March 11, 2019

Open Thread 21

It's our regular open thread. Discuss anything you want, even if it's not related to naval matters.

In 1937, the BBC dispatched a retired naval officer by the name of Thomas Woodrooffe as a correspondent to the fleet review at Spithead. He was to describe the spectacle from high on the bridge of HMS Nelson, with his words relayed in real time to listeners all over the country. Even better, Nelson was his old ship, and the officers went out of their way to make him feel welcome.

And when I say "make him feel welcome", I mean "lit up by fairy lamps" that he got very drunk. Before he went on air. The result is truly hilarious:

The Fleet's Lit Up

Woodrooffe got off with only a week's suspension, and continued to work for the BBC for several years.

Overhauled posts include Engineering Part 3 and Part 4, The Bombardment of Alexandria, my discussion of military pricing, the last part on amphibious warfare and Jim Pobog's story of the Late Night Forward Pumproom Test


  1. March 11, 2019Eltargrim said...

    So, the Ethiopian Airlines loss. I haven't looked too closely, but a pilot buddy of mine says that it looks an awful lot like Lion Air, and so he suspects the MCAS. I've read (in reddit comments, so...) that for African airlines, Ethiopian Airlines is one of the better ones for maintenance/training.

    Any thoughts? And if it is an issue with the plane itself, what does the commentariat expect for the plane going forward, for Boeing, and for anyone flying a lot of 737MAX?

  2. March 11, 2019Eltargrim said...

    Also, I realize that some websites prefer to wait a few days after a tragedy before discussing it in detail; if this is such a place, apologies, and please disregard the previous post.

  3. March 11, 2019bean said...

    I really don't know. I'm of the opinion that the MCAS thing is overblown, and that it combined with some fairly significant failures of airmanship to bring down the Lion Air flight. But we won't know for sure until they release the final report in August or September. The lack of emergency bulletins flying around about the MCAS is pretty good evidence that it didn't keep going after they tried to switch it off per the checklist, though.

    The Ethiopian crash is mysterious enough that I'm not even going to speculate. I'm not familiar enough with the flight dynamics to know if a poorly-timed MCAS failure could put the airplane in the ground despite the best efforts of the crew (Neal?). I'd be surprised if any crew flying today let the system put the plane in the ground if it was practically possible to save it.

  4. March 11, 2019bean said...

    Also, Friday saw the deactivation of VMAQ-2, the last unit operating the EA-6B Prowler. This also marks the deactivation of the last version of the A-6 still in service, and that's an airplane I've always rather liked.

  5. March 11, 2019DuskStar said...

    I think The War Zone had a pretty good article on the EA-6B's retirement Friday

  6. March 11, 2019Neal said...


    We in the aviation world see nothing wrong in asking the kind of pertinent and respectful question that you posed--is MCAS at the root of the Lion Air and Ethiopian accidents.

    There are a ton of 737s, and more and more MAXs, in the air everyday. So while one is respectful of the lost crew and passengers, serious questions are immediately and legitimately raised by pilots, maintainers, engineers, the investigative authorities, etc. If something serious is afoot, then operators the world over want to know. It is one of those things, like all else in internet-land, where you have to discount that 15% contingent that is full of cranks and misinformation merchants. So in other words, asking is not being is a safety dependent industry after all.

    That being said, we do need to be very careful in filtering out these "first guesses" and here Bean reminds us that the final report for the Lion Air accident is not due for a number of months. Normally there is a 30 day intern report but that is not considered final. It is a deliberative process that takes time--a lot of time.

    Bean also gives us a very good hint when he says that if the MCAS were a clear culprit in the Lion Air then there would have been, at least in the U.S., emergency Air Worthiness directives issued by the FAA. They don't mess around when it comes to these things and if they had a clear path to the MCAS being sole causal in the Lion Air then we probably would have heard something. (Note: I know there are cases we can point to where one can disagree but this is the way it normally works.)

    Again, no final word yet, but from what I can tell with the Lion Air there were possible airspeed and other indication problems that the pilots were struggling with. The voice and data recorders will help with that as will forensics with the crews that had flown the incident aircraft on previous days and had trouble. Accidents are confluences of problems and infrequently just "one thing."

    This means that from what has been made public, that we can neither rule in or out the MCAS as a problem area for the Ethiopian accident--it simply is too soon. Let's see what Boeing, the FAA, the pilot's unions, and others say. For now they are being deliberate--which is exactly what we want them to be.

    Now...for something to sink your teeth into it very well might be that the MCAS is a single source fault sensor. This is almost too hard for me to believe that this design could have passed muster in this day and age and I am waiting on some solid reporting on this. The trim system on a Boeing has been pretty much the same for decades (or at least how we worked with it) and the MCAS is new.

    You will hear a lot of pilots and other grouse pretty loudly about how Boeing kept the 737 line going when they should have done a "clean sheet" narrow-body build. The bigger engines requires this and that modification and the airplane has been stretched pretty far--which makes us wonder why they destroyed the 757 jigs.

    The problem is, that for all this naysaying (legitimate in my humble opinion), it still does not point directly at the MCAS as being at fault. It has some real quirks I am reading about but I am careful about pointing a finger at it quite yet. I hope we learn more in the next few days.

  7. March 11, 2019Eltargrim said...


    Points well taken. My friend has done the exact grousing you've mentioned re: the 737 line, but as you say, we'll be better served by waiting for reports from people in the position to know. I appreciate your thorough response.

  8. March 11, 2019redRover said...

    On the subject of air crashes, do you think they'll ever find MH 370? In the absence of further proof, what's your leading theory? I think we've hashed this out before, but I can't find it easily.

  9. March 11, 2019bean said...

    When considering the 737 decision, remember the context. Boeing was still dealing with the fallout from the early trouble on the 787, and the A320neo was racking up orders. Taking a couple of extra years and a bunch of risk to produce a clean-sheet design wasn't really something that Boeing could do. I certainly wish that Boeing could have built something new, but that wasn't really practical.

  10. March 11, 2019redRover said...


    from what I can tell with the Lion Air there were possible airspeed and other indication problems that the pilots were struggling with

    for something to sink your teeth into it very well might be that the MCAS is a single source fault sensor. This is almost too hard for me to believe that this design could have passed muster in this day and age and I am waiting on some solid reporting on this

    I'm surprised that they haven't come out with a state estimator or something like that which tracks the status of all the possible aircraft inputs (GPS, static and pitot pressure, altitude, engine RPMs, fuel flow, position of controls and aerodynamic aids, etc) over time and estimates the "true" state of the aircraft, and then flags if it thinks any of the sensors are faulty or malfunctioning somehow. Obviously the crew should be able to spot such a malfunction and deal with it, but as we saw in the Air France crash, and perhaps in the Lion Air crash, it would be helpful to have something that makes these failures more obvious. (i.e. if the airspeed is wrong, then setting attitude and thrust should stabilize the aircraft)

    You will hear a lot of pilots and other grouse pretty loudly about how Boeing kept the 737 line going when they should have done a “clean sheet” narrow-body build

    My understanding is that (part of) the reason they keep the 737 going is that the basic airframe is certified to 1967 standards and thus has some favorable structural and safety interpretations that wouldn't apply to a clean-sheet design. Obviously that cuts both ways, but apparently it's good enough that the cost-benefit analysis isn't as clear. In talking with people, this is apparently also a huge problem for any potential C-130 replacement, to the degree that it will probably never be clean-sheet replaced, just upgraded.

  11. March 11, 2019Neal said...

    Points well made about the "clean sheet" concept for a 737 replacement. I was perhaps too loose in my call for it. You all pointed out good reasons why a clean sheet is at times neither feasible nor desirable. Plus, my comment was borne out of hope as I wanted to see something new--not an iteration on a 1960's design (some claim the nose from even the 1950's!)

    Something that I learned just a couple years ago was the answer to my question why you could not simply scale down the 777 (or similar) down to a narrow-body gauge. Same instrumentation, cockpit layout, etc. What, so I thought, could be easier than just making it happen and thus you would have your narrow-body replacement?

    Well, you all are probably laughing at my naiveté here because from an engineering and design perspective it is not that simple. Some good articles are floating around out there as to why.

    @Red I agree with you on your point of having an estimator of some kind to help. As you know, there are those who argue that having an Angle of Attack (AoA) gauge would help quite a lot in recognition. While I do subscribe to that to a limited extent, I am not sure it is quite the preventative that those in that corner promise for a number of reasons--one of which is that not all upsets and undesirable flight states take place in a high AoA or stall condition.

    You well remind us of the importance of setting a pitch and power. Thus it seems to be, in my mind, a training problem above all. Initial and recurrent training needs to focus on proper recognition and the skill to concentrate on pitch and power/thrust while the other pilot works the instrumentation and display issues. This is indeed the emphasis at many carriers, but it apparently needs to be drilled over and over.

    The pilot corps as a whole is really wrestling at the moment with this idea of realization that, sadly and unbelievably, our airmanship skills might have rusted to the point that something as basic as setting pitch and power is not our first reaction in an emergency.

    Of course the pilot group is not saying this is an across the board issue, but over the past 10 to 15 years we have seen enough incidents and accidents that make one wonder what happened--and I speak as someone who is extremely loath to place blame...

    With all those words I guess what I am trying to say is that no matter how many warnings/indications, they cannot help us if we ignore what they are saying and do not set a proper flight path. Not quite sure where the balance point is on this one.

    As far as MH37, I had hopes when they tried to search in a broader zone as well as when parts (a flaperon among other things I believe) washed up on the Western fetch of the Indian Ocean.

    Sadly, those hopes have dimmed and I have not read anything recently that ignites any confidence that it would be found. Has anyone seen anything?

  12. March 12, 2019bean said...

    Re the clean sheet, I've heard that too, and it makes a lot of sense.

    I actually got to talk at some length with one of the NTSB guys assigned to the MH 370 case a couple years ago. (He was actually one of the people who discovered the engine locator pings and did the initial plotting. Interesting guy.) He said that as far as he could tell, the pilot just wanted to vanish the plane for some inscrutable reason. Apparently, nobody but the engine manufacturer knew about the data we actually got. Specifically, neither Boeing nor Malaysian knew, so he very nearly got away with just dropping it completely off the face of the Earth.

    I'd also wonder how many of the airmanship problems are actually problems here in the US. Places like Indonesia and Ethiopia don't have the vibrant general aviation communities that turn out pilots who have lots of experience in actually flying, instead of just operating the automatic systems.

  13. March 12, 2019Neal Schier said...

    @Bean Thant must have indeed been an interesting chat with the NTSB guy who was plotting the positions from the pings. Is it true that they were even taking into account the oscillation of the satellites--I heard that they inscribe a very slight figure eight even when geostationary and that the plotters recognized this. Pretty advanced stuff there!

    From my VERY humble vantage point I believe that it was one of the pilots who for whatever reason decided to make it all disappear. Looking at the route of flight after it went off the airways, the altitude changes, and the final turn toward the south speaks to me of definite pilot intervention a number of times. I simply cannot see how an incapacitated cockpit crew could have executed all the altitude and course changes.

    Oddly, there was a lot of emphasis on the captain and his flight simulation hobby, but not as much about the copilot. Either pilot could have done this.

    End effect is that the aviation community is interested not for the prurient details of why someone would commit suicide by aircraft (sadly done a number of times), but rather where the airframe ended up and how it got there. I hope they do find it but look at the difficulty in finding AF 447 and they knew roughly where it should have been.

    On another note, the 737 Max saga is really going, no pun intended, in quite unexpected directions. An issuance by the FAA of a Continuation Airworthiness Notification (if that is the right term) to say the Max is indeed airworthy, but a host of countries requiring a stand-down of that type. Some countries even prohibiting the transit of the Max through their airspace.

    I am wondering (and this is pure speculation here but not a random one) if there is an AoA fault that is coupling with a single fault MCAS system. Of course all is made more complicated by the usual "smoke was streaming from the aircraft" eye-witness reports...

  14. March 12, 2019Directrix Gazer said...

    Bean, I think you might find this very interesting: The June 1944 Normandy Invasion and the Bane of Technologically Illiterate Military Leaders in the Luftwaffe. Lots of juicy details about German vs. British ESM/EW as well as highly effective pre-OVERLORD radio-guided night bombing of German C3 nodes by the RAF.

  15. March 13, 2019bean said...

    @Directrix Gazer

    That was indeed fascinating. I'm slightly surprised that the Allies didn't deal with the squitter problem by setting up a bunch of IFF units and manually triggering them every day for a couple months before the invasion, but I'm sure there's a good reason for not taking that solution.

  16. March 15, 2019Inky said...

    My understanding is that (part of) the reason they keep the 737 going is that the basic airframe is certified to 1967 standards and thus has some favorable structural and safety interpretations that wouldn’t apply to a clean-sheet design.

    Can someone elaborate on what this means?

    Also, captcha no longer works for the old domain when looking from a mobile device.

  17. March 15, 2019bean said...

    Can someone elaborate on what this means?

    The standards for what constitutes a safe airplane are always changing, but we can't just ground everything that doesn't meet the new safety standards. In fact, there isn't even an insistence that everything that rolls off the production line meets those standards. Maybe the design in question dates back to the 80s or 90s, and some rules have changed, but since it's basically safe, and since we're keeping up with any major issues, we'll just let the production line keep rolling.

    But now the manufacturer comes to us and says "Hey, we want to upgrade the plane." Maybe this is just some new avionics, or maybe they have a better way of bonding the skin to keep the roof from coming off. Do we force them to bring the whole design "up to code"? Obviously not. It's a fairly minor change, we make sure it's safe, and then tell them to implement it.

    But now they come back and tell us that they want to hang new engines on it. Well, it's a bigger change, but it's not enough for us to force them to reengineer the whole design, even though we know that the wing design could really use some more attention to fatigue issues. So we go along with it. And there's a couple areas where even the new stuff may not be able to meet the details of the current code because it's having to mate with the decade-old airframe.

    Well, 15 years later they come back, and they tell us they'd like to change the wing to make the plane more efficient. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief that the old one is gone, but since they're sticking with the old engine and don't really want to change the fuselage, are we going to stop them? No.

    OK, that goes well enough for another 20 years or so, until they come back, this time wanting to change both engines and wing. But they still want the original fuselage we approved almost 50 years ago, which has lots of bits that were code-compliant then, but aren't now. Even a lot of the minor upgrades to the fuselage are now in violation of the regs, but since it's still technically an upgrade, we can't force them to fix anything that isn't particularly egregious.

    Also, captcha no longer works for the old domain when looking from a mobile device.

    Captcha hasn't worked for the old domain at all since the new one went up.

  18. March 17, 2019David W said...

    Ran across a joke I thought you'd enjoy, bean: Rejected names for British Battlecruisers, 1910-1915:

  19. March 17, 2019bean said...

    That's pretty good. A few of those were used by Fisher for some of his wackier sketch designs, although most are obviously silly.

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