New York: How Yesterday’s Aeroflot Disaster Echoes the 737 Max Crashes

An Aeroflot passenger jet burst into flames during an emergency landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport yesterday, resulting in a conflagration that left 41 of 78 people aboard the plane dead. The plane, a Sukhoi Superjet SSJ100 operating as Aeroflot Flight 1492, had taken off at 6:03 p.m. local time bound for the Arctic Ocean port of Murmansk. Approximately five minutes after takeoff, the pilot began a spiraling descent to return to the runway. Amateur video footage of the landing shows the plane bouncing several times before flames erupt in the tail of the aircraft. A video shot by a passenger from inside the plane shows flames engulfing the wings as panic set in inside the cabin.

While the plane was not a Boeing and did not involve a control system like the one implicated in the recent crashes of Lionair Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the overall circumstances eerily echo the conditions that led to the loss of the two 737 Max jets. In all three cases, pilots suffered a dangerous and unexpected emergency during takeoff, lost the automation that they were used to relying on, and lacked the necessary skills to adequately handle the ensuing crisis. As such, these crashes illustrate the dangers of poorly integrating human and automatic control, a problem that will only worsen as automation becomes more ubiquitous.

While confirmed details of the Aerofloat crash remain sparse, reporting so far indicates that the plane was flying near thunderclouds at an altitude of 10,000 feet when it was struck by lightning. This caused numerous electronic malfunctions, including intermittent failure of the radio. Unable to declare Mayday verbally, the flight crew switched the aircraft’s transponder — a device that causes the plane to show up on air-traffic control radar screens with identifying information — to transmit a code for “radio failure,” and then for “emergency.” The pilot executed an emergency descent, completing one and a half turns before lining up for final approach to the runway it had taken off from 28 minutes before, according to data provided by Flightradar24.

According to statements by the flight’s pilot, Denis Evdokimov, published in the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, the plane’s electrical problems resulted not only in the autopilot shutting off, but in the plane’s fly-by-wire control system shifting from “normal law” (a mode in which pilots are prevented from putting the plane into a dangerous condition such as an aerodynamic stall) into “direct law” (which offers no protections).

Evdokimov thus had to fly under challenging conditions: under stress, in bad weather, and in a plane that was experiencing numerous equipment failures — notably, without the autopilot systems that pilots normally manage as they fly the approach route into a busy international airport. To make matters worse, the plane was fully laden with fuel, meaning that it was much heavier than normal. Often planes returning to land with a full fuel load will dump fuel or burn it off before attempting to touch down, but Evdokimov did not perform this procedure, perhaps out of a sense of urgency to get the plane back on the ground.

As reported in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Evdokimov claimed that on final approach “the speed was low for landing, normal” and that the plane “approached the ground smoothly, with a decrease in vertical speed.” The fact that the plane bounced several times indicates that it was going too fast: excess speed causes a plane’s wings to generate more lift than is desired, so the plane rises back into the air after touching down. If a pilot fails to handle the controls smoothly, the plane can then “porpoise” in a series of hops that can become increasingly severe. “The plane was jumping up and down like a grasshopper,” passenger Peter Egorov told Komsomolskay Pravda. As the oscillations worsen, they can result in the tail or an underslung engine striking the ground. When a ruptured fuel tank or fuel line meets with a shredded red-hot engine, a conflagration can easily result.

Because nothing in Egorov’s account suggests that the plane had suffered damage that limited its ability to land safely, investigators will likely pay particularly close attention to “human factors” — the psychological limitations that can turn an aircraft incident deadly. Under conditions of extreme stress, such as a lightning strike that causes a cascade of electrical malfunctions, the human brain experiences a phenomenon called “cognitive tunneling” that makes it hard to deal with a crisis creatively. As I write in my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, a person on the verge of panic is unable to process new information or come up with creative solutions. Only very well-learned habits can be performed easily. That’s why experienced pilots like “Sully” Sullenberger can pull off miracles on the Hudson, while more junior pilots can fumble a survivable crisis.

Unfortunately, while the increasing use of automation in aviation has made flying safer overall, the fact that autopilots do most of the flying these days means than human pilots spend relatively little time controlling a plane by hand, leaving them ill-equipped to take the controls in a dangerous and unfamiliar situation. “A constant theme of mine is that designers of electronic systems on airplanes assume that if something goes wrong, pilots will calmly take over,” says aviation journalist and aircraft designer Peter Garrison. “That’s not what happens. The first reaction is bafflement.” Among other recent high-profile crashes in which this dynamic played a role were Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, and Air Asia 8501, which crashed into the Java Sea in 2014.

One solution to the problem would be to make sure that pilots have more training and more flight experience. That’s not the direction the world is moving, however. Global air traffic has surged in recent years, especially in the developing world, creating an acute shortage of veteran pilots. For plane makers, the challenge will be to make planes that can be flown safely by less-qualified pilots, but that also won’t dump those pilots into tough-to-handle crises when the systems malfunction.

Note: This article originally appeared on May 6, 2019 in New York magazine.

11 thoughts on “New York: How Yesterday’s Aeroflot Disaster Echoes the 737 Max Crashes”

  1. Hi Jeff,

    You can record another sales from Europe. Some comments for your book:
    1) I would have paid double to fund futher research
    2) In the speculative scenario you point correctly to the cellphone which connected but I didn’t see the evidence mentioned in the text before. So for readers who don’t follow your block continuesly this might not be fully understood
    3) You spent so much time and money on Yubileniy right from the beginning. Why not giving it a separate chapter in your book
    4) With more money I feel it is worth digging more into Brodsky, Chustrak and Deineka. The social media research points into interesting directions and hence I think this would be worth

    Else a great read!

  2. @Mark, Thanks very much! I also feel that with some additional funds it could be productive to do more research, and I’m working on that. Very much appreciate your support.

  3. Gysbreght said:

    “If there was a connection between MH370 and MH17, then the purpose was simply to hit where its hurts.”

    Sunken Deal said:

    “[…] but one thing I just can’t do is say MH17 and MH370 aren’t related. How so, I don’t know — but the odds of this being just a coincidence are infinitesimal. I just wish everyone can just pause, be intellectually honest, and think about this.”

    Agreed. It’s either a very obvious tit-for-tat or an unbelievably massive coincidence that a close relative of (both) Hishy and Najib was on that particular (MH17) flight on that particular day and hour.

    People tend to overlook that fact when discussing MH17 and what connection it might have had to MH370.

    And if it was tit-for-tat it makes you wonder if the person of interest on MH370 was also travelling under a fake passport, as the Chinese comms guy was.

    Would explain the ‘sealing’ of the CCTV recordings – otherwise why do that?

    Business class might be the place to start looking.

  4. Looks like Boeing’s woes continue…

    “Boeing says its profits for the first quarter of 2019 had fallen by 20% because of lower deliveries of its now controversial and grounded 737-Max jets.”

    Brand Finance, a UK-based consultancy that tracks the value of global brands, rejected the idea that Boeing should abandon the MAX brand but said its corporate reputation was in the firing line.

    “This has without a doubt damaged Boeing’s reputation and we foresee a dent to the (Boeing) brand’s value at over $12 billion.”

    Full article here…

    A classic case of ‘spoiling the ship for a halfpence of tar’.

  5. @Jeff @all

    I come out of my forum sabbatical (!) to bring you some astounding Breaking News…

    It looks like Jeff has elicited a reaction from Liza Deineka who has spoken to a UK tabloid to address the claim her dad is still alive. Yep, the UK’s Daily Star of all places (… the Daily bloody Star..?!!) Quite a scoop on their part, how the hell did they manage that?!

    Liza Deineka said: “The evidence is that he is not dead, so all I can do is hope for the best.

    “I don’t agree with much in his (Jeff’s) article. Starting with the answers, ending the reasons why my dad flew this way. They flew to Beijing to get a visa.

    “No plane wreckage was found, so I can’t be sure that they crashed. All I can do is hope that people could be saved.

    “Unfortunately, so far no one has given us reliable information about what happened to the plane and the people in it.”

    No plane wreckage was found? Oh guess she means actual plane wreckage (cough!) Nor does she directly address her esoteric posts on Sprashivai

    The mystery continues…

  6. @Jeff, here is another important clue in the investigation of the missing of MH370.

    As shown in a chart in, MH370 initially turned southwest at 1:22am (last secondary radar contact), and turned northwest until it was last detected by a primary radar at 2:22am. Then the plane lost trace and is thought to turn south thereafter. It was during this period that SDU was reset and the plane had lowered its altitude by thousands of meters.

    SDU was reset to tamper the satellite data to give a wrong clue of the plane’s direction. Actually the plane continually headed northwest and landed somewhere in a Central Asian country.

    The lowering of height of MH370 has a significant implication, because it suggests that MH370 tried to follow another plane just taking off in order to escape the radar detection along the northwest route. It is an open secrete that when two planes are flying close enough, they appear as a same spot on the radar and can not be detected.

    This can explain why MH370 was not detected by radars along the northwest route before landing. So investigation should be focused on finding all the planes that took off from the area (e.g. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore) and had northwestern destinations around 1am on Match 8, 2014. This allows us to better understand exactly in which country and where MH370 had landed.

  7. @York, You wrote, “…investigation should be focused on finding all the planes that took off from the area (e.g. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore) and had northwestern destinations around 1am on Match 8, 2014.” This idea was considered quite early on. Unfortunately, there were no flights that matched the Inmarsat data.

  8. @Jeff, what Inmarsat data are you talking about? The Inmarsat data from MH370 was tampered, and of course, no flights matched the data.

    What I mean is to find all the flights headed northwest around that time and find out all of their destinations. MH370 should have landed closely to one of them (of course, it is possible that MH370 had switched to another plane).

    The last primary radar was at 2:22am and the reboot of SDU happened at 2:25am. These are not coincident and suggest that after 2:22am, MH370 had followed closely to another plane and so lost in further radar detection, while Inmarsat data was tampered right after that and so its true path is no longer recorded.

  9. @York, Only the BFO portion of the Inmarsat data is readibly spoofable. The BTO data is likely correct, and it does not match any commercial flights.

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