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 several countries announced that they were grounding their fleets of the Boeing 737 Max 8 model involved in both crashes, or closing their airspace to the planes.
Trump tweeted that “airplanes are becoming 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-Nevada, 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.”
Pilot 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.”
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.”
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.
Associated Press writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed to this report.
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Kevin Freking, The Associated Press