.

2. Flip the covers down

and hit the switches

to cut off electrical

power to stabilizers.

2. Flip the covers down

and hit the switches

to cut off electrical

power to stabilizers.

The New York Times

The final step would complete the process for giving the pilots physical control. Cables for manually operating the stabilizers run over a wheel – actually two wheels, one on either side of the console next to the ankles of the pilot and first officer. One of the pilots must rotate the wheel to pull the stabilizer back into the correct position.

3. Take manual

control of stabilizers

by cranking this wheel.

3. Take manual

control of stabilizers

by cranking this wheel.

3. Take manual

control of stabilizers

by cranking this wheel.

The New York Times

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Amazon Is Not Too Big To Fail

Getty Royalty Free

Yesterday, CNBC reported that Jeff Bezos, in an all-hands meeting earlier this month, said: “Amazon is not too big to fail…In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.” He was responding to an employee asking if the CEO had learned any lessons after Sears and other big retailers recently filed for bankruptcy. 

There are a few reasons why Bezos right. As one retail investor said to me, “the nature of all retailers is to eventually go bankrupt.” It’s a cynical point of view but it reflects reality: Retail goes through cycles. Certain kinds of retailers become popular, but then they fail to adapt and their businesses decline and eventually vanish. We see that over and over again. The retailers who can change are the exceptions, not the rule.

But Amazon is now the second-largest retailer in the United States. How is it possible that a thing that big could vanish?

It’s possible that the company could lose touch with its customer, but that seems highly unlikely for Amazon. That’s the one thing it’s known for being hyperfocused on.

There’s a different scenario that’s scarily real for Amazon.

It’s well known that Amazon is not judged on its profitability. If it were, its stock price would be a small fraction of what it is now. Amazon has done an incredible job at many different things, and one of them is getting the financial markets to value the company based on its revenue growth, with the assumption that profitability will come later. Amazon explains away its low profits by saying that it uses what profit it makes to invest in new ideas and experimentation to stay ahead. So far, the market has accepted Amazon’s explanation. People I talk to say that as long as Amazon keeps growing its revenue by 20-25% per year, the market will impute future profitability to the company and the stock price will continue to rise.

For over 100 years before it went bankrupt, Sears had everything for everybody and successfully adapted to what its customers wanted. Amazon has been great about that so far. It hasn’t tried to be better at retailing than people who’ve succeeded at retail for a long time. Instead, it perfected skills that weren’t viewed as retail skills at all. Amazon hammered at logistics and technologythings that previously weren’t core value drivers of retailto offer better value to consumers. And as it developed resources internally, Amazon smartly turned some of them into businesses, like Amazon Web Services, which today makes more money than the rest of Amazon combined.

But as Amazon blows past the $200 billion revenue threshold, it gets harder to find sources of revenue that will have the impact it needs on revenue growth. You can’t, for example, double the number of Prime subscribers in the country; there aren’t enough households left to do that and the saturation is already too high. It needs to find new sectors to bring online, like it first did with books. It needs new industries, like grocery, health care, banking or automobiles, that have relatively low online penetration and the potential for conversion to online sales to sustain its revenue growth. But the thing about that is, it’s hard and it’s uncertain. Amazon has owned Whole Foods for well over a year and the conversion to online doesn’t appear to be happening, at least so far.

If Amazon doesn’t find new sources of revenue growth in other industries, its expansion will slow. And because its stock price has been so influenced by revenue growth, it won’t continue to rise. That’s key for Amazon more than for most companies because so many of its middle- and upper-level employees are incentivized by company stock. An important part of their compensation, more than for most other companies, is based on the stock price continuing to rise. If that stops happening, Amazon employees, who are already very sought after by other companies, will be more susceptible to other offers than ever before. When they start to leave, the stock price stagnation will make it hard for Amazon to replace them and the whole wheel can stop spinning in a hurry.

You may say that Amazon is too much a part of people’s daily habits for it to vanish. That’s true for a while, but when a company loses its best people, the ability to innovate goes away, too. It isn’t long before it’s overtaken.

For companies that Amazon competes against head-to-head, it has been a very tough road. Amazon’s ability to access capital cheaply without regard to profits, combined with its ability to hire the best people has enabled it to dominate industries. But Bezos is right and nothing goes on forever. The end for Amazon may be very far off—or it may not be. This year is shaping up to be a great one for the U.S. economy. But you don’t have to be as good in this kind of environment as you do when times are tougher. When the lean years come, will Amazon be able to sustain its growth? And will the financial markets be as forgiving? How long the circumstances will continue to align in Amazon’s favor is anyone’s guessbut it’s not forever.

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Yesterday, CNBC reported that Jeff Bezos, in an all-hands meeting earlier this month, said: “Amazon is not too big to fail…In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.” He was responding to an employee asking if the CEO had learned any lessons after Sears and other big retailers recently filed for bankruptcy. 

There are a few reasons why Bezos right. As one retail investor said to me, “the nature of all retailers is to eventually go bankrupt.” It’s a cynical point of view but it reflects reality: Retail goes through cycles. Certain kinds of retailers become popular, but then they fail to adapt and their businesses decline and eventually vanish. We see that over and over again. The retailers who can change are the exceptions, not the rule.

But Amazon is now the second-largest retailer in the United States. How is it possible that a thing that big could vanish?

It’s possible that the company could lose touch with its customer, but that seems highly unlikely for Amazon. That’s the one thing it’s known for being hyperfocused on.

There’s a different scenario that’s scarily real for Amazon.

It’s well known that Amazon is not judged on its profitability. If it were, its stock price would be a small fraction of what it is now. Amazon has done an incredible job at many different things, and one of them is getting the financial markets to value the company based on its revenue growth, with the assumption that profitability will come later. Amazon explains away its low profits by saying that it uses what profit it makes to invest in new ideas and experimentation to stay ahead. So far, the market has accepted Amazon’s explanation. People I talk to say that as long as Amazon keeps growing its revenue by 20-25% per year, the market will impute future profitability to the company and the stock price will continue to rise.

For over 100 years before it went bankrupt, Sears had everything for everybody and successfully adapted to what its customers wanted. Amazon has been great about that so far. It hasn’t tried to be better at retailing than people who’ve succeeded at retail for a long time. Instead, it perfected skills that weren’t viewed as retail skills at all. Amazon hammered at logistics and technologythings that previously weren’t core value drivers of retailto offer better value to consumers. And as it developed resources internally, Amazon smartly turned some of them into businesses, like Amazon Web Services, which today makes more money than the rest of Amazon combined.

But as Amazon blows past the $200 billion revenue threshold, it gets harder to find sources of revenue that will have the impact it needs on revenue growth. You can’t, for example, double the number of Prime subscribers in the country; there aren’t enough households left to do that and the saturation is already too high. It needs to find new sectors to bring online, like it first did with books. It needs new industries, like grocery, health care, banking or automobiles, that have relatively low online penetration and the potential for conversion to online sales to sustain its revenue growth. But the thing about that is, it’s hard and it’s uncertain. Amazon has owned Whole Foods for well over a year and the conversion to online doesn’t appear to be happening, at least so far.

If Amazon doesn’t find new sources of revenue growth in other industries, its expansion will slow. And because its stock price has been so influenced by revenue growth, it won’t continue to rise. That’s key for Amazon more than for most companies because so many of its middle- and upper-level employees are incentivized by company stock. An important part of their compensation, more than for most other companies, is based on the stock price continuing to rise. If that stops happening, Amazon employees, who are already very sought after by other companies, will be more susceptible to other offers than ever before. When they start to leave, the stock price stagnation will make it hard for Amazon to replace them and the whole wheel can stop spinning in a hurry.

You may say that Amazon is too much a part of people’s daily habits for it to vanish. That’s true for a while, but when a company loses its best people, the ability to innovate goes away, too. It isn’t long before it’s overtaken.

For companies that Amazon competes against head-to-head, it has been a very tough road. Amazon’s ability to access capital cheaply without regard to profits, combined with its ability to hire the best people has enabled it to dominate industries. But Bezos is right and nothing goes on forever. The end for Amazon may be very far off—or it may not be. This year is shaping up to be a great one for the U.S. economy. But you don’t have to be as good in this kind of environment as you do when times are tougher. When the lean years come, will Amazon be able to sustain its growth? And will the financial markets be as forgiving? How long the circumstances will continue to align in Amazon’s favor is anyone’s guessbut it’s not forever.

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