Why Boeing May Never Recover From Its 737 Debacle

Lambert here: Yes, but is there a better way to cut back on air travel than to launch demonstrably lethal civilian aircraft? Let’s look on the bright side.

By Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator. This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Most of us are familiar with the acronym “FUBAR.” A recent New York Times article on the Boeing 737 fiasco provides a perfect illustration of the concept. We’re now learning that the company “built deadly assumptions” into its newly designed 737 Max aircraft and, specifically, its computer software system—the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Even worse, the New York Times account concludes that the recent air crashes that have resulted in a worldwide grounding of the Boeing Max plane “might have been avoided, if employees and regulators had a better understanding of MCAS” and if the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) itself was not operating with outdated data on the software changes (which Boeing failed to provide).

The analysis is excellent as far as it goes. But the most damning fact only briefly hinted at in the article is that the problems were evident as early as 2012, some five years before the newest 737 version was marketed and sold across the globe. At its core, this was a hardware problem, not a software issue. Even when Boeing was using a relatively “safer” version of the early MCAS software (that was later changed to a more dangerous version), the new 737 still had an engine too large to be accommodated in its traditional spot on the plane, which ultimately distorted “the relationship between the engine’s ‘thrust’ and its center of gravity,” as I’ve written before. The resultant aerodynamic problems could not be solved with a software “solution,” no matter how “safe” the original MCAS version (that was ultimately changed to an even more dangerous version) was purported to be.

Just don’t expect any blowback from Washington. The whole episode provides yet another sick illustration of how our entire system of governance has degenerated into a fully-fledged “predator state.” About the only good thing that might emerge from this whole fiasco is that Boeing will provide future MBA students with a textbook example of how not to manage a crisis. Likewise, future historians and political scientists will marvel in incredulity at the magnitude of corruption that enveloped the country during this very dark time in the life of the republic. Assuming, of course, that there still anything left worth studying by that point.

This is also a story of deception, as the New York Times points out. Throughout the process, Boeing also actively misled the FAA whenever the industry regulatory overseer raised questions. Who was the agent of deception?

In this account, the New York Times identifies one of the leading protagonists responsible for the Boeing disaster, Mark Forkner. Forkner was “the Max’s chief technical pilot”—not merely a “test pilot”—who was in charge of the plane’s training manuals. More significantly, he was Boeing’s point man who neglected to tell the FAA that the MCAS software “was in the midst of an overhaul, according to… three F.A.A. officials.” Forkner requested removing the description of the MCAS from the pilot’s manual, and, as the New York Times reports, “Under the impression that the system was relatively benign and rarely used, the F.A.A. eventually approved Mr. Forkner’s request, the three officials said.”

The question is, was Forkner intentionally deceptive, or simply incompetent?

In his defense, the New York Times suggests that “Mr. Forkner largely worked on flight simulators, which didn’t fully mimic MCAS,” implying perhaps that he didn’t have a full understanding of the MCAS software overhaul. If true, that would suggest that Boeing’s senior management wrongly appointed an incompetent to deal with the FAA.

The other interpretation is that Forkner’s lawyer might be telegraphing a legal defense, diminishing his role in anticipation of a lawsuit. That may be less credible, given that Forkner himself was a former FAA employee, thus in effect a revolving-door technological lobbyist (unregistered) who would therefore be well-placed to deceive the FAA training certification engineers into approving whatever training cover-ups Boeing needed to hide to sell more airplanes. Whenever the FAA pushed, Forkner pushed back.

The New York Times also parenthetically mentions that Forkner started his flying career as a U.S. Air Force pilot. Given how the USAF conducts its own lobbying activities in D.C., this was likely a formative influence on his revolving-door ethics and yet another example of the polluting influence of the military on a once successful civilian enterprise, given the Pentagon’s (especially the USAF) own pathologies in this area.

Even if Forkner is ultimately absolved of responsibility, it does not absolve Boeing. Rather, it represents a monumental management failure on the part of its stability and control aerodynamicists, not its software engineers. Recall that the genesis of this disaster was a problem of hardware, not just MCAS. The extra lift of the far larger diameter engines of the 737 Max (placed on a different position on the wing) caused the plane to pitch up whenever it approached stall angles of attack at both high and low speeds. This is a problem that should have become glaringly obvious to the greenest of aerodynamics personnel at Boeing the moment the first wind tunnel model was tested at angles of attack higher than stall (it may have even been obvious on even-earlier computational fluid dynamics computer simulation results).

The New York Times notes the observations of Ray Craig, then Boeing’s chief test pilot, that the plane wasn’t flying smoothly even during the early development phase (i.e., in 2012, five years before the first sales). After high-speed tests flown in the computer simulator, Craig noted that the newer model was not flying as well as the old model. In response, he advocated a hardware solution to rectify the problem, which Boeing management rejected on the grounds that such “high-speed situations were so rare that… the software would never actually kick in,” the first of many assumptions that would ultimately prove fatal in the two eventual plane crashes.

Reading between the lines, however, it is evident that the original software designers were aware of and had already quantified the pitch-up problem in the plane (which arose because of the larger engine that had affected the plane’s center of gravity) and therefore had already programmed it into the simulator before the test pilot runs in 2012.

To mitigate the hardware flaws, the New York Times explains that:

“engineers initially designed MCAS to trigger when the plane exceeded at least two separate thresholds, according to three people who worked on the 737 Max. One involved the plane’s angle to the wind, and the other involved so-called G-force, or the force on the plane that typically comes from accelerating.”

It is true that the initial MCAS software for the high-speed problem was a relatively safe and competent two-sensor, G-force and angle-of-attack solution. The problem is that this “fix” would not work at low speeds because G-forces at low speed were too small to trigger an alarm in the 737 Max.

It is almost beyond belief that, once having tested and found a high-speed pitch-up problem programmed into the simulator in 2012, no one—neither the chief test pilot nor the aerodynamicists (i.e., the engineers responsible for the interaction of moving objects, such as airplanes with the atmosphere)—thought to check the wind tunnel data or test the simulator to see whether there was a corresponding low-speed pitch-up problem. I previously highlighted that low-speed pitch-up is far more dangerous than the relatively rare problem of very “heavy” or high angle-of-attack maneuvering at high speed. This is because takeoffs and landings occur at low speed, and takeoffs and landings are always done at relatively high angles of attack. But it was not until the 737 Max prototype was flown four years later—in 2016—that anyone reported a low-speed pitch-up problem—and then it was not an aerodynamicist but, once again, a test pilot (Ed Wilson, the new chief test pilot for the plane) who insisted there was an issue.

Here is where the problems began to cascade. Since Boeing management had already imposed the MCAS Band-Aid (in lieu of a hardware fix, albeit a relatively safe version), the cheapest, quickest and easiest-to-cover-up fix for the impossible-to-ignore low-speed problem was to issue a new, and even more ineffective, Band-Aid to the existing MCAS. In the process, it changed MCAS from a relatively safe and competent fix to a disastrously unsafe, mindlessly stupid single-sensor solution. As the New York Times reported:

“The change proved pivotal. Expanding the use of MCAS to lower-speed situations required removing the G-force threshold. MCAS now needed to work at low speeds so G-force didn’t apply.

“The change meant that a single angle-of-attack sensor was the lone guard against a misfire. Although modern 737 jets have two angle-of-attack sensors, the final version of MCAS took data from just one.”

Amazingly, the change was not subject to any further scrutiny from the FAA because, according to William Schubbe, whom the New York Times describes as “a senior F.A.A. official who worked with the training group,” said that Boeing had told him that “this thing is so transparent to the pilot that there’s no need to demonstrate any kind of failing.” In any event, the FAA had already repeatedly shown itself to be out of its depth in terms of determining the overall safety of the plane, having effectively subcontracted much of its oversight to Boeing itself.

The Boeing 737 crashes are tragedies. But what truly moves this tragedy into the realm of sheer predation and, indeed, criminality, is the (non-)response of the government. In spite of everything we now know, there has been no re-think of amending this longstanding laissez-faire revolving-door regulatory approach, especially in this White House. Consider that the newly appointed secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, is already under investigation for allegedly lobbying improperly on behalf of his former company. Additionally, the Trump administration is rolling back safety regulations in the rail sector, in effect re-creating the self-regulatory conditions that now prevail at the FAA, reports Justin Mikulka from Desmog. In short, Trump’s predatory practices continue unabated: the swamp gets filled up even further as more of these fiascos occur. And the truth is that until regulatory bodies like the FAA get a proper budget that will allow them to take on the job of becoming credible third-party regulators, their actions will continue to prove ineffectual.

We can only imagine what is next—allowing the criminals to regulate the prison system? Beyond the scale of human tragedy, the whole episode provides another sad illustration that our system of governance remains profoundly sick, perhaps terminal. Washington policymakers continue to make the citizenry even more ill through their venal corruption—that is, when their political malpractice doesn’t literally kill them in the process.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. vlade

    “the original software designers were aware […] had already programmed it into the simulator before the test pilot runs in 2012.”

    This is not how the simulation works, sorry. If it worked like that, and you’d have to “programm” all the problems in, you’d have to be aware of all of them up front, which is just not possible.

    The simulation works that you build exceptionally complex models of the physical aircraft, apply laws of physics, and see what falls out. So what you can say is “computer simulations, showed the problems with the pitch”.

    That is, unless the sentence talks about programming the MCAS, which is a differnet case (but the sentence says “quantified the pitch-up problem in the plane […] and therefore had already programmed it”, so I don’t think so).

    Which also goes back to “Mr. Forkner largely worked on flight simulators, which didn’t fully mimic MCAS,”. My understanding (limited as it is) is that it’s not uncommon to do a lot of test flights on the simulator, because it’s safer, cheaper, and faster (you can simulate whatever you want quickly, w/o waiting for the right physical circumstances). Of course, the issue is how good is your model, and here we know two things. It “Didn’t fully mimic MCAS”, and (from previous things) even with 737NG didn’t properly represent the runaway stabiliser problem.

    Here it’s clearly Boeing’s responsbility, as it seems sloppy thinking and all started getting prevalent.

    1. Briny

      I’ve a half-ton of software here for this type of simulation, amongst other work. That is if you printed out all the documentation, a half-ton would be a conservative estimate. Good call. Something else I’ve increasingly noticed over the decades is ass-u-ming that the simulation matches the reality of the system(s) under study and that frequently ain’t so! In theory, theory and practice are the same: In practice, they ain’t. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this pop up should a real investigation take place. Not likely one will, though. We’ll get the usual pointless pontificating in the MSM and Congress and nothing will change.

      Note: Safety-critical engineering is what I did in the military.

      1. JerryDenim

        I basically made the same comment here a while back, but from a different perspective. Simulators that are supposed to be identical will often fly differently. The same simulator will fly differently on two different days. Emergencies and malfunctions that are frequently trained in the simulator quite often present themselves very differently in the actual aircraft and behave quite differently in real life than they do in a simulator. Like the name implies, simulators can only attempt to simulate what a human would experience in a real aircraft that was actually flying. Sometimes simulators do a pretty good job of simulating, other times they can give pilots a dangerously wrong idea of how an aircraft would behave. The rub is you will never know what is really true until you actually experience the emergency or malfunction in real life, in a real airplane, which is why I’ve learned over the years to take what you see in the simulator with a grain of salt. The deeper you have to dive in a technical manual for systems knowledge the more likely that information is to be false. This is also why I refrain from making bold declarative statements about hypothetical aircraft behavior based on technical manuals alone. Until I see it, I don’t completely believe it. ‘What you think you know that ain’t so’ is very dangerous in aviation. Skepticism is a pilot’s best friend.

      2. vlade

        Yes, the model=reality is a really bad thing that comes up all the time. IT’s a common trap to fall in, especially when you see that some model gives pretty damn good results. Which is why I actually like simpler models, as they show the main thing, but also show you it’s a simplicification. Of course, you can’t train pilots on simplified models, there you want to make it as close to reality as possible..

        But it never will be reality, even w/o any bugs.

  2. vlade

    What all of this reminded me is a post by North around Brexit, and how if the UK wanted much closer trading relationship with the US, it would have to do not just a deal, but start changing it’s legal system. He says that in the US, the regulation works more or less on “let’s try this”, and if it doesn’t work, you get sued (possibly to death). In the UK (especially after 40 years in the EU), it’s more of “this is what we [think we] know works, so you can do only that”.

    I’m not saying the EU way is perfect, the “we know” can get as dangerous as “let’s try”. But I’d argue that at least for some industries it is the better approach.

    1. Ignacio

      This is more or less how it works with the EFSA and Roundup. The “we know” is changed to “what we want to know”

    2. Joe Well

      >>at least for some industries it is the better approach.

      Exactly. It is not hard to distinguish very mature industries or “industries” such as aircraft, railroads, the electrical grid, water and sewer, schools, in which any innovation is only going to be around the edges rather than fundamental, from “innovative” industries such as software, retail, most media, consumer products, in which change happens almost yearly. And then there are “innovative” industries that become mature, like web search. The mature ones should be taken over by the government or just regulated so tightly they might as well be.

  3. Tyronius

    As has been suggested before, calling the airline at the time of ticket purchase and making clear that under no circumstances will you tolerate your ticket being honored on a Boeing 737 Max aircraft is the correct response. If even a relative few passengers create such ‘turbulence’ it will disrupt operations and make it clear to operators that the confidence of the flying public in their equipment is central to their profitability. Vote with your dollars; it’s the only one we have left.

  4. fajensen

    If true, that would suggest that Boeing’s senior management wrongly appointed an incompetent to deal with the FAA

    Appointing incompetents into the “control nodes” of their host organisation, to disrupt it’s immune system response, is a well known strategy amongst the control frauds.

    Even from a legal perspective, it is very difficult to distinguish between corruption and incompetence from only a short distance away, but, ‘incompetence’ is the safer option because the corrupt person will usually want their own “piece” of the action (which adds costs & waste) and the ambitious (or clever) corrupt person will try to get all of it or front-run their sponsors; The land grab and ensuring bureaucratic fight over the issue of “sharing the loot” usually bringing on the demise of everyone involved.

    I knew someone who, almost straight out of university, was hired as ‘head of operations’ for KVK i Køge, Denmark, with a high salary, stock options and a nice car on top. This was a chemical works – now only renowned for the burying lots of toxic waste illegally (even back then) on their main site in Køge and on a satellite, Teckomatorp, Sweden. The authorities are still cleaning up, now 40 years later.

    He smelled a rat after three months and left, because they wanted him to sigh off on documents for work, like waste disposals, that he didn’t know happened and never ordered, even though he was officially responsible for this as part of his “roles and responsibilities”. And, he was lucky that he did, because the jokers behind the KVK-scandal would have pinned the whole thing on him. Even if the plot would have failed, which is quite likely because this happened on the ‘bust out the joint”-part of the scam, he would have spent years in court!

  5. GlassHammer

    “We can only imagine what is next”

    Answer: Boeing increases the sale of military hardware to the MIC.

    Its not a bailout, its defense spending.

  6. John B

    The 737 Max story horribly illustrates the corruption of our lobbyist-driven government. On the other hand, the airline industry continues to be astonishingly safe even as passenger traffic expands around the world. I can remember when every year brought new stories of US airline crashes. Scheduled commercial airline travel is far safer per mile traveled than driving, yet people drive without a second thought. What accounts for this? How can such a corrupt system provide a fairly satisfactory result?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Two reasons:

      1. Historically regulatory requirements on airlines were very high, and there was a strong incentive for airline manufacturers and airlines not to have too many crashes – they know what the Hindenberg did for airships. We are still benefiting from decades of very hard work and investment in making aircraft safer. Arguably, the airline industry hit a peak of safety around the late 1980’s/90’s. Crapification takes time to set in.

      2. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers usually have to work to the requirements of the best regulatory system if they want to operate worldwide. Historically this was the FCC. But now its the Europeans and maybe even (hard to believe) the Chinese. So even a fully corrupt and degraded FCC won’t compromise aircraft safety so long as there is at least one major agency somewhere enforcing high standards.

      1. a different chris

        >benefiting from decades of very hard work and investment

        Very good point.

        In fact this fiasco is almost a perfect example of “crapification”. Once upon a time, Boeing designs and builds the 737 under the “old school” of actually doing things right. They are darn near safer than sitting on your porch – https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/02/27/car-crashes-into-home-in-murrysville .

        Now crapification comes along, they can’t build a new plane because financial guys rule the world, they can’t upgrade the old plane without f(amily blog)ing it up because when things are going well otherwise incompetent ladder-climbers scheme their way to the top.

        1. Joe Well

          Here in Boston the metro has had two train derailments in a week. It was the first metro outside Europe, begun in 1896 and the major infrastructure was finished before WWII. The system has been spending down a stock of past glory for decades now. So much of US, if not Western, society is like that. Certainly Boeing seems to be like that.

      2. John Baker

        “Crapification takes time to set in”

        I’ve worked as both a hardware and software test engineer (electronics, non-aviation) and these two disciplines take very different approaches to architecture, design and implementation. Hardware engineers do a lot of advance work to make sure the prototypes are as close to a finished product as possible: Physical prototypes are expensive as are design changes during production so the development cycle is very forward thinking. Software, however, is more of a seat-of-the-pants development cycle. Since changes are so cheap and easy to implement, the focus is on packing as many features into a release and counting on field updates to fix issues. This approach works fine for consumer or business apps or video games where nothing life-threatening can go wrong. This is inherent to current software development practices and, from the sound of it, this approach has been invading other areas of engineering — crapification.

        It sounds more and more to me that Boeing was counting on a software solution to mask a hardware issue and got caught with an unexpected software defect that their software test culture was neither capable of assessing correctly nor repairing quickly. I am going to be watching very closely at the solution Boeing comes up with because if it doesn’t fundamentally change the physical design of the aircraft then it will be again relying on software to overcome a hardware defect which, while quicker and cheaper, will be far less safe.

        1. Oregoncharles

          ” Since [software] changes are so cheap and easy to implement,” –
          for the company, not for the customers. You’re telling us they’re selling alphaware and making their customers debug it, as a policy.

          This might explain a lot, like the rate of software disasters in the world.

          For a random, extraneous example: I just went to some trouble to keep myself off the clinic’s family-blogging “Portal,” because it would essentially put my medical information on the Internet. The manager I was talking to admitted that they’re pushing it because it’s financially rewarded by the gov. – Obamacare strikes again. At least she checked and found I wasn’t actually on there; several incidents had convinced me I was, against my wishes. Which are partly because I read this site.

        2. Briny

          This is why I’ve always made a distinction between the way I do software engineering, it’s engineered, not developed, as compared to normal practice. I’d spend almost all of my time insuring that the maths, logic, data structures and algorithms selected were absolutely correct before I would scribe a single line of code. Originality of my code wasn’t something to be desired, my ego is tougher than that, absolute correctness was. Coding took a few days, at the most, and after that I spent my time checking the correctness of the generated binary from my tools. [I’d have sheets of bugs to give the authors of the tools after each project, usually at the next conference.]

          I’ve said this far too many times, but the difference between me and the average Joe Coder was that I could contemplate a long time at Leavenworth if/when I screwed up. “The prospect of being hanged in a fortnite concentrates the mind wonderfully.” I also had manglement that allowed me the time to “do it right,” although I’d add that these projects took (far) less time and resources even when they weren’t done/led by me. File under “preparing the work area,” I guess.

      3. Jim A.

        And these days, the insidious “cult of the manager,” promotes the idea that CEOs and the rest of upper level management are experts at managing rather than that the nuts and bolts of a particular business. Back in the day, there would have been managers that were promoted from being engineers.

          1. False Solace

            That’s the current CEO. The previous CEO, who served 2005-2015 while the 737Max was being developed, never did a day of engineering in his life. He was a Harvard MBA who worked at McKinsey, GE, and 3M.

    2. Math is Your Friend

      “How can such a corrupt system provide a fairly satisfactory result?”

      Part of this is due to another part of the system – a feedback loop based on very thorough and detailed crash investigations, which pin down the chain of failures leading to a crash, and encourage changes to prevent a re-run of the same failure chain.

      If I understand it correctly, the crash investigators can’t change the regulations, but there is a certain pressure on the FAA to do so, particularly if ignoring recommendations leads to another crash… and then there’s lawsuits.

    3. Hopeful

      First of all, Boeing WILL recover. They are one of only TWO major builders of airplanes, and as such, the need will continue to grow. That said, Boeing has chosen to follow the common practice of “grab all the money” , which in an industry that takes it’s clients up to 35,000 feet can be an issue. They have also decided that THEY alone are in charge of the industry and that any attempt to regulate their practices are merely noise in the system. I sincerely doubt that with the current administration, things will get better. They can however, get worse. Boeing used to be everybody’s favorite for many reasons. Well paying jobs, retirement benefits, excellent health care, and a genuine feeling that you were accomplishing something at the end of the day. I know many engineers that felt that way. Sadly, that community has withered and the morale is sinking. Too many irons in the fire and too much distance between the parts of the sum total. We who used to be in the industry have watched the money part destroy the working part. Hopefully, somebody with the ability to get back far enough to see the “big picture” will emerge and they can get on with just building airplanes ?

  7. Peter

    Another look at the problem that goes even deeper into the history of the 737:

    The 737 MAX incident also revealed a problem with older generations of the 737 type of plane that is only now coming into light. Simulator experiments (video) showed that the recovery procedures Boeing provided for the case of a severe mistrim of the plane is not sufficient to bring the plane back under control. The root cause of that inconvenient fact does not lie with the 737 MAX but with its predecessor, the Boeing 737 Next Generation or NG.
    Another change from the 737 Classic to the 737 NG was an increase in the size of the rear horizontal flight surface, the stabilizer.
    The size of the stabilizer increased from 31.40 square meter on the Classic to 32.78 sqm on the NG and MAX. Meanwhile the size of the elevator, the primary control surface the pilot can use to counter a mistrimmed stabilizer, was kept at its original size of 6.55 sqm.

    It is therefore more difficult for the pilot of a 737 NG or 737 MAX plane to use the elevator to counter a mistrimmed stabilizer than it was on the earlier 737 Classic series.
    Recently some pilots used a 737 NG flight simulator to test the procedure. They simulated the runaway stabilizer case at a height of 10,000 feet and use the rollercoaster maneuver to recover from the mistrim. When they finally had the stabilizer back into a correct trim position they found themselves at 3,000 feet height. The maneuver would thus help only when the plane is already at a significant height above ground.


    1. Carolinian

      I had already written a comment on this a couple of weeks ago. He seems to have cited the only known instance of “runaway stablilizer.” Perhaps someone can point to another.

      1. Peter

        As far as I understand, there does not be to be a real instance of runaway stabilizers, the problem was discovered in the simulator.

        It is pure luck that no NG crash has yet been caused by a runaway stabilizer incident. It is quite astonishing that these issues only now become evident. The 737 NG was certified by the FAA in 1997. Why is the FAA only now looking into this?

        And Boeing advised using the roller coaster method in this case.




        1. Carolinian

          This was discussed in that previous thread. Apparently the California crash was caused by the stabilizer jack in the tail jamming. No amount of pilot special flying would have helped. Poor maintenance by Alaska Airlines was blamed.

          In other words B of Moon is suggesting the entire 7000 airplane 737NG fleet is under suspicion for fear of a type of accident that has almost never happened. I believe his post and the above post are way overstating their case. Boeing management is clearly to blame both in the way the plane was put into service and the way they reacted to the first crash.

          But the notion that the Max is an inherently faulty aircraft is very far from proven and that goes as well for Ralph Nader who–much as I love him–is not an expert on airplanes but rather someone following news reports just as the above author uses for his predictions. It would be useful for someone who really is an expert on jet airliners to be provided on this very techinical question of whether the 737 Max is airworthy. This is not a trivial question, and doesn’t just involve the fate of Boeing.

  8. dearieme

    About the only good thing that might emerge from this whole fiasco is that Boeing will provide future MBA students with a textbook example of how not to manage a crisis.

    How about teaching them how to manage a firm so as to avoid crises?

    1. KLG

      “How about teaching them how to manage a firm so as to avoid crises?”

      That can only be done if the erstwhile managers understand the purpose, the products, and the culture of the firm. Completely. That is not taught is business schools. It is learned from the ground up, in the firm.

    2. Inode_buddha

      “How about teaching them how to manage a firm so as to avoid crises?”

      Because then every right wingnut and his dog will start howling about eeeeebil big government and regulators keep them from making profits…..

  9. Ignacio

    We can only imagine what is next—allowing the criminals to regulate the prison system?

    Only white collar criminals please, if they don’t already do it.

    1. ambrit

      Several people I know who have “done time” state that in essence, the modern American prison system is a neo-liberal “public/private” business. The ‘business’ is roughly, to enrich the guards and “boss” prisoners while minimizing unpleasant public scandals. The smuggling of contraband goods and “services” in to prisons is a niche market in the Underworld Economy.
      As for the guards, well, if I were to be in a job where I was “interacting” with criminals, often violent ones, and was being paid “joke” wages to boot, I’d seriously begin to question the hierarchy of values I lived by too.
      That is the “regular” prison system. Then there is “Club Fed.” That’s where any ‘white collar’ crooks with any political influence end up. The Howard Johnson’s with bars on the windows.

  10. dcrane

    The NYTimes article ends by stating that Boeing is redesigning MCAS to function more like its original, less potent version. But the reporters do not address the obvious resulting question: If the original version was changed in order to meet certification requirements, how will those rules be met now, without other changes to the plane? Will the FAA be giving the MAX a pass on the rules?

  11. Matthew G. Saroff

    McDonnell, a company that never had a successful civil project, or for that matter ever developed anything on its own dime, took over Boeing with Boeing’s money.

    This is the natural outcome.

  12. The Rev Kev

    I wonder what would happen if it turned out that Boeing’s 737 MAX needed a major rebuild of some of the systems on that plane which required a major re-work? They could build in the changes on the production line but there are still about 400 of these things built and out there. That would be expensive that. I wonder too if they have built simulators which duplicate a 737 MAX yet? Last I heard, they hadn’t. And all those pilots will now have to do a proper training course that will need the use of a simulator. This is gunna be expensive.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      There’s a flock (gaggle? murder?) of LionAir Maxes sitting parked out in the humid tropical sun at Soekarno-Hatta airport, Jakarta. Wonder how airworthy they’ll be once the ban is lifted?

      I’ll be giving “Late Is Our Nature” a wide berth for a while….

    2. Old Jake

      The airlines wanted cheapness, anything that raised the cost, like pilot training, was verboten. The 737Max was thus a 737 refitted with new engines for reduced fuel use, and the story was carefully crafted that it was the same as prior 737 models, no pilot training or aircraft type certification needed. More cost factors include maintenance and compatibility with existing airport infrastructure, and the 737 was, from the start, designed with short legs both to allow use at smaller airports where passengers had to use the built-in stairs to board and to keep the engines close to the ground to facilitate mechanic assess to the engines for maintenance.

      The new engines that are the defining feature of the Max don’t fit in the “normal” place due to the short legs. Longer legs (landing gear raising the craft to a height allowing the engines to be properly fit) won’t fit in the existing holds. Fixing that will require considerable redesign, with the ensuing design cycles, testing, new type certifications etc.

      The existing craft would have to be scrapped, retrofit would be impractical if not impossible.

  13. EoH

    Boeing’s commitment to total safety: “Naw, that’s an unlikely problem so we won’t investigate it, plan for it, or disclose its possibility to pilots or regulators.”

    And, let’s hide a structurally unstable airframe design behind a secret, automated takeover of flight control by a computer – using a fallible single input – by not putting it in the manual, or training flight crews in its use or how to work around its inevitable malfunction.

    I wonder what Boeing will look like when it emerges from bankruptcy.

  14. EoH

    At some point, flying an aircraft in stable weather and without much traffic becomes routine.

    What takes more work is recovering from unstable attitudes caused by rapidly changing weather or from sudden mechanical or electronic failures, especially at low altitudes. Doing that successfully requires, among other things, knowing what, how, and why the aircraft is doing what it’s doing.

    Boeing hid that knowledge from regulators, airlines, and pilots so that it could sell more aircraft. It just hoped for the best or that no one could later pin it on Boeing.

    It’s almost like buying an asbestos brake pad manufacturer and hoping that no one ever discovers mesothelioma. Wishful thinking does not often win lawsuits or keep executives out of prison. That’s the job of regulatory capture.

  15. John k

    Used to be companies ‘bet the company’ when producing an all new plane, partly because it cost so much and, with testing etc, took so long. Does the plane fly right? Did they guess the demand right?
    Successful examples are Boeing planes, not so much is airbus 380.
    So this gamble is that they can avoid the cost of a new plane… higher landing gear to accommodate the bigger more fuel efficient engines… and turns out the cheaper, quicker not as good solution is also betting the company. Suits are coming from passenger families and airline customers, meanwhile jets continue rolling off assembly lines and onto parking lots.
    And who will want to fly in these turkeys when the fix is in? It will take months, maybe years before trust returns. And what has the board done to change management and culture? Ditto FAA?

    Plus gov needs to return to the idea that regs and oversight cannot be relaxed whenever safety is involved… self reg is an oxy moron because short term profits are more important than long term risks, and always will be, whether aviation or banking or food.

  16. Brooklin Bridge

    Good overview of the corruption involved, but I’m still wondering about how it fits in with the title of the article that Boeing may not recover. Corruption is now the mainstay of big business, race to the bottom and all that; you can’t be competitive without it. So why would rampant corruption spell the end for Boeing when it defines the very nature of success for everyone else? Can’t Trump simply make flying the 737 (max?) mandatory for all countries like mandatory purchase of health-rip-off insurance only for everyone on our fair planet (the marvel of sanctions)? If not, if a bunch of stinking foreign hippy airline safety inspectors -probably zoned out on Marijuana and Socialism- can make a stink, what is the point of our government?

  17. Tim

    Per the Seattle Times, the software was also updated to much higher control authority angle of the trim than what was on the original MCAS system too. Changed from .5 degrees to 2 degrees. IF the FAA knew that, then it would have changed the classification of the system as potentially catastrophic, which would have brought the real scrutiny. But as long as it was classified as a non-catastrophic capable system the FAA was and did remain very pliable to whatever Boeing told them.

    Whether intentional or not it was a clear bait and switch by Boeing to the FAA. Changes will be made to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Like mandatory software configuration audits of each test configuration tied to the airworthiness compliance statements.

  18. ChristopherJ

    Said they were toast on day one of this. Haven’t changed my view.

    Boeing is a dirty word. Don’t care of their history anymore. Knowing my plane might have been assembled by low paid Americans, well, I’m not getting on that plane. Not anymore. And, I am not alone.

    1. Arizona Slim

      I can’t help thinking that the 737 MAX is the Chevrolet Corvair of airplanes. As in, unsafe at any speed.

      Add to this, the fact that Ralph Nader’s grand niece was killed on the Ethiopian Airways flight, and we’ll most likely have a plane that will never fly again.

      1. BillC

        The crowning technical irony with regard to Nader: the MCAS software kludge was required due to an unexpected aeronautical effect in the 737 MAX that is an aeronautic version of the what made the Corvair “Unsafe at any Speed.”

        The Corvair suspension (like the original VW Beetle) used rear half-axles that swung up and down around the differential/transmission. Worked fine until you had a strong sideways force (e.g., especially sharp turn). The axle on the inside of the turn would tuck under and you suddenly had unmanageable “oversteer” (the car suddenly turned much more sharply).

        It was found late in testing that because the MAX’s bigger engines are further forward and higher, their cowling caused a similar effect at high angles of attack (AoA, the angle of the wing with respect to the oncoming airstream). A pilot pulling back on the “stick” would get a predictable nose-up pitch until this new, undesirable effect kicked in, then the nose could rise rapidly to a stall with an even weaker pull back on the stick, a sort of “oversteer” in the vertical plane.

        So what killed more than 300 people is the poorly-engineered kludge to dodge a physical flaw very similar to what killed enough Corvair drivers and passengers to kill the Corvair itself.

  19. VietnamVet

    The two underlying problems exposed by the 737 Max are the gutting of health and safety oversight by the Federal Government and the incredible wealth extraction of bussiness, workers and the environment by the rich. Increasing stockholder value and c-suite bonuses drove the design of an aircraft with highest possible shot-term profits with the complete avoidance of consideration of long term catastrophic costs. Government oversight used to assure safety but this faded away starting with the Reagan counter revolt. The world is now highly unstable from the mini middle-east world war, sanctions, tariffs, African swine fever contagion, flooded Middle America farms, or a President who needs to be re-elected to avoid indictment. The Seattle Times reported details not mentioned in global corporate propaganda. To keep 777X assembly in Everett, the Machinists Union agreed to a contract that eliminates their pensions. Boeing is also automating inspections and cutting inspectors. Bonded labor with no oversight is not the way to build safe aircraft.

  20. oaf

    …it was told to me , long ago, that the FARs were written in blood….many were added as a result of accidents…so it will be as long as aircraft fly…


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