Podcast: China, Boeing And A Mysterious Crash

Aviation Week editors and guest Richard Aboulafia delve into the implications of this week’s tragic 737-800 crash in China and where the investigation stands.

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Rush Transcript

Joe Anselmo:                Welcome to this week's Check 6 podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week's Editorial Director.

                                    There are still no clear cut answers as to what caused this week's crash of a Boeing 737-800 operated by China Eastern Airlines. All 132 passengers and crew numbers were killed when the seven-year-old aircraft, which was cruising at just over 29,000 feet, went into a rapid dive and crashed just halfway into its one hour and 55 minute domestic flight. The aircraft involved is not a Boeing 737 MAX, but the tragedy occurred as Boeing was hoping that Chinese government would lift its three year old grounding of the MX allowing regular service to resume in one of the world's most crucial airline markets. 

                                    We're going to come at this today from several angles. Joining us are Sean Broderick, Aviation Week's top safety editor; Jens Flottau, our executive editor for commercial aviation; and special guest Richard Aboulafia, a managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory. Sean, let's kick this off with you. Aviation Week doesn't wildly speculate on air crashes. If someone wants that they should turn on cable news. So just tell us the facts as this you know them -- we're recording on Thursday morning in Washington, DC. What happened? What do we know? And what don't we know?

Sean Broderick:             Simply put, we don't know a whole lot in terms of what officials have released in the last three days. I mean, as you pointed out clearly in the intro, this airplane was on a seemingly routine domestic flight of about two hours in duration. Little more than an hour into that it departed what was apparently a routine cruise and within three minutes struck the side of a mountain. The investigators that have been releasing facts so far confirmed that air traffic control attempted to contact the airplane, ‘immediately’ was the translated word that came out of the press conference, immediately after the descent began. They attempted to contact the crew multiple times, and there was no response. There were three pilots on the aircraft, apparently all three in the cockpit, with one acting as an observer, a trainer as an observer, the captain and the first officer both relatively experienced. In fact, the first officer, one of the first certified airline pilots in China, with over 30,000 hours.

                                    In terms of what's been discovered at the accident scene, again, very little detail in terms of specific pieces of debris, condition of debris. It's still a search and rescue mission. I think that's important to emphasize, at least according to officials now, at this point. So 132 people, no sign of survivors. In terms of what's been recovered, the cockpit voice recorder was recovered within the last 24 hours, so about a day ago. That's going to be read out at a lab in Beijing, according to officials. Still searching for the flight data recorder. 

                                    The debris field is pretty tightly compact, according to the latest information to come out of China, about 30 square meters, but there has been at least one significant piece of debris found outside of that --not confirmed to be part of the wreckage, but the fact that the officials would bring it up during a press conference suggests they strongly believe it was part of the airplane. And it was about 10 kilometers away. That indicates at least there were tremendous forces acting upon the plane during its descent, not necessarily indicative of anything that would have led to the descent. Very difficult to rule anything out at this point, simply because not enough information has been released by investigators. As soon as they get, assuming the cockpit voice recorder is in condition to provide the usual information that a CVR does, that will probably change very quickly.

Joe Anselmo:                So you're still scratching your head on this one, basically?

Sean Broderick:             Oh, absolutely. And that's typically the case early on. I think in hindsight, people like to believe they really understood in the first few days of an accident what went wrong, but I think that hindsight is currying favor there in people's minds. I mean, I look at recent examples, the Atlas Air accident, for example. I don't think anybody would've dreamed that a mode would be activated erroneously and a pilot would suffer spatial disorientation while going into a cloud and push an already descending airplane down into the ground. That looked very different until some very specific facts came out. That's just one example.

                                    So yeah, plenty of head scratching and really less than head scratching. It's more about listening to what's coming out of the official investigation and hanging any bets on that. I mean, as you pointed out at the beginning, that's as far as we go at Aviation Week.

Joe Anselmo:                Jens Flottau, the 737-800. Lots of them in operation, very safe aircraft. And China has a first-rate air safety system. That all makes this crash even more baffling.

Jens Flottau:                 Yes, that's true. You have to say China has always taken safety very, very seriously. And that's reflected in its safety records. If you look back over the last 20 years or so, the last really major accident is in 2010, a Hainan Airlines Embraer 190, a landing accident that killed 44 people. And then if you just look at the big three carriers, China Southern, China Eastern, Air China, the last fatal accident was in 1997, a China Southern 737-300 at the time, again, a landing accident. That one happened in Shenzhen. Everything in between was smaller airlines, regional aircraft or luckily incidents that weren't fatal.

                                    I've said that, China's taken or has always taken safety seriously. How have done that? There's various different ways. Obviously we all know how fast China has grown over the past decades, but actually several times has the government come in and limited growth by deferring approval for new airline startups, by limiting growth and its control of ongoing operations has also been pretty tight. Even after this crash here, they've ordered all of the airlines to review their processes, to look for hidden weaknesses that may impact safety. So in terms of safety, China is really, at least over the past two decades, a real success story.

Joe Anselmo:                Richard Aboulafia, I want to again acknowledge that 132 people lost their lives in this tragedy. That is at the forefront. Our condolences go out to their families. But there are also business implications for this, for Boeing, depending on how it plays out, no?

Richard Aboulaf...:        Of course. You're exactly right about the tragedy. And you think of the people, lives cut short. But looking at the importance of the market to Boeing and to the industry, it's pretty substantial. On the other hand, things had been changing in China, thankfully not destroying all of the fast growth, but some of it. Something happened sometime over the past few years, predating the pandemic, You watched air travel demand market growth shrink from well into the two digits. I think in even as late as fourth quarter 2018, it was 12.2% year-over-year growth. And before the pandemic, in late 2019, it shrank to just 5.3%. So we're still digesting the implications and it was clearly related to the government's shift away from wealth creation in a market economy.

                                    But up until that moment, it was easily the most important market in the world, the fastest growing export market in the world. They were ramping up to take about 30% of global single aisle output. And it didn't seem like anything could stop that process, except of course, a deliberate government move to get people to return to the bad old days of a state run economy, and to think twice about any form of consumption, really. So things had been changing. But nevertheless, the general feeling was even with that new lower level of growth, they were still an enormously important market. One aspect of it though, of course, is that it had been a highly political market. You've got this sort of dual factor ordering system, which Jens alluded to before,  where you have airlines saying what they want, but not having those orders converted to firm orders until the PRC government gave final sign off. 

                                    That inherently politicized the process. And because of the trade war with the U.S. over the past few years, Boeing had been watching its market share diminish. It hadn't really seen any orders of any significance for the past four or five years, unfortunately for them. And there were all kinds of concerns that Airbus would be increasing its market share, largely for geopolitical reasons. So it's within this greater context. And of course the MAX re-certification debate and the inherent politicization that has perhaps slow rolled that process, then all of a sudden this tragedy takes place.

Joe Anselmo:                And it seemed like, well, as Boeing's been saying for months that the MAX was on the cusp of getting clearance to fly again in China, right?

Richard Aboulaf...:        Yeah, that's exactly right. And of course, given the fact that they're the only really important market out there that hasn't re-certified it and had been deliberately taking its time in re-certifying it, was pretty clear that process had been somewhat politicized. And there were theories that maybe there'd be some sort of grand trade agreement and there'd be a compromise reached and that would accelerate it, but it didn't look like anything was going to make things happen faster. And on top of that, you have this situation with resurgence of COVID, because of the zero COVID tolerance policy and a vaccine of perhaps debatable effectiveness, really kind of not putting a whole lot of stress upon the system. In other words, it's not like capacity was tight and people were screaming for deliveries of the MAX to resume. So that gave them a bit of breathing room in terms of the capacity demand to, well, keep slow rolling things.

Jens Flottau:                 I might add to what Richard has said that Airbus has also not found it easy to make any new business in China of late. For both manufacturers, the backlog is becoming small in China. The deliveries that are planned for the next few years are really a fraction of what they once were. Airbus has been hoping that a follow up order approved by the central government would have happened by now. It has not. And I guess part of it is that for now China doesn't need any additional aircraft. It's got a large fleet right there. COVID is not yet over, particularly in China. So the commercial outlook for both is not as promising as it used to be.

Joe Anselmo:                Sean, Richard and Jens talked about politicization in terms of selling and operating aircraft in China. But have you seen any signs of that in this investigation? I haven't.

Sean Broderick:             Not so far. One item worth noting is that the airline involved, China Eastern. did ground only its 737-800s -- now that's basically its 737 NG fleet -- out of an abundance of caution, I suppose. They certainly didn't point to any airworthiness issues as justifying that. 

                                    Now China of course was the first country to ground the 737 MAX after the second accident. So proponents of that early move, which in hindsight appeared to be the right move, important to remember that was the second accident. So in the crudest of terms, they had two data points, two accidents of the same type of airplane within five months. This time around the CAAC, which would not hesitate to make such a move if they believe it was justified, clearly hasn't seen anything yet to justify such an order. They have stepped up inspections on just about everything that makes up part of the air transport system over there, the airlines, ground service providers, MRO providers, air traffic control, pilot training centers. And they've revamped some of the crew assignment protocols for their airlines in terms of the amount of experience they want on the flight deck. So really they're covering all their bases now, waiting for more clues out of the investigation that will guide them on a more prudent path.

Joe Anselmo:                Guys in our efforts not to speculate, I think we've been dancing around one thing, which is the possibility of a bad actor being involved in this, a German Wings or something like that. I mean that hasn't been ruled out, has it?

Sean Broderick:             Nothing's been, I mean, very little has been ruled out at this point. If you buy the online ADSB data that shows a rapid descent, if you use that as your box and all your theories have to fit into it, of course that is one that fits, but there are others as well. We just went through almost two years of scrutiny of the 737 family. Most of it was on the MAX, but the MAX fundamentally is really not very different from the NG. And regulators went through an extremely detailed analysis of failure modes, including runaway stabilizers. And there were instances where Boeing was forced to replicate very improbable runaway stabilizer scenarios and show how either their philosophy of pilot reaction or the design of the new flight control software on the MAZ would render those with as little risk as possible. 

                                    On the 737 MAX they implemented cross flight control computer monitoring to protect against some of those, again, extremely remotely probable failures. Not all of those failures had to do with MCAS. It says right in the FAA summary report on the MCAS return to service that those protections are against MCAS malfunctions or any other erroneous flight control computer generated stabilizer trim command. Is it probable that would happen, especially with the history of the 737 NG? No. Is it possible? Absolutely. 

                                    The relocation of the wires, which was another big step that MAX operators had to go through before they could put those airplanes back in service, those were related to stabilizer wiring too. Same exact wiring that's on the NG. The reason why the MAXs had to have them relocated was a rule change. Again, is it probable that some sort of short would cause a malfunction based on the NG's service history? No. Based on Boeing's analysis, no. But the rule change was put in place and the FAA made operators change it for the MAX, so is it a possibility? Yes. There are things that fit into that box, including a deliberate act.

Joe Anselmo:                Richard, what do you think?

Richard Aboulaf...:        Well, I'll defer to Sean of course, but it's more than just the ADSB data, of course. There's the video that looks like a plane going straight down, and it's very tough to make a plane do that while it's intact. So again, reiterating Sean's very important point that we know exactly nothing and we're going to find out a whole hell of a lot more when they open up the recorders, I think I'd give slightly greater weight to the idea of malice being involved, just because of that central fact. But again, so many other possibilities.

Joe Anselmo:                So guys, how long is this going to take? Sean, you pointed out at the beginning that air crashes, it takes a long time to figure out what happened usually, or often.

Sean Broderick:             Well, I don't think it will take long for them to determine the general category. I mean, do we have some sort of operation or mechanical problem? Or something more along the lines of an intentional act or some sort of some external factor? I don't think that will take long. If it falls into the technical or mechanical side or something the pilots did and understanding why they may have done what they done or why a the particular part failed, that will take longer. But getting to the point of knowing which path to go down, hopefully will not take very long. 

                                    The data from either recorder, I think, would very quickly tell investigators what's happening. And also some more details from the accident site. I mean, if they find, major pieces of flight controls or structure far away from the scene, that could help them, could help them, get further down the road. But again, I mean, as Richard pointed out, if you have an airplane coming down at that rate and at that angle, things are probably going to start breaking off. So it's about how, why, that descent was initiated. I mean, that's what primarily what investigators are going to be looking at.

Joe Anselmo:                Jens Flottau, let's give you the final word.

Jens Flottau:                 I try to look at this from a big picture point of view, a Boeing point of view. And if you're Boeing, you just have to be absolutely horrified that this is, I mean, it's always bad to lose an aircraft and to lose so many lives, that said right at the start of this. And you just have to be horrified if you're Boeing that, something, a failure, a mechanical failure or a design flaw has caused this or could have contributed to this, just given, I mean as I said, it's always bad, but look at what else this company has to deal with right now. Just getting production up, the 787 issues, the certification issues that affect the 777X, the ongoing exercise to rebuild trust in the MAX, that's not completed as far as I can tell. So there's so much, and it would just be really, really another, it would be another big issue for them if a design flaw was involved here.

                                    And again, I have to say, we know nothing and I'm not saying there is one.

Joe Anselmo:                Okay, well, Jens Flottau, Richard Aboulafia, Sean Broderick, thank you for sharing your insights on this tragedy. That is a wrap for this week's Check 6 podcast. Special Thanks to our podcast editor in London, Guy Ferneyhough. Join us again next week for another episode. Until then, why not catch up and subscribe to Aviation Week's MRO podcast on the aftermarket, or our BCA podcast on business aviation. You can find both of those podcasts wherever you're listening to this one. And one last request, if you're listening to us on Apple Podcast and want to support this podcast, please leave us a star rating or a review. Bye for now and stay safe.

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.

Richard Aboulafia

Contributing columnist Richard Aboulafia is managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory. He is based in Washington.


1 Comment
A possible cause. Auto pilot engaged. The Mach trim malfunctions and trims nose down until the Auto pilot reaches its limits and disconnects. A severely out of trim aircraft pitches down and accelerates. The crew manages to recover from the dive but exceeds the ultimate load factor of the aircraft in the process. Stabilizer control failure results.