Why Did The 737s Crash? Was Language a Factor?

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The Boeing 737 MAX is a narrow-body aircraft series designed and produced as the fourth generation of the Boeing 737. This 737 was announced on august 30, 2011

Number built: 393 as of March 2019. Produced 2014- present.

Primary users: Southwest, American, Air Canada and China Southern.

Grounded worldwide but in production….Wikipedia

I was a passenger in the Max recently. The trip was uneventful. Yet there are details even in the passenger cabin that provide a credible clue to the pilot errors reportedly blamed for the 737 crashes; pilots, it was said, did not understand the instructions provided, or were not trained sufficiently in simulators. Yet they were said to be very experienced and they trained as required. Why the errors? I suggest language may have contributed.

I have a Masters in Spanish literature and have spent much of my life in South America. I speak Brazilian Portuguese marginally but read easily. I have been a pilot since the 1960’s and an instrument rated pilot, though I am not active now. Yet my active pilot years included a flight from California to Punta Arenas, Chile, at the South tip of the South American Continent as well as several months of piloting in Chile and flights to Baja California.

In general all my radio communications in those places were in English, but at times cross cultural or language made them somewhat obscure. I usually was able to avoid instrument conditions except for a stretch in Peru due to political considerations, and one over West Argentina, also due to political tensions; there, my instruments were used but totally silent. No Talk or chance for miscommunication. There were no problems other than high winds.

Based on those experiences and subtle language miscues that I noticed in the main cabin of the new planes, I suggest that language should be considered as a possible contributor to the crashes. Why?

Some languages write and read from right to left, while we read from left to right. Here are the relevant clues as they appear in 737 passenger cabins:

  1. The seat assignment are lettered BA, not AB as would be expected in English. B refers to the window seat, A to the aisle seat. There is a tiny window outline with the B, and stick sketch of an attendant at the A, but a close inspection is needed to see them; some sort of translation by the passenger is required
  2. The storage bins pertaining to each seat are also marked in reverse order. .

Could these inversions of typical English Language order have been inadvertently placed by people who likely spoke English well, and read well, but whose native language was written from right to left rather than left to right?

I grant that such inversions are not dangerous to passengers and are easily resolved. But a difficult approach and landing is a different matter. Unexpected unusual events can occur. It can quickly become a time of very heavy mental and emotional demand for pilots. While modern instruments are arguably superior and safer than pilots themselves, there can be times when unusual things can happen such that a slight misinterpretation of complicated pilot instructions or can be serious.

My oldest son was with me when he was about age 11, on an instrument flight in California. We dropped through rough weather to an open visual approach; he later became a far better pilot than I ever have been, in both rotary and fixed wing craft of all sorts, flying all over the world, and has dealt with many linguistic challenges, far more than I. They matter!

With deference, and with apologies, my question for Boeing is this: Have you looked in to the possibility that cultural or linguistic details may affect pilot instructions and training?. If not, you may want to think about it.

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