September 23, 2019

Open Thread 35

It's our usual open thread. Talk about whatever you want.

Interesting thing this time is related to this blog's occasional sideline in commercial aviation. The NYT Magazine has an interesting article on the piloting problems involved in the MAX crashes. Fully endorsed, except for the characterization of Boeing as a generally awful company. Weapons are important, and if you don't like who they're selling arms to, take it up with the State Department.

Overhauled posts include my reviews of Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum and Mystic Seaport, the Nimrod Saga, Auxiliaries Part 3, the first part of my series on secondary armament, and the Wartime Battlecruisers.


  1. September 23, 2019quanticle said...

    The criticism of Boeing as a weapons supplier was so far removed from the primary topic of the article that I felt like it was a way of deflecting outrage from people who'd bought into the prevailing media narrative that said that the crashes were entirely Boeing's fault due to its greed and short-sightedness in making the MCAS reliant on a single non-redundant sensor. It's as if the author was saying, "Oh, don't worry, there are still plenty of reasons to hate Boeing!"

  2. September 23, 2019bean said...

    Yes, but what if you're someone who doesn't want people to hate Boeing at all, because you think they're a pretty good company that builds great airplanes? (And the 737CL, but that's another story.)

  3. September 23, 2019quanticle said...

    It looks like Lockheed is going to be equipping the entire Littoral Combat Ship fleet with a new surface to surface missile module that consists of 24 Hellfire Longbow missiles mounted in a vertical launch configuration. This is advertised as an "up-gunning" of the LCS to make it more able to operate in a high-intensity combat situation.

    The Hellfire Longbow is a variant of the well-known Hellfire missile that replaces the laser-homing guidance head with a millimeter wave radar that turns it into a "fire-and-forget" weapon, capable of tracking and even acquiring targets after launch. Despite the name, it's not clear to me that the Longbow variant actually has any more range than the normal Hellfire.

    My take is that this isn't enough. The Hellfire is an anti-tank missile, designed to operate at a maximum range of roughly 10 km or so. That's a pretty huge range on land, but it's practically point-blank at sea. Even operating against fast boats in a constrained environment like the Straits of Hormuz, it seems like it'll struggle to engage with adversaries before the adversaries are able to launch their own weapons and flee.

    When I heard the name, "Surface to Surface Missile Module", I thought they were equipping these boats with Harpoons, not glorified ATGMs.

  4. September 23, 2019bean said...

    Note that they're also getting NSM, which has a range of ~100nm. Longbow Hellfire is intended for shooting at small boats, which usually have bad sensor suites and confused crews, and it's a good missile for the task. NSM is better for anti-ship work, although the US has always viewed hunting enemy ships as a task for aircraft. Between NSM, LRASM and Harpoon updates, I think the picture isn't as bad as it looks at first.

  5. September 23, 2019Alsadius said...

    Saw an interesting link on Facebook, about the USN doing a stress test of their naval transport reserve ships. Apparently, they test occasional ships, but the archaic engines are hard to find crews for, so they tend to have a core crew that shuffles around testing each ship sequentially. And now they're activating 28 ships at once. I suspect some people are going to have a really fun week.

  6. September 23, 2019Neal said...

    Here is one of the first rebuttals that is starting to appear against Langewiesche's views as expressed in his NYT opinion piece: ... 546f20ec9a

    I concede that the author of this rebuttal (whom I do not know btw) drives into a couple of potholes in this piece, but I give him high marks for his overall points.

    I admit to a serious dislike of much of Langewiesche's work in that he often imputes thoughts and intentions into individuals that the facts simply do not reflect. He may, or may not, be correct but if he is it is only by guess.

    Why, for example, does he judge the Boeing engineering corps to have a "bland integrity?" What type of integrity should, according to him, they have? What metric should be used to measure it? Are Boeing engineers a bunch of hapless layabouts and not up to Langewiesche's rigorous self-standards? His writing is unfortunately full of these tics.

    He has a wide readership but the imputation of thoughts and intent, among other things, is opinion and not rigorous reporting. I feel that he owes his audience better for what his is doing is sloppy at best and borders on dishonest.

    Langewiesche did raise valid points to be sure, but his tone was too eager by a half to discount what the pilots were facing while not criticizing Boeing in quite the way that it has merited criticism. (Topic for another day)

    The biggest problem that I have with his NYT opinion article is the same problem that I have with nearly every one of his aviation pieces and that is an arrogance that has bred a disdain for pilots of transport aircraft.

    Not that we as a group do not need frequent evaluation and perhaps even a lesson or two in humility, but just because our fathers were not the author of Stick and Rudder does not mean that the modern piloting corps did not pick up a thing or two over the years. Most approach piloting as a craft and strive to maintain proficiency and solid situational awareness.

    All this to say that Langewiesche all too frequently allows his disdain to adversely color his reporting--reporting that then ends up being more opinion than anything else.

  7. September 24, 2019quanticle said...


    Oh, I completely missed the mention of them getting the NSM. The "upgunning" characterization makes a lot more sense now. I'm still not 100% sold on the LCS, but I suppose that with the NSM we could use them as jury-rigged fast missile boats if we need to.

  8. September 24, 2019quanticle said...

    @Alsadius (and also possibly @bean)

    How hard is it to replace the engines on a ship? I'm asking because in the Wikipedia article for the Paranaíba, it's mentioned that the original reciprocating steam plants for the boat were replaced more reliable and longer range diesel engines in the '90s. Could the US do something similar to its naval transport reserve ships so one crew doesn't have to be overstressed every time the US wants to see whether its reserve is actually functional? Moreover, what would the US Navy do if an actual war broke out and the naval reserve had to be reactivated? It doesn't sound like there are enough crewmembers to actually run more than a few of the ships at once.

  9. September 24, 2019bean said...


    Reasonable points. I liked it as a counterpoint to the "it's all Boeing's fault!" narrative that dominated the early coverage. My biases are rather the opposite of yours, but even taking them into account, it's hard to explain why someone would forget the cuttoff switches, not throttle back with the overspeed clacker going off, and attempt to use the autopilot as a recovery device if they weren't essentially unqualified to fly the plane. I'll also say that his comments on aviation training outside the West align with what I've heard from other sources. His swipes at US airline pilots are probably unfair.

    I actually took the "bland integrity" line to be a somewhat-backhanded compliment to Boeing, and it aligns with my experience in that industry. The only really inexplicable part of the whole story on Boeing's side is where the MCAS didn't get hooked up to both AoA vanes. Everything else, particularly not noting the MCAS in the transition documentation, strikes me as entirely reasonable and something I might have done in their shoes.

  10. September 24, 2019bean said...


    Interesting. I suspect the "one crew that goes around and tests each ship sequentially" is more a cost-saving measure than anything else. It's a lot cheaper to employ a crew on a steady job than to try to scrape together scratch groups each time you need to fire up a ship. But yes, the RRF has become increasingly hard to man as steam has left the world's merchant fleets.


    Depends on a lot of things, but it's usually not cheap. The RRF is pretty old, and they don't get used a lot, so it's probably cheaper to pay people to maintain currency. And maybe just build/buy new ships. I believe there's a global glut of Ro-Ro vessels right now, so it's probably a good time to do so.

  11. September 24, 2019ec429 said...

    The Langewiesche article reads to me like something out of the arguments 30 years ago about the Airbus A320 pilot-as-manager 'cocoon'; somehow the author manages to juxtapose "pilots have managed to crash the 320 at about the same rate, largely because of confusion over automation" with calling the Airbus a "masterpiece" and doesn't at all see the inconsistency.

    FWIW my view of the 737MAX fiasco is a fairly simple one: Boeing followed Airbus down the let's-make-the-plane-smart-to-protect-it-from-dumb-pilots road, and got Airbus results — i.e. a plane with a 'mind of its own' (great way to get the pilots behind the aeroplane, that!) which causes as many accidents as it avoids. When designing systems with a human interface, the human is to a first approximation a constant which you must accommodate; training can make that human more effective but it can't paper over a human-factors disaster area — if the pitfalls are there, eventually someone will slip into them. The 'obvious' fix may not be quite so 'obvious' when you are on the spot, without the benefit of hindsight, at the controls of an aeroplane that's just started trying to fly itself into the ground, sending your stress levels up as fast as the plane is going down. Debugging a complex system is hard enough when you're not seeing the Grim Reaper out the corner of your eye.

    Langewiesche doesn't see any of this, because he's (a) too in love with Zieglerism and (b) determined to blame it all on the 'untrained' pilots and thus on the deregulation. I hate to get political here, but with the way he hammers on the commercial side of things (also in the maintenance context) he's clearly trying to push a subtext of "free markets kill people!"; an understandable aim when your employer is the NYT, I suppose.

    The airlines putting 'checklist children' in the cockpit aren't wildcats without concern for the safety of their passengers. Rather, they're just doing precisely what Airbus (and now Boeing) promised them the glitzy new tech would enable; the entire marketing pitch behind the A320 was, when stripped to its essentials, that expensive pilots (as captains and airmen responsible for the passengers and hull) could be replaced with, in effect, technicians, as a first step towards removing them entirely and having planes fly themselves.

    While the airlines were fools to believe them, it is not they, nor the pilots they hired on that basis, whom I blame for the crashes; rather, I consider those who pushed the cult of Zieglerism, and who used 'pilot error' as a justification for a design philosophy that produces more pilot error, to be responsible.

  12. September 24, 2019bean said...

    In general, I'm with you on being anti-Ziegler and preferring Boeing's design philosophy to Aribus's. But I'm not sure this particular case can be blamed on too much automation so much as poorly executed automation. Boeing screwed up by not using both sensors. The MCAS itself should have only triggered in extreme cases when the pilots really needed help.

    But at the same time, I also think Boeing got monumentally unlucky in how this all played out. If this had happened first at, say, Southwest or American, I'm quite sure the crew would saved the plane and someone in Seattle would have said "What idiot set it up that way?" They'd have pushed out a patch, and nobody would have noticed. Or even if there had been a bit more time after the first crash to get the patch I'm sure they were working on out.

  13. September 24, 2019Wiggles said...

    When Boeing first analysed the risks associated with MCAS it was limited to 0.6° of control authority per cycle, so the effect of unwarranted activation was assessed as a risk level that allowed them to use a single sensor, and this was approved by the FAA.

    Flight tests found that 0.6° of authority was insufficient at low speeds, so Boeing increased MCAS's authority to 2.5° per cycle. However, they never ran this past the FAA as the previous analysis (based on 0.6° authority) found that it wasn't a critical system.

    They also continued to rely on a single sensor as the previous analysis (0.6° authority) indicated that this was all that was required.

    They never analysed the effect of subsequent activations.

    And Re. pilot training, the fact remains that the 737 Max 8 had 2 fatal accidents within 18 months of introduction to service, and with a worldwide fleet of less than 400 aircraft. The 737 Max 8 has had ~3.1 fatal crashes per million flights, compared with a global average of 0.19 in 2018-2019, and a five year average of 0.12. If the average 737 Max 8 pilot is no worse that the average pilot across the entire commercial aviation sphere, that would indicate a serious issue with the Max 8.

    Now that's not to say that piloting, and their interaction with automation didn't contribute to the accident, but had the system been better designed, the pilots wouldn't have been put into a situation where their mistakes led to 2 fatal accidents.

    Also, the age of "Airmanship" didn't have a better safety record. Even with the "technicians" flying these days, the fatality rate in air transport is 16 times lower than what it was 40 years ago.

  14. September 24, 2019ec429 said...

    But I’m not sure this particular case can be blamed on too much automation so much as poorly executed automation.

    On the object level, you're probably right. But the more automation you do, the more likely you are to execute some of it poorly (software development scales painfully if you need airliner-level reliability). Also, the more MCAS-like things you have (where the plane can think it knows best and start to fight you), the harder it is for a pilot to remember them all and successfully figure out which one is the problem, even when they are all documented. (This is why I seethe at Langewiesche saying 'wow these (second incident) pilots are dumb, how could you fail to recognise the obvious symptoms of MCAS failure?'; surely there are plenty of other faults with at least somewhat similar symptoms. I'm reminded of Yudkowsky's argument that most of the evidence for a hypothesis is used up just bringing it to your attention.)

    In any case, calling the MCAS "automation" is (now that I think about it some more) a little bit misleading. I'm reminded of something Jeff Greason said about using software to patch over handling issues. Langewiesche calls the 737MAX's stall characteristics "entirely new", but he seems to be describing something not unheard of in previous aeroplanes: a 'mushy' stall that a pilot can enter without realising. (Unhelpfully, he's not clear on whether the control forces increase above or below linear — nor what they're supposed to be a linear function of.) The decision to work around this with "synthetic control forces", created not by artificial feel or even a trim tab on the elevator, but trimming the stab (thus meaning that not only the force but also the position of the yoke for neutral pitch changes), seems misguided to me. It feels like some developer thought up a kluge (that turned out to be a kludge) and no-one said "hang on, this isn't good enough".

    I also think Boeing got monumentally unlucky in how this all played out.

    Again, yes they did, but how many times (I wonder) have they shipped similar bugs and been lucky? If the MCAS problem had gone like your counter-factual, would any of us even have heard of it? My hunch (based on no data ;) is that we wouldn't.

    I used to work in QA (of a network driver, not anything life-critical) and we generally treated a test escape — an issue seen for the first time in the field — as a big warning sign that our testing had holes. The Boeing CEO's "no surprise" statement suggests to me that their culture may not have that, which I find alarming.

    (Not that I'm trying to rag on Boeing specifically; a lot of these problems [](are much more widespread). The 737MAX just provides a — hopefully — teachable moment.)

  15. September 24, 2019Neal said...

    Good discussion here. I try to seperate some of the elements of these accidents as we are looking at a number of suspected deficiencies. Langewiesche seemed to fall into an either/or trap. In his blinkered view Boeing gets a pass (to a certain extent but not completely) and the pilots did bad. Whereas Bean's readership recognizes that this is not the proper lens and is severely limiting in a quest to prevent such occurrences in the future.

    Ec429 and Bean: I am glad to see your mention of Zieglerism. It is a topic for discussion and debate, but as ec mentions, Langewiesche does not see what he is doing with it. This is not to beat an incessant drum against Langewiesche, but rather that we constantly need to evaluate and train according to the technology we are using.

    F. Lee Bailey's maxim was prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. That should be our training motto. When the manufacturers promise increased automation to reduce training footprints one should hoist a red flag to ensure the training remains in lockstep with the technology.

    Decreased/decreasing accident and incident rates over the past decades indicates that much is being done correctly. The challenge is to continue to train using the tools at hand.

    Langewiesche should also know that the accident logs are as full of errors of judgment as they are a lack of "hands" or "being a good stick." The line between them is grey, but overall judgement is a must. I admire a pilot with good and practiced judgment over if he was flying his Cub into the backwaters of Idaho the previous weekend. Airmanship is a deep and broad concept that goes beyond just what he implies.

    The discussion of these accidents has obviously been a hot topic of discussion on both U.S. and international pilot chat forums. I tend to go with those who say they would certainly like to believe that they would have thought of this as a trim malfunction and cutout the trim using the two trim cutout switches...but...this had to be an extremely startling event. Stall and overspend warnings concurrently (on the Ethiopian I believe) must have just rattled the brain. They had their hands full to be sure. I just don't know and it is cause for some serious self-assessment to be sure.

  16. September 26, 2019Alsadius said...

    Regarding the merchant activation, of course it's simpler to have one crew than dozens. I'd wager the results of this test will determine whether they update the fleet, update the staffing procedures, or say "Much to our surprise, this is actually okay".

    Regarding MCAS, there was at least one prior incident where the system went haywire and the pilot fixed it...on the Lion Air plane that crashed, the day before the crash. So clearly some pilots did know how to fix it, but equally clearly, that "This system is bad" news didn't flow up to Boeing and back down to pilots nearly fast enough to prevent two crashes.

    On a side note, I suspect the Max 8 would be one of the safer aircraft to fly today, even with the MCAS totally unpatched. Everyone vaguely interested in aviation, all over the world, knows the problem and knows how to fix it. It's like how box cutters on airplanes stopped being a real safety hazard on 9/11, because every group of passengers on the planet would Flight 93 anyone who tried that little trick.

  17. September 26, 2019AlphaGamma said...

    On the subject of weapons to fire at small boats, details are emerging of the Royal Navy's new Type 31 frigate, the contract for which was just awarded to a Babcock-led consortium with their Arrowhead 140 design (based on the hull of Denmark's Iver Huidtfeldt-class frigates).

    This is an interesting ship as it's designed to be a cheaper 'general purpose' frigate to increase hull numbers. Initially analysts pictured it as a glorified corvette or OPV, but the final design will be quite large if lightly armed. Armament will initially consist of 1x 57mm and 2x 40mm guns and the Sea Ceptor SAM system, plus a helicopter (the hangar can take a Merlin).

  18. September 26, 2019bean said...

    Interesting article, and it looks like the Brits have a pretty good ship on their hands. They've definitely taken "steel is cheap and air is free" to heart, which is a good thing. Plenty of room to grow, or to hold random things that come out of other budgets.

  19. September 26, 2019Jade Nekotenshi said...

    I'm guessing the choice of the 57mm over the 76mm is driven by cost-cutting in a major way - given the presence of the 40mm guns, I'd rather have the greater per-shell payload and guided round capability from the 76mm. But I suppose I can see where cost - or maybe trying really hard not to buy Italian systems, for whatever reason - would be a driving factor.

  20. September 26, 2019cassander said...

    on the type 31, I'm not a fan of the 57mm, but we could do worse for FFG(X), and probably will, especially at that price.

  21. September 26, 2019bean said...

    I'm not actually sure that the 57mm is cheaper than the 76mm. It might be a better self-defense gun, but the real loss will be fire support capability. Fortunately, the Type 26 seems to have that covered.

  22. September 30, 2019bean said...

    I got my copy of The Battleships of the Iowa Class - A Design and Operational History, by Philippe Caresse on Saturday. Thankfully, Lord Nelson allowed me to have it immediately (it's supposed to be a birthday present, and that's not until the end of October) and I spent a couple of hours looking through it. Overall, impressions are mixed. On the good side, it's full of great photographs, a surprising percentage of which I didn't recognize, which probably means they're previously unpublished. On the bad side, it doesn't really deserve the subtitle. On design and technical matters, several sources outperform it by huge margins, most notably Sumrall, Friedman and Dulin and Garzke. The history is decent, but not anything special. Overall, I'd describe it as the best photographic collection on the class, but not a major landmark in our understanding of them, even if it's priced like it is. If you want that, you're better off here.

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