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Trump takes aim at the complexity of modern airplanes

Trump recently boasted, "I know a lot about airplanes." He certainly likes to think so, but there's some pretty compelling evidence to the contrary.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump waves as he steps off Air Force One after arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., Friday, June 9, 2017. 

An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff over the weekend, killing all 157 people on board. The plane, a Boeing 737 Max 8, was the same model as an Indonesian Lion Air flight, which crashed after takeoff in October, killing 189 people. This has, not surprisingly, touched off an international discussion about the future of the aircraft.

It's against this backdrop that Donald Trump decided to share his thoughts on the subject in a pair of tweets.

"Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better."Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. 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!"

It's hard to know what precipitated these missives. Maybe the president saw something odd on Fox News again; maybe he thought all of this up on his own.

Either way, there's no reason for the public to worry about the "complexity" of modern air travel, and passengers shouldn't necessarily have greater confidence in "old" airplanes. On the contrary: modern technological advances have, overall, made planes significantly safer.

What's more, as The Atlantic's James Fallows' noted this morning, Air Force One is "probably the most complex passenger aircraft in existence," and Trump climbs aboard that plane all the time.

Stepping back, though, I think there's a larger point that's worth keeping in mind: Donald Trump loves talking about airplanes, despite knowing very little about the subject.

Early last year, for example, while standing alongside Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the American present boasted, "In November, we started delivering the first F-52s and F-35 fighter jets." That wouldn't have been especially notable, were it not for the fact that there's no such thing as an F-52 -- a plane that only exists in "Call of Duty" video games. (At the same press conference, Trump also misstated the size of Norway's purchase.)

A week earlier, Trump foolishly tried to take credit for the safety of commercial air travel, perhaps unaware of the planes' complexities.

Meanwhile, in November 2017, the president seemed to suggest he believes the F-35 fighter jet is literally invisible. “Even if [the enemy] is right next to it, it can’t see it,” Trump said.

Before that, the president was caught lying about Japan buying U.S. fighter jets and lying about Finland doing the same thing.

Trump has also been caught falsely bragging about lowering the price of a new Air Force One, which was followed by a series of claims about saving taxpayers millions on F-35 fighter jets, which were also demonstrably wrong.

In September 2017, Trump interrupted a meeting with members of Congress to complain that the emir of Kuwait’s plane was bigger than his. Two months later, Trump made up a bizarre story about Barack Obama, while aboard Air Force One, trying and failing to land in the Philippines last year.

And have I mentioned the failure of Trump's defunct airline?

Last summer, Trump tried to defend his decision to cancel joint military exercises with our South Korean allies, pointing to the logistical difficulties of flying bombers from Guam. "I know a lot about airplanes," the Republican concluded.

He certainly seems to think so, but I'd recommend some skepticism.