WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump lamented the complexity of modern airplanes Tuesday in the wake of two deadly crashes in the past five months, appearing to speculate on the cause of the disasters before aviation experts from the United States and elsewhere complete their investigations.
The president commented as much of the world grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 model involved in both crashes.
Trump tweeted that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.” He did not specifically mention the crashes, but his comments come just two days after an Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed all 157 people aboard and as a cascade of countries worldwide began suspending use of the plane.
“Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger,” Trump tweeted. “All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”
The president’s tweet came as lawmakers were examining the future of the aviation industry during a congressional hearing Tuesday morning.
“I have a hard time interpreting anything the president says,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said after reading the tweet aloud. “I don’t know if this is a knock at Boeing, or if it’s a knock at pilots or if it’s a knock at Einstein, or just that he’s a Luddite and it’s a knock at technology in general. But it doesn’t seem to be the right attitude at this moment.”
Patrick Smith, who flies a Boeing 767 aircraft and writes a column called “Ask the Pilot,” said Trump’s tweet reinforces the false notion that computers are flying the plane while pilots are there as a backup.
“People have a vastly exaggerated understanding of what cockpit automation actually does, and how pilots interact with that automation,” Smith said. “… The pilots are still flying the plane. They’re not flying it in the strictly hands-on way they would have in the 1930s, but you’re still commanding, you’re still controlling, the aircraft. You have to tell the automation what to do, how to do it and when to do it.”
Smith said that even with the most sophisticated airplanes, “there’s always a way to just fall back on raw pilot skills if you need to.”
Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, a pilot, said the president “has a point” but “if you train the pilots to operate the systems, then it’s not too complex.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Fox News that “we have to review and see what actually took place. We know that a lot of the people in the industry have started to voice concerns about the amount of technology and taking the power out of the hands of the pilot. You saw the president talk about that in his tweets earlier today.”
Sanders also confirmed that Trump did speak by telephone Tuesday with Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg. She would not reveal details of what they discussed but said the administration is “monitoring the situation closely.”
Anti-stall technology is suspected of playing a role in the Lion Air crash in October that killed all 189 aboard. Data released by Indonesian investigators indicates that pilots struggled unsuccessfully to counter the system, which repeatedly pointed the plane’s nose down and may have sent it into a death spiral.
Trump has long had an intense interest in the airline industry, once acquiring a fleet of planes in 1989 from the defunct Eastern Air Lines shuttle business. Time magazine once described the venture as a bust that never turned a profit and eventually defaulted. It was later sold to USAir.
Shortly before Trump came into office, he complained about the cost of new Air Force One planes, tweeting: “Costs are out of control, more than USD$4 billion. Cancel order!”
The White House said last July that the Air Force awarded Boeing a $3.9 billion contract for two presidential planes that will be ready in 2024. Sanders said the final price represented a savings of $1.4 billion from an initial contract proposal. Trump also said the familiar baby blue color on the presidential aircraft would give way to a red, white and blue color scheme.
Story: Kevin Freking