Can bad software crash a 737 Max?

In a career of explaining computers to people, I always deferred to my brothers as to what it was all about. I had four brothers who, each in his own field, was an expert. My oldest brother is the systems guy, the next brother (now deceased) developed innovative computer equipment for film and television, the next developed operating systems and languages and the youngest is an expert in computer encryption. That left me the job of explaining all these developments to the world.

And I have not done a good job. Nobody is really interested when you tell them the last real improvements in computer software happened about 45 years ago. Now, there is a headline for you. Who cares?

The point is that the computer industry and everyone else is starting to reap the rewards of ignoring software development. When the Lion Air crash last October killed 189, the most likely answer was: software.

What we have today is a hodgepodge of programs written over the years and rarely, if ever, updated. And the worst aspect of this is the lazy programmer who copies a line of code that might or might not have extra notations in it to do something that nobody cares what.

I remember one time returning from Vancouver to Toronto on a new, at that time, Boeing 767. The chief pilot invited me to the cockpit and he was showing me all the bells and whistles on the large cathode ray tube displays that had replaced banks of switches. We even had some macabre fun putting in impossible destinations for the plane and seeing where it would tell us we would crash for lack of enough fuel.

But the point the pilot was really making was that this was the first aircraft that he had flown with software that was able to take off, fly the plane and land at any suitable airport without a human hand on the controls. I remember looking at him at the time and saying, “Thank you, but please save that demonstration for some other time.”

We have to remember that as we computerize more and more of the systems around us, we are putting lives at risk with every careless bit of software programming. As we listen to and read the comments of aviation experts about the 737 Max 8 crashes, it is becoming more and more obvious that the software involved needs to be just as up-to-date and fine tuned as the equipment it controls.

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Copyright 2019 © Peter Lowry

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